Back in the late 1950s, rock 'n' roll royalty's most distinguished names were typically terse, snappy two-syllable appellations that shook, rattled, and rolled off DJs' tongues like so much cool. “That was Chuck Berry, boys and girls!” or “You were just listening to Buddy Holly!”
It would be another solid decade before a name like Norman Greenbaum would become even remotely acceptable on the hip scale. So for a young rocker like Bob Dylan, