Robert Zimmerman, later known as Bob Dylan, spent the summer of 1959 in Fargo, hoping to establish himself as a rock ‘n’ roll musician. Although he ended up playing briefly with two of the best rock groups in the area — the Poor Boys, and Bobby Vee and the Shadows — he was cut loose after only a couple of performances.
A musician with lesser determination than Zimmerman, who experienced the disappointment of being asked to leave groups he played with, may have lost his confidence, but Zimmerman was not a typical musician. He had opportunities, gave it his best effort and regarded that as success.
Zimmerman knew the major reason he was let go was because he did not have his own electric keyboard. He got along well with his fellow musicians and he knew his efforts were appreciated. Bobby Vee later said that Zimmerman “came unprepared, and I don’t think he ever intended to be a piano player.” Vee added that Zimmerman was “amiable and quick-witted and, with loads of charisma... he just had that rock ‘n’ roll attitude and, he had tremendous confidence.”
At the end of summer, Zimmerman returned home to Hibbing, Minn., where he talked about the success he had in Fargo. In September 1959, Zimmerman enrolled at the University of Minnesota and lived on campus at the Jewish-centric Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house, where he was a pledge.
Just off of campus was a small business district known as Dinkytown. It was made up “of secondhand clothing and bike-gear shops, used bookstores, coffeehouses, inexpensive eateries and bars.” A number of the bars and coffeehouse invited musicians to perform at their establishments, which contributed to a party atmosphere at night. “Dinkytown pulsed with youthful energy, creative exploration and rejection of the status quo,” and Zimmerman felt right at home in that environment.
This was where he chose to spend most of his time, not in the classroom. Zimmerman stopped attending classes and “became bored with the confinements of the fraternity house,” so, at the end of the first term he got a small apartment above Gray’s Drugstore in Dinkytown.
Zimmerman was not of age to play in any of the bars, but live music was also available at some of the coffeehouses, of which the Ten O’Clock Scholar was his favorite. The preferred music there was folk music, not rock ‘n’ roll, and Zimmerman was drawn to it. He later said, “There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms (in rock), but the songs weren’t serious or didn’t reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, and much deeper feelings.”
Zimmerman traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic, and once he was ready to play at the coffeehouses, he decided to adopt a new name. At first, “he considered the name Robert Allyn,” but he also toyed with the name Bob Dillon. It was rumored that he changed it to Dylan after reading the poetry of Dylan Thomas, but Zimmerman denied that being the case.
While playing in the Dinkytown coffeehouses, Zimmerman/Dylan became a quick study of folk music and carefully observed those folk artists who had cultivated a loyal following. The one who had the biggest influence on Dylan was “Spider” John Koerner, a guitarist, singer and songwriter from Rochester, N.Y.
One other person that Dylan became friends with in Dinkytown — who would become very important for his musical future success — was a “folk-music scholar,” Paul Nelson, from Warren, Minn. Nelson observed Dylan’s progress and potential in the area of folk music, and when Nelson became a music critic for The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Sing Out!, he was able to write glowing reviews about his friend.
However, the person who had the biggest influence on Dylan while he was in Dinkytown was someone he never met — Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was a folk singer and composer who came of age during the early 1930s when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl created a lot of despair for millions of Americans. Guthrie composed and sang songs about the plight of those people whose lives had been shattered, and he became Dylan’s “musical idol.” Dylan was determined to meet him.
In January 1961, “with guitar and suitcase in hand,” Dylan hitched a ride to New York City. He arrived there on Jan. 24, and after locating a place to stay on a short-term basis, he found out that Guthrie’s home was in Brooklyn. When Dylan paid a visit to his home, the only person there was Woody’s 13-year-old son, Arlo Guthrie. Arlo told Dylan that his father was a patient at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, N.J., but that each Sunday, Woody was able to spend the day at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Gleason in East Orange, N.J.
For the past seven years, Woody had been suffering from Huntington’s disease, a degenerative illness that was causing him to lose control of his muscles. Bob Gleason was an electrician who learned that Woody had become a patient at the nearby hospital and was able to secure his release, one day a week, to spend that day at his place. Soon, “wandering folk singers” learned of this arrangement, and began making pilgrimages to the Gleason home to pay their respect to their hero.
On Jan. 29, 1961, five days after arriving in New York, Dylan had the opportunity to meet the folk legend who greatly inspired him. Dylan stayed with Bob and Sidsel Gleason for several weeks, listening to tapes they had made of Woody’s songs. Dylan spent part of his time composing songs, one of which was “Song To Woody,” which paid tribute to his hero.
It starts out, “Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song ‘bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along.” In the song, Dylan incorporated the words from some of Woody’s songs. He then sang it to Woody.
Finally, Dylan believed he was ready to bring his folk songs to New York. Sidsel gave Dylan one of Woody’s suits to play at his debut. Normally, Dylan dressed in “sheepskin and wore a black corduroy Huck Finn cap that only covered a small part of his long, tumbling hair.” Dylan rented a room in Greenwich Village and went to Gerde’s Folk City to ask to play at their amateur Monday night “hoots” (short for hootenanny).
Dylan was booked to be the final act and, “when he finally came onstage and started to sing, half of the audience left the club.” However, he kept returning to Gerde’s each Monday night and eventually, Dylan established his own following.
On March 19, 1962, he released his first album, "Bob Dylan," and was on his way to becoming an acclaimed American folk singer.
We will continue the story about the life and career of Bob Dylan next week.
Correction: In last week's article, I mentioned that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008. The year he received it was 2016.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.