Even the most
casual of Bob Dylan fans will know about the musical icons
journey from civil rights icon to Born-Again Christian to
Orthodox Jew, but the story of how the former Robert
Zimmerman got his start in the 1950s and early 60s is also
the story of how a Jewish kid who, whether consciously or
not, stuck with his own and made it big.
Experience Music Project opened its Dylan retrospective,
Bob Dylans American Journey 1956-1966 on Nov. 20, the
entrance shows the young Robert Zimmerman in his teenage
years in Hibbing, Minn.
Hibbing, an iron
ore town in northeastern Minnesota, did not have much of a
Jewish population to speak of.
When he was
getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah, they had to ship in the
rabbi, says Dylan historian and exhibit curator Jasen
Emmons. The rite of passage was a big party, however, with
300 people invited. Though Emmons managed to obtain some
impressive artifacts from Dylans life, an attempt to get a
hold of one of the Bar Mitzvah invitations was unsuccessful.
Behind a backdrop
of Hibbing iron, however, photos of Dylans fathers
appliance store, Zimmermans Furniture and Electric, and his
mothers movie theater in downtown Hibbing paint Dylan as a
regular, middle-class teenager who loved rocknroll.
So how did Bob
Zimmerman end up as the voice of a generation?
Though he grew up
with a love of rock music, he discovered blues and folk when
he began his short-lived college career at the University of
Minnesota. He became spellbound by the likes of Leadbelly
and Woody Guthrie enough so that Dylan traced his idol
Guthrie to Greystone Hospital in New Jersey, where he lay
dying of Huntingtons Disease. It was Guthrie who sparks
the idea in Dylan that songs can affect change, said Emmons
about that fateful moment in the young musicians life.
artifacts from Guthries life as well, including the lyrics
to a song he wrote about the wife of a Nazi soldier and a
copy of Red Channels, a blacklist of celebrities
thought to be Communists.
legacy had rooted folk music in the rural landscape, but by
the time Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, an urban
folk revival was already underway.
who gathered in Greenwich Village were not yet known as
singer-songwriters, however, so when the first newspaper
review about Dylan came out his performance was reviewed
instead of the headline act Emmons said he was known as
an interpreter of folk and blues, and not as a songwriter of
all these great songs.
Its at this
point where Dylan connected to the Jewish undercurrent of
New York. He hooked up with manager Albert Grossman, who
booked Dylan for his first show at the Folklore Center, the
hub of the Villages folk scene.
incidentally, was recorded by a woman named Toni Mendell,
who loaned her tapes to the EMP for this exhibit. The
24-minute excerpt, which Emmons said shows a humorous side
to Dylan that disappeared in 1962 or 63, has never before
been played in public.
Center, belonged to Izzy Young, a Jewish man from the Bronx.
It was there that it became apparent that Dylan did not feel
the need to rely on the truth to tell the story of his life.
Young kept a diary on display at EMP of all the singers
who came through his door, and explains how Dylan said he
had grown up in the American Southwest, traveling with
carnivals and living off the land.
He created this
idea that he was practically raised by wolves, said Emmons.
He was never one for facts.
The idea of
fabricating his history might have been inspired by another
musician that caught Dylans fancy: Ramblin Jack Elliott.
The citybilly fixture in the folk scene gave the
impression that he had cut his teeth on the Western rodeo
circuit, when he had, in fact, grown up as Elliot Adnopoz, a
Jewish kid from New Yorks outer boroughs. It was a
discovery that Dylan would never let the former Adnopoz
forget when they got together.
established in the Greenwich folk scene, Dylans career
began its meteoric rise. The retrospective shows film
footage of concerts throughout the early 60s, and his
change from a songwriter whose early popularity culminated
in the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
to his electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival.
That show caused several of his fans, according to Emmons,
to feel theyre losing their biggest topical songwriter,
and left the concert in disgust.
Emmons wanted to
make the exhibit accessible for both Dylan-philes and
newcomers, so he created open-air listening stations that
play entire albums of the musicians early work alongside
covers of some songs from other bands. Other artifacts
include lyrics straight from Dylans mind both written
down and scribbled upon as well as the 16-inch tambourine
that inspired the popular Mr. Tambourine Man, and the
camera specially built by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, who
made Dont Look Back, a documentary of Dylans 1965
tour of England. Scenes from this movie and a second
Pennebaker documentary are played at the exhibit.
obtained a Dylan painting, which was hanging in the living
room of Sally Grossman, the widow of Dylans manager Albert.
The exhibit ends
with the motorcycle crash that nearly took Dylans life.
Emmons said it was a good stopping point, because that
marked a turning point in Dylans life and career.
By the time of
the crash, you can see how hed been growing exhausted,
reemerged 18 months later, looking like A Hassidic Jew,
Emmons said, he was again a different performer. Like the
times in his most prophetic and timeless of ballads, the
direction of music had changed once again.