Often cited as the voice of his generation, Bob Dylan is one of the most iconic names in modern music history. He began his career singing folk music in the early 60s and, after a highly controversial and contested move to the electric guitar in 1965, became a legend of the rock world too. Dylan has inspired people since the early days of his career and he continues to do so today. But Bob Dylan is not a real person. Bob Dylan is a carefully, and cleverly, constructed identity. A modern folk legend, a tall tale crafted by someone who has now won a Nobel prize for Literature. As The Academy (who award the Nobel prize) put it “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.” An icon; “a physical resemblance to the signified, the thing being represented.” That might just be the perfect way to describe Dylan, an icon. You can almost picture him in your mind as a symbol, wild hair, guitar at his chest, and a harmonica on some sort of contraption around his neck.
But, if Bob Dylan isn’t real then who’s that standing on stage? It’s Robert Allen Zimmerman. Born on 24th May, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, Zimmerman went through a few different aliases (such as Elston Gunn and Robert Allyn) in his early years of performing before settling on Bob Dylan in 1959 (He had his name legally changed in 1962). It’s unclear exactly why he chose this name, Dylan is notorious for making up/changing stories (we’ll get into that later). It’s often said that it probably had something to do with the poet Dylan Thomas. But he rejected this claim in a New York Times interview in 1961 stating that “Dylan Thomas’ poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed — for people who dig masculine romance.” While at university he went by Bob Dillon, he told some of his fellow students that Dillon was his mother’s maiden name (It wasn’t, it was Stone) and others that it was the name of a town in Oklahoma (which it also wasn’t). It was, however, the name of a street in the town he grew up in, Hibbing. In his 2004 auto-biography Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan said this: “The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities, I instinctively and automatically, without thinking, simply said: ‘Bob Dylan.’ (although, at the time, he was using ‘Dillon’ as the spelling)”. Regardless of how or why the name actually came about, it offers us our first concrete piece of knowledge about the identity of Bob Dylan, which is that very little of what we know (or think we know) about Bob Dylan can be taken as fact or that it is, at the very least, shrouded in mystery. This has been intentional on Dylan’s part from the very beginning.
Bob Dylan moved to New York in 1961 (it was when he moved that he started using Dylan instead of Dillon), “[he] was there to find singers… to find Woody Guthrie” (Chronicles: Volume One, 2004). Guthrie was a great influence on Dylan (which may explain why he had said Dillon was a town in Oklahoma, even though it wasn’t, as Guthrie hailed from that state). The fact that Dylan began as a folk singer may point to his reasoning for shrouding himself in all of this mystery. The concept of ‘folk’ extends far beyond music into the notion of folk tales and folk heroes. These are stories about people that may or may not be true (the people may or may not be real too i.e. Robin Hood). Dylan began his career by making a myth out of himself, he did this by using the press.
Dylan and the media
It’s no great secret that Bob Dylan was not the biggest fan of the media. Ballad of a Thin Man, the song above, is often believed to be about an interviewer (or the press in general, the notion is delved into in further detail in this video.) But before he took this adversarial approach to the media, although he was never exactly fond of them, he understood that they could be useful to him in his quest to create the myth of Bob Dylan. Zimmerman stretched the notion of agency in creating ones own identity to the furthest it could go, by fabricating fictional pasts for himself.In Chronicles: Volume One Bob speaks about when he first visited the offices of Columbia Records (his label) and meeting their Head of Publicity, Billy James. This was one of his early experiences with being interviewed. James was asking fairly simple questions and Dylan gave false answers almost all of the time, as he puts it, “I told him I was from Illinois and he wrote it down… I told him that I had a dozen jobs, drove a bakery truck once”, he mentions a few other questions before telling of a moment of truth within the conversation, “Billy asked me who I saw myself like in today’s music scene. I told him nobody. That part of things was true, I really didn’t see myself like anybody. The rest of it though, was pure hokum.”
This is based on a snippet of another of Dylan’s early interviews in which he practices his myth-making skills. From 2:45 he talks about working in the carnival, skipping out on most his schooling, and some of the people he met there. None of it, of course, is true. But it does paint a picture of a character, a travelling vagabond, a Woody Guthrie type. Bob Dylan seemed to understand better than anyone else at the time, that the one-way nature of mass media, as it was at the time, allowed for this ‘hokum’ to be spread around. There was no room for an old high school friend to say “He never left school!” or “He did know his parents, still does too!”. On the other hand, people finding out that there were contradictory stories almost added to the myth. Picture the scene, a group of friends sit in a coffeehouse in New York where Dylan is playing a set. One says “I heard he travelled with a carnival his whole life” another says “I heard he ran away from home 17 times and they caught him 16.” They look confused, one of them must be wrong, maybe they both are, they look over at Dylan singing and think “who is he really?”
Richard Dyer’s Stars (1979), seems to speak to some extent to what Bob Dylan was doing (even though he started doing it in 1961, and arguably even earlier than that.) The way Dyer saw it the idea of the ‘star’ could be split into 3 areas:
- The Star as a commodity: This is the exception, Dylan didn’t seem all that interested in making lots of money and with the way he went about dealing with the press, his label probably didn’t expect him to make too much money either (save for those who had signed him in the first place). At the time folk wasn’t all too popular and counter culture hadn’t emerged yet, Dylan is often credited for the rise of both in the 60s. When Dylan started out The Beatles hadn’t even landed in America yet so being cheeky to the press was unheard of.
- The Star as a construction: Robert Zimmerman constructed almost every facet of Bob Dylan as an identity (save for certain physical features, which goes without saying, but it is possibly worth noting too that his wild, unkempt hair was unusual for the time and certainly became an iconic feature of his identity.) from his name to where he came from, ‘Bob Dylan’ was a construction.
- The Star as an ideology: Living in Greenwich Village in the early 60s it was almost impossible not to have some sort of strong ideology. It was the Bohemian area of New York and most of the people living there were involved in the Civil Rights movement and Feminism. As well as that, Guthrie was a political songwriter (possibly most famously, This Land Is Your Land) often using a guitar sporting the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists”. All this considered, it’s no wonder that Dylan wrote protest songs.
Dyer also spoke about the paradox of the Star; that they must be both ordinary and extraordinary. The Star must relate to their audience while possessing a talent which their audience does not have. I think Bob Dylan encapsulates this perfectly, as his political songs are often credited as finding some way to articulate exactly how people felt about the world around them, especially those feelings that other people simply could not put into words.
A Final Thought
In the late 50s and early 60s a young man by the name of Robert Zimmerman created, and became, a legend, an icon, and a folk hero using the mass media which was available to him at the time. Even now, he is still adding to the myth of Bob Dylan. It’s been a long time since he ‘went electric’ at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and his career was not ended by the move, despite how annoyed some people were by it (it was almost ended by a motorcycle accident in 1966, although there are some who believe that this accident never happened and it was another one of Bob’s myths), and he is still touring to this day. He’s still myth making too. Last year, Martin Scorsese made a documentary (his second about Dylan) for Netflix about the events of Bob’s 1975 tour, The Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him and several other musicians from the time (and poet Allen Ginsberg) travel across America. The film is packed with lies (here’s an article detailing all the falsities in it) and this is on purpose. In his talking head for the film, Dylan says “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth. If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.” Bob isn’t wearing a mask through out the interview, so he’s heavily implying that there are lies in this ‘documentary’.
So we may never know who Bob Dylan really was, or why he was called that, or if he crashed his motorbike but what we do know is that Robert Zimmerman used his agency to construct the identity of a folk legend.