Facts About Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ Life

Bob Dylan is an elusive figure. The legendary singer-songwriter got his start in the folk music scene and quickly worked his way up to fame, becoming the “voice of a generation” and later in life, a Nobel prize winner. Throughout his career he continued to defy what was expected of him and has done things so avant garde that he’s had curtains pulled on him and was even booed during a festival. Still, for all that we know of his work, the man is still something of a mystery.

Bob Dylan’s Birth Name Is Robert Allen Zimmerman

Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images
Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Bob Dylan may have risen to fame with that name, but it wasn’t always what he called himself. On May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, the singer was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. Along with his parents and younger brother, Dylan grew up in nearby Hibbing, Minnesota.

The musician started going by Bob Dylan by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1959. By 1962, he’d dropped out, moved to New York City, and continued to live as Bob Dylan, making things official by legally changing his name at the Supreme Court.

No One From His Hometown Understood Him

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In the 1959 Hibbing High School yearbook, Dylan’s stated ambition at the time was to “join Little Richard.” The sentiment emphasized how individual Dylan was compared to his classmates. Just a few years before, Dylan performed with his band for a high school talent show.

He played the keyboard and sang a Little Richard song, but it was so jarring at the time that the school principal cut them off and pulled the curtain on them. In 1965, Dylan once said, “When I left there, man, I knew one thing: I had to get out of there and not come back.”

Bob Dylan Used To Go By The Name Elston Gunnn (Yes, With Three N’s)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dylan isn’t the singer’s real name, but “Bob Dylan” isn’t even the name he originally chose for himself. He actually went through plenty of names before choosing Bob Dylan. After leaving Hibbing for the University of Minnesota, Dylan initially went by the name Elston Gunnn – with three n’s.

In 1959 after graduating high school, Dylan managed to go on tour with budding teen idol Bobby Vee. They met in a record store, where Dylan overheard that Vee’s backing group needed a pianist. He introduced himself as Elston Gunnn and lied that he’d just came off the road with Conway Twitty.

Bob Dylan Refused To Speak After Hearing That Elvis Died

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While Little Richard was clearly an early influence, Bob Dylan was also inspired by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. Though he is now a legend himself, Dylan went through the same shock we all do when one of our idols passes away.

In Time Out of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan, the singer reflects on Elvis’s passing: “I went over my whole life. I went over my whole childhood. I didn’t talk to anyone for a week after Elvis died. If it wasn’t for Elvis and Hank Williams, I couldn’t be doing what I do today.”

Bob Dylan Moved To New York City After Dropping Out

Brian Shuel/Redferns
Brian Shuel/Redferns

After dropping out of the University of Minnesota, Bob Dylan packed up for New York City. He went there to visit another one of his idols, Woody Guthrie, who’d fallen ill with Huntington’s disease. Of Guthrie’s influence, Dylan has said, “[He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s greatest disciple.”

Amid visiting Guthrie in the hospital, Dylan began writing many songs and meeting many other musicians. Immersing himself in the folk music scene, he was a frequent performer in clubs and coffeehouses throughout Greenwich Village.

Bob Dylan Got a Record Deal For His Harmonica Skills

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Dylan’s performances throughout 1961 started getting attention. His first radio performance was on a 12-hour show for Izzy Young’s production for WRVR. Afterward, Dylan received a rave review in The New York Times.

Amid positive reviews of his performances, it was a feature on another artist’s album that would get him noticed. Dylan played the harmonica for the third album of folk singer Carolyn Hester. The album’s producer, John Hammond, was so impressed that Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records without consulting any of his bosses. But for a moment, it would seem that Hammond made a mistake.

Bob Dylan’s First Album Was A Flop

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dylan’s first self-titled album with Columbia debuted on March 19, 1962. The money from his record deal allowed him to buy his own apartment in the city so that he no longer had to couch surf.

Bob Dylan mostly contained covers of well-known standards and Dylan actually only wrote two of the songs himself: “Talkin’ New York” and “Song to Woody.” The album was recorded over the course of two afternoons since Dylan recorded all 17 songs in one take. Unfortunately, the album failed to chart and only sold a few thousand copies. Dylan became known as “Hammond’s Folly.”

Johnny Cash Was An Early Bob Dylan Fan

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After the first album, Columbia wanted to drop Bob Dylan but Hammond wouldn’t let them. He knew that there was something there. Luckily, Dylan had another ally at Columbia to back up Hammond’s word.

Hammond told Rolling Stone in 1972, “Johnny Cash was one of Dylan’s big boosters at Columbia. Way back there in ’62, whenever Dylan was in the studio or playing in town, Cash would come around… Cash was behind Dylan every which way, everybody in the company knew it. Cash made it known he thought Dylan was a giant. There’s no higher recommendation possible.”

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan Took On A More Topical Tone

Blank Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Blank Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Bob Dylan’s significant relationship around this time was that with artist Suze Rotolo, who is on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eleven of the 13 songs on the album were original compositions and marked the beginning of Dylan’s lyrical genius.

Many of the songs were considered “protest” songs since they addressed many of society’s ills at the time. This was perhaps inspired by Rotolo, who was working as a secretary at CORE and was aware of the injustices faced by people of color. In fact, Dylan’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till” was written for CORE.

Bob Dylan Walked Out On Ed Sullivan

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Ed Sullivan Show was known to boost the careers of musicians such as the Beatles and Elvis Presley, so it was a big deal when Bob Dylan was offered a slot on the show. Dylan planned to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” a satirical song about a John Birch Society member who was afraid of communist infiltration.

