15 Freewheelin' Facts About Bob Dylan

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Facts and Bob Dylan have always made for strange companions. Though he achieved worldwide fame as The Voice of a Generation—a young man hailed in part for his honesty as he sang of both the hard truths of social injustices as well as his own personal romantic anguish—he did so as Bob Dylan, not as Robert Zimmerman, the name he was born with and went by growing up in Minnesota.

Even today, more than 50 years after he first began kicking around the Greenwich Village club scene, Dylan remains an elusive figure who has at times been accused of making career choices specifically to obfuscate and muddle his identity. With that in mind, and in honor of the icon's birthday, here are some truths about the man behind the man who wrote some of the most important songs in music history.

1. HE DIDN'T SHOW UP TO HIS OWN HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION PARTY.

Robert Allen Zimmerman graduated from Minnesota's Hibbing High School in 1959. Under his yearbook picture, his life goal reads “to join Little Richard.” The teenager likely had a 1956 school talent show incident in mind when he decided on that caption: as he played keyboards and sang a Little Richard song with his band, the school principal cut them off and pulled the curtain. By graduation night, he was ready to leave.

2. HE USED TO GO BY THE NAME OF ELSTON GUNNN.

Yes, with the extra N. In the summer after his high school graduation, Zimmerman was working as a busboy at a Fargo, North Dakota cafe when he conned his way into future music star Bobby Vee’s band, The Shadows, by claiming he had just been on the road with Conway Twitty and only showcasing his piano skills in the key of C. The stage name Zimmerman gave himself was Elston Gunnn. The group arrangement didn’t last for very long, due to lack of funds for all involved, and Zimmerman/Gunnn left for Minneapolis at the end of the summer to attend the University of Minnesota.

3. CHARLIE CHAPLIN IS ONE OF HIS BIGGEST INFLUENCES.

Dylan was quoted as early as 1961 as saying he is “always conscious of the Chaplin tramp.” Early in his performing career, the musician would use his hat as a prop, just as Chaplin did in his films. In 2006, Dylan released an album titled Modern Times, an obvious nod to Chaplin's classic 1936 film of the same name.

4. HE WAS AN OPENING ACT FOR THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS, BEFORE THEY GOT HIM FIRED.

That happened in Denver in 1960, a few years before Dylan or the Smothers brothers were famous. Neither the siblings nor the audiences liked Dylan’s obscure songs, and Tommy wasn't keen on the musician’s near-homeless look.

5. JOHN H. HAMMOND SIGNED HIM TO COLUMBIA RECORDS AFTER HE HEARD HIM PLAY HARMONICA ON A CAROLYN HESTER ALBUM, WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM HIS BOSSES.

The same John H. Hammond signed Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and (later) Bruce Springsteen, so Dylan was in talented company. Though Columbia's vice president said Dylan’s voice was “the most horrible thing he'd ever heard in his life," Hammond signed him anyway (he did the same thing a few years later with Leonard Cohen). When Dylan’s self-titled debut album, which consisted mainly of covers, only sold 5000 copies in its first year, his signing became known as “Hammond’s folly.” Hammond always contended that the so-called flop of an album only cost $402 to make anyway.

6. HE BROKE AN UNWRITTEN RULE OF FOLK MUSIC BY RECORDING A COVER OF "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN."

Dylan learned the song from fellow folk musician Dave Van Ronk, who was the inspiration behind the Coen brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Dylan asked Ronk for permission to record the song with Ronk’s guitar arrangement on his first album—after he had already done so. Ronk was upset because he had plans to record his own version for his album, and soon he stopped performing the song entirely because people believed he got it from Dylan. Karmically, Dylan himself had to stop playing “House of the Rising Sun” after The Animals came out with their definitive version.

7. JOHNNY CASH WAS A VERY EARLY ALLY.

Cash and Dylan hung out together as early as 1962, when Columbia was openly discussing dropping Dylan before he even had the chance to record his famous second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. John Hammond claimed it was Cash’s endorsement of Dylan that helped to convince Columbia not to make a colossal mistake by dumping Dylan. In 1969, Dylan returned the favor by making his first television appearance in three years to perform on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show.

