Behind the Artist Name: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan. He’s one of the most celebrated and respected artists, songwriters, and performers of the past 100 years. And his legend will likely continue strongly for the next 100 and beyond. He’s an icon.

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But did you know his name isn’t really Bob Dylan?

It’s Robert Zimmerman.

Let’s dive into the history.

The Beginnings: Grandparents

Robert Allen Zimmerman—aka Bob Dylan—was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota.

Zimmerman came into the world at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth and he was raised in nearby Hibbing, Minnesota (home for future NBA Hall of Famer, Kevin McHale, amongst other notable celebrities). Zimmerman grew up on the Mesabi Range, which is west of Lake Superior.

His paternal grandparents—Anna Kirghiz and Zigman Zimmerman—emigrated to the area from Odessa in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) following the pogroms against Jews of 1905. That time was especially dangerous for Jewish people from that region in Europe, hundreds were killed in an era marked by anti-Semitism.

Zimmerman’s maternal grandparents—Florence and Ben Stone—were Lithuanian Jews who came to the United States in 1902. In his own autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan said that his paternal grandmother’s family was originally from the Kagizman district of Kars Province in Turkey.

Father And Mother

The songwriter’s father—Abram Zimmerman—and mother—Beatrice “Beatty” Stone—were part of a small, tight Jewish community in Minnesota. They lived in Duluth until their son was six-years-old. At that time, his father contracted polio and the family returned to his mother’s hometown of Hibbing, where they lived for the duration of young Robert’s childhood.

His father and paternal uncles ran a furniture and appliances store. That’s one of the places where Dylan first began listening to music on the radio, from blues to country stations all the way from Shreveport, Louisiana. Later, he got into rock and roll.

Dylan’s childhood home in Minnesota

Early Bands

Dylan—still Robert Zimmerman—started several bands while attending Hibbing High School. He performed covers of Little Richard and Elvis Presley songs. An early band’s performance of Danny & the Juniors’ “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” was reportedly so loud that his high school principal cut the microphone at a school talent show.

Dylan’s 1959 high school yearbook included the caption: “Robert Zimmerman: to join ‘Little Richard.'” It’s safe to say the burgeoning artist loved music and loved rock and roll. But he also wanted more. When he found folk music and the stories and emotions it offered, he was hooked.

Dylan later said in a 1985 interview: “The thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that for me anyway, it wasn’t enough … There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms … 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, much deeper feelings.”

From Zimmerman To Dylan

In college, living at the Jewish fraternity house of Sigma Alpha Mu, Zimmerman began to perform songs at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse a few blocks off-campus. It was then he became more and more entrenched in the folk scene. And it was during this period, that he began to introduce himself as Bob Dylan.

In his memoir, the songwriter wrote that he considered taking on the surname “Dillon” before chancing upon poems by the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas. It was then Zimmerman decided to take the less common name. Explaining the name change in a 2004 interview, he said: “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”

Inventing And Then Making History

As a young aspiring songwriter, Dylan traveled the United States and famously gave himself any number of histories. It was part of the transient folk artist image, in line with the hitchhiking hero of his, Woody Guthrie. Later, as his fame rose, he could no longer invent pasts and so he started inventing his future. Now, he’s one of the all-time greats. By any name, of course.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story cited Dylan Thomas’ heritage incorrectly. Apologies for the error, and thank you to reader Jo A. for the heads-up!)

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