Even though Ed Sullivan himself was fine with the selection, when a CBS executive heard the song during rehearsal, he thought it’d be too controversial. Dylan was asked to either change the lyrics or pick a new song. Instead, he refused to do the show.

When Bob Met Joan

Gai Terrell/Redferns
Gai Terrell/Redferns

By the time his second album came out, Dylan had moved on from Rotolo and into the arms of Joan Baez. Just as Dylan was getting his career on track, Baez had already been crowned the “Queen of Folk.” Their partnership began as early as 1963 when Baez began inviting Dylan to join her on stage.

Baez and Dylan became known for their duets on stage and famously performed together at the 1963 March on Washington. It was Baez’s constant endorsement of Dylan that enabled him to become as big as he was by the time his next album came out.

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Bob Dylan Became A Voice For The Civil Rights Movement

Rowland Scherman/Getty Images
Rowland Scherman/Getty Images

By the time Dylan released 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, he was seen as a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, dubbed by the media as the “spokesman of a generation.” Dylan spoke freely of his support for civil rights and equality among the races, but soon realized the hypocrisy of white movement leaders.

By the end of 1963, Dylan was awarded the “Tom Paine Award” from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. He graciously accepted the award but in his speech, he managed to alienate the group that gave him the honor when he questioned the role of the committee.

Bob Dylan Was Booed For “Going Electric”

Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dylan was a Newport Folk Festival favorite since his first appearance there in 1963. By 1965, he was selected to headline the festival, giving many folk fans something great to look forward to. Unfortunately, they were more disappointed.

That year he also released Bringing It All Back Home, the first album he made that featured the use of electric instruments. It hadn’t become widely heard by the time the festival happened, so people weren’t expecting any electric instruments for his set. When Dylan took to the stage and began playing, he was met with booing and yelling that drowned out his performance.

“Like A Rolling Stone” Changed Everything

Blank Archives/Getty Images
Blank Archives/Getty Images

“Like a Rolling Stone” is the crème de la crème of the Bob Dylan songbook. When it was released in July 1965, the song peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. charts and it forever altered what could be considered a “pop song.”

At just over six minutes long, the song at the time was not considered conventional by any means. In addition to the cynical, thought-provoking lyrics, the song utilizes a combination of various musical elements. It’s no wonder that Rolling Stone has ranked the song as No. 1 on its lists of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2004 and 2011.

How Dylan Achieved “That Wild Mercury Sound”

Paco Junquera/Cover/Getty Images
Paco Junquera/Cover/Getty Images

Blonde on Blonde was Bob Dylan’s seventh studio album released in 1966. Dylan began recording the album in New York, but went to Nashville on the suggestion of his producer Bob Johnston. In Tennessee, Dylan worked with Nashville’s top session musicians and created one of the most prolific albums on his discography.

Blonde on Blonde peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 chart and was certified double platinum. Dylan would later say, “The closest I ever got to the sound in my mind was on individual bands in the Blonde on Blonde album… It’s that thin, that wild mercury sound.”

His Motorcycle Accident Is Still Shrouded In Mystery

Fiona Adams/Redferns
Fiona Adams/Redferns

After returning from a worldwide nine-month tour in 1966, Dylan showed no signs of taking a break from his career. But that came to a halt when in July of that year, he crased his motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, New York.

To this day, nobody knows the true details surrounding what happened. As much as the public is concerned, Dylan broke a few vertebrae in his neck, but apparently he was not hospitalized. After this, Dylan began to withdraw from public life. In his autobiography he writes, “I had been in a motorcycle accident and I’d been hurt, but I recovered. Truth was that I wanted to get out of the rat race.”

Bob Dylan Found God In 1978

Hollander/IMAGES/Getty Images
Hollander/IMAGES/Getty Images

In the late ’70s, Bob Dylan switched things up again and became a born-again Christian. After taking up a three-month discipleship course by the Association of Vineyard Churches, Dylan even went so far as to record two albums of gospel music.

Dylan apparently “found God” in 1978 while on tour. In his Tuscon hotel room, he once recalled that he felt a presence in the room. Dylan said, “Jesus put his hand on me… It was a physical thing. I felt it. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”

Bob Dylan Averages Around 100 Performances A Year

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Bob Dylan embarked on the Never Ending Tour in the late ’80s. A show on June 7, 1988, is considered to be the first show on the tour that continues to this day. Over the next decades, Dylan would tour all across the world with a small evolving band.

The singer said in 1997, “A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. It’s the only place you can be who you want to be. I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity. I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade.”

Bob Dylan Got Married In Secret

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Bob Dylan secretly got married on two separate occasions. In 1965, he married secretary Sara Lownds. Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, they had four children together: Jesse, Anna, Samuel, and Jakob. Dylan also adopted Sara’s daughter Maria from a previous marriage, but he and Lownds wound up divorcing in 1977.

In 1986, he quietly married his backup singer Carolyn Dennis. Several months prior to that marriage, Dennis had given birth to their daughter, Desiree. Dylan and Dennis divorced in 1992, but no one would know about this union for many years until it was revealed in his biography by Howard Sounes.

Bob Dylan Won The Nobel Prize In Literature

Stefan Rousseau – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images
Stefan Rousseau – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

In 2016, Bob Dylan managed to cause another shock when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy chose Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Dylan was the first American to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, joining the ranks of other literary greats such as T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. He is also the first musician to win the prize, which didn’t sit well with a lot of people solely for that fact. The choice sparked a debate over whether song lyrics are comparable to great works of poetry or novels.