8. FOR YEARS, PEOPLE BELIEVED THAT HE STOLE "BLOWIN' IN THE WIND" FROM A NEW JERSEY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Dylan wrote the iconic tune himself, based on an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” However, Lorre Wyatt performed the song for his school 10 months before Dylan’s recorded version of “Wind” was released. This was made possible due to the fact that Dylan’s music arrangement and lyrics were published in Broadside magazine a year before Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out, and it was a magazine Wyatt read. In November 1963, Millburn High School students told Newsweek  that they believed Wyatt wrote the song, even after their fellow student denied it, thinking Dylan paid him $1000 for the rights to it.

9. SUZE ROTOLO WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR MANY OF HIS CLASSIC SONGS.

Rotolo was an artist and Dylan’s girlfriend from 1961 to 1964, and the woman on his arm on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It was Rotolo who told Dylan the story of Emmett Till, which led him to write "The Ballad of Emmett Till." "Boots of Spanish Leather," "One Too Many Mornings," "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," "Ballad in Plain D," and "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" were all about Rotolo, sometimes about their separation when she briefly lived in Italy, and other times about their final break-up. Even though she suspected that Dylan exaggerated things, she was still upset to discover his real name only after his draft card fell out of his wallet one day. She nicknamed him “RAZ” as playful revenge for hiding his true identity, as well as “Pig.”

10. ROTOLO’S MOTHER NEVER TRUSTED HIM.

Mary Rotolo was never happy with her daughter’s decision to date Dylan, after Dylan told her in one of their initial meetings that he was suffering from a degenerative eye disease that would gradually result in blindness. He was clearly lying.

11. AN EXECUTIVE WANTED HIM TO PLAY HOLDEN CAULFIELD.

In 1962 an agent from the talent agency MCA told Hammond that his company had the movie rights to The Catcher in the Rye, and after seeing Dylan, they felt that they had their leading man.

12. HE REFUSED TO APPEAR ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

Ed Sullivan himself actually had no issue with Dylan playing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”; it was a CBS executive who decided, hours before Dylan was set to appear, that the Birch organization could possibly sue for libel. After being told that he had to either change the lyrics or play a different song entirely, Dylan responded by asking the executive if he was out of his “f***in’ mind” before choosing option C: walking away and never coming back.

13. HE GOT THE BEATLES INTO POT.

On August 28, 1964, Dylan met The Beatles for the first time at The Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Dylan believed the group was familiar with marijuana, mishearing the lyrics to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide.” The Beatles tried marijuana four years earlier one night in Germany before deciding it wasn’t for them (their “drug” of choice was scotch and Coke). After Ringo bogarted the first joint, the other three joined in, and soon after became full-fledged pot smokers.

14. DYLAN DIDN’T SPEAK FOR ONE WEEK AFTER ELVIS PRESLEY DIED.

The King passed away on August 16, 1977. Dylan, who was going through a divorce at the time, was at his Minnesota farm with his kids and their art teacher, Faridi McFree, who told him the news. Dylan later said that once he heard, "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."

15. HE CO-WROTE AND DIRECTED A NEARLY FOUR-HOUR MOVIE.

The 1978 film Renaldo and Clara was a 235-minute-long French New Wave/Beat Generation-inspired collage of concert footage, documentary, and dramatic fiction. After almost universally negative reviews, its limited release in theaters in major U.S. cities was stopped. Rolling Stone insisted: “This is meant to work at the level of Freud, but it is a lot closer to fraud.” In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, "It’s what Louis and Marie Antoinette might have done at Versailles if only they’d had the cameras.” Dylan played Renaldo.

Elvis Presley’s Lincoln Limousine "Family Car" Is Hitting the Auction Block

Elvis Presley not only liked peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwiches, he also loved cars. The King owned more than 100 automobiles, including several limos. Whereas most of his cars—and his plane—have been preserved at Graceland, one of Elvis’s lesser-known and most sentimental cars has almost been forgotten. Atlas Obscura reports that Presley’s 1967 Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine by Lehmann-Peterson will hit the auction block in Monterey, California, on August 15, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley's manager, gifted the limo to Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967. For the '60s, it featured a lot of advanced amenities, like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, a power antenna, and a power front bench seat. Over the years, it became known as the Elvis Presley Family Car. Elvis’s imprint is all over it: The limo’s Tennessee license plate reads “1-Elvis,” and comes with a copy of the car’s original title application, with Elvis’s name on it.

