Bob Dylan Gets Booed Out of His Hometown
So much of Bob Dylan‘s life is already a part of American mythology. Most people know how he changed his name, or the story of his pilgrimage at 19 to see Woody Guthrie, his musical hero, who was sick in a New York hospital.
Yet, what do we know of Dylan’s earliest attempts to craft a song?
In My Life in a Stolen Moment, a mostly biographical prose poem from 1963 that is often overlooked, Dylan describes his upbringing in Duluth, Minnesota and his life as a college student. A few lines in the song are of particular interest to us here. “I wrote my first song to my mother an’ titled it “To Mother” / I wrote that in 5th grade an’ the teacher gave me a B+”
Did the first lyric by the greatest songwriter of a generation actually receive a B+?
Most likely, it’s one more fib by an artist who liked to tease his own legacy. Yet, these lines do offer a candid view of his early success, or lack of it. One thing that’s fairly certain is his hometown did not appreciate him and Dylan did not appreciate it. Earlier this year, the Telegraph interviewed several of Dylan’s classmates and found that his early bursts of creativity were “not well received.”
While in high school, Dylan joined several bands and had some mild success. At this time, he was influenced primarily by the originators of rock and roll, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis. (He didn’t get deep into folk until college, though his love of Woody Guthrie seemed to start when he saw the artist perform at ten years old. Incidentally, that was the same year he picked up a guitar and started to play.)
“I was singing to define the way I felt about the world,” Dylan later wrote in the first volume of his memoirs. But he clearly wanted some recognition to. In one of his earliest performances, Dylan played a cover of Little Richard’s Rock and Roll is Here to Stay with his high school band, the Golden Chords, at his school’s talent show. The students in the audience loved the music, but the judges of the talent show did not. Years later, LeRoy Hoikkala, one of Dylan’s band mates from the Golden Chords recalled that “Bob was a little detached [after the contest] saying, ‘We should have won, you know?’ Because, in fact the audience was with us, but they gave it to someone else.”
Dylan covered many songs in his teenage years, but rarely wrote his own. Instead, as Hoikkala said in an interview, he would take a song “and if he didn’t like the lyrics he just changed it to what he wanted.” Dylan himself described this early stage of his songwriting career in his memoirs.
“I can’t say when it occured to me to write my own songs… You don’t just wake up one day and decide that you need to write songs, especially if you’re a singer who has plenty of them and you’re learning more every day. Opportunities may come along for you to convert something – something that exists into something that didn’t yet. That might be the beginning of it… It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy. You want to write songs that are bigger than life… [but] you have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular.”
He turned out to be one of the rare songwriters who could go past the vernacular, even though he may very well have started off his writing career with a lyric about his mother and a less than stellar grade.