But since Presley’s death in August 1977, the car has fallen into disrepair—dust covers the black exterior and interior. In 2014, the car was found in car collector James Petrozzini’s collection after Petrozzini died. As Mecum Auctions states, Petrozzini liked to use the limo to pick up his son and his friends from school while wearing a chauffeur’s hat and white gloves.

If you’re interested in bidding, Mecum Auctions recommends calling for an estimate. For comparison: In 2018 Presley’s 1971 Mercedes-Benz sold for $116,600.

12 Facts About Woodstock For Its 50th Anniversary

Tucker Ransom, Getty Images
Tucker Ransom, Getty Images

From August 15-18, 1969, an estimated 400,000 spectators attended Woodstock, a music event held in Bethel, New York, that quickly became a defining moment in the counter-cultural movement of the era. Nearly three dozen acts performed over the course of four days, ranging from the Grateful Dead to The Who to Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this milestone in music history, we're looking at some of the things about the festival you might have missed.

1. Woodstock was banned from its original site because of toilets.

Attendees at Woodstock pose while sitting inside a car trunk
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock was conceived in early 1969 by a group of twenty-somethings: Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts. In January of that year, the four men—Kornfeld and Lang as music industry vets and Rosenman and Roberts as venture capitalists who provided the financial backing— formed the company Woodstock Ventures, named for the New York town that Kornfeld and Lang were scouting to build a recording studio in. Woodstock had long been known as an artists' retreat about two hours north of New York City, and even has its own "Artists Cemetery" for a variety of creative types.

The original site of the festival was intended to be at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, near Middletown, New York. After negotiations with landowners, the four believed they had found a solution. But Wallkill residents shot the idea down, fearing that an influx of visitors—possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs—would be potentially problematic. By insisting the concert's portable toilets weren't up to code and refusing to grant a permit, Wallkill effectively banned Woodstock from taking place there just a month before its scheduled August 15 start date.

2. Woodstock was saved by a farmer.

When Wallkill fell through, promoters turned to Bethel, New York, a small town with just 2366 residents where a farmer named Max Yasgur owned a 600-acre dairy farm. As in Wallkill, Bethel residents were not terribly enthusiastic about hosting a concert that would attract a considerable crowd. But Yasgur didn't share their apprehensions. Even though he was middle-aged, blue-collar, and as far from a "hippie" as he could be, he respected the desire of concert-goers to share in a communal experience and allowed organizers the use of his property for a fee of $50,000. He even came out at one point to address the crowd (above), congratulating them on the assembly. It was said he received as loud an ovation as Jimi Hendrix.

3. Woodstock wasn't meant to be a free concert.

The crowd at Woodstock is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mounting Woodstock was not intended to be an altruistic venture. Kornfeld, Rosenman, Roberts, and Lang paid for talent, production costs, Yasgur's site, and incurred other expenses in the hope of profiting from ticket sales. One day's admission was $7; attending all three (which stretched into early Monday morning due to rain and technical delays) was $18. But as people began to show up to Bethel days before the scheduled start, the infrastructure was still incomplete. Fences still needed to be erected and ticket booths set up. With no practical way of turning away crowds, the partners decided to make it a free event for people who had not purchased one of the 100,000 tickets that had been pre-sold. Of the 400,000 who ultimately attended, 300,000 were never charged an admission fee. (The total number of attendees would have likely been more if not for traffic back-ups. Some people walked miles to the site.)

After expenses, the partners ran into a deficit. Two of them—Kornfeld and Lang—sold their share in Woodstock Ventures, the company they had formed to put on the concert. Roberts and Rosenman eventually saw a modest profit after other income sources, like the 1970 concert film Woodstock, were tallied.

4. Many cows were in attendance.

Attendees at Woodstock sit near their car
Three Lions/Getty Images

Yasgur's farm was a functioning site of business, which meant that the incoming crowds were going to be displacing the cattle usually present on site. His workers tried to corral them into a fenced area, but so many people ran over the barrier and set up campgrounds that they decided to just let the cows wander and mingle with attendees. One of Yasgur's employees, George Peavey, told United Press International that the cows and music fans "seem to be getting along together fine."

5. Jimi Hendrix got $18,000 to perform.

Booking big-name acts didn't come cheap. Jimi Hendrix was Woodstock's highest-paid performer, earning $18,000 (roughly $125,000 in 2019 dollars, accounting for inflation). Creedence Clearwater Revival, the first act booked, received $10,000. The Who received $6250 (although another report has them receiving $11,200) and Joe Cocker made a relatively paltry $1375. Sha Na Na got $750, while Quill was the most economic booking at $375.

6. Woodstock's musical acts needed to be helicoptered in.

Musician John Sebastian performs at Woodstock in 1969
Tullio Saba, Flickr // Public Domain

The traffic leading into the event was so awful that Sweetwater, which was due to open the festival, didn't make their scheduled start. (Richie Havens went on instead.) The band was airlifted to the grounds by helicopter so they could go on second. A number of other performers also traveled by air to circumvent the traffic issues.

7. Woodstock's crowd was actually very well-behaved.

Attendees at Woodstock are pictured
Three Lions/Getty Images

Despite concerns from both Wallkill and Bethel over the anticipated misbehavior of attendees, virtually no reports of violence ever came out of the festival. When those in attendance used telephones to place long-distance calls back to home, local switchboard operators were amazed that all of them said "thank you." Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, declared them "the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work." The only real impropriety came as a result of concession food shortages, driving some attendees to loot nearby farmland for corn and produce.

While it's possible law enforcement could have arrested many, many people for marijuana possession, they opted not to. As one state police sergeant said, there "wouldn't be enough space in Sullivan County, or the next three counties, to put them in."

8. Even the ice had acid in it.

Attendees at Woodstock in 1969 are pictured
Paille, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Woodstock has a well-earned reputation for being a trip in more ways than one. Drug use was pervasive and seemingly inescapable. In 2009, the Who's John Entwistle told Billboard that he decided to drink a bourbon and Coke and realized that someone had spiked the ice with acid. The use of psychedelic drugs was estimated to have resulted in 25 "freak-outs" every hour the first night of the festival; emergency medical staff and members of a commune known as the Hog Farm sat with attendees until the drugs wore off.

9. The Who's set was crashed by Abbie Hoffman.

Performing on day two of the festival, British rock band the Who experienced an interruption when political activist Abbie Hoffman (who had co-founded the Youth International Party the previous year to protest the Vietnam War) rushed on stage to protest the imprisonment of White Panther Party leader John Sinclair. Pete Townshend swung at Hoffman with his guitar and ushered him off-stage. It was probably worth the hassle, as Townshend later said he thought their performance boosted sales of their Tommy album.

10. There were public service announcements between each act.

In an era before cell phones, trying to communicate with friends in a sea of humanity was challenging. To try and facilitate important messages, a member of the production staff named Edward "Chip" Monck (seriously) took to the microphone to deliver announcements, alerting the crowd to unattended children or to notify people where to find help. "Kenny Irwin, please go to the information booth for your insulin," he said. "Paul Andrews, Mike needs his pills and will meet you where he did yesterday." In the above video, you can also hear someone—possibly Monck—warning the crowd about some potentially harmful "brown acid" making the rounds.

11. The original Woodstock site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque stands at the original site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Cementing its status as a historic site, the concert area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. The farm is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It contains a campus, museum, and 15,000-seat amphitheater. The site will be host to a number of 50th anniversary events, including performances by Ringo Starr and original Woodstock acts Arlo Guthrie and Carlos Santana the weekend of August 16, 17, and 18, 2019.

12. Even the garbage had a message.

People clean up the garbage left behind at Woodstock in 1969
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock's pacifist vibe extended to the extensive clean-up required after the crowds began to dissipate following Hendrix's closing performance on Monday, August 18, 1969. By then the audience had dwindled to just 25,000 or so. When Hendrix was finished, a crew set about picking up the considerable garbage left behind. Surveying the concert site in a helicopter, co-promoter Michael Lang noticed that workers had started to shovel the trash in formation. A peace symbol appeared, made up of the litter left behind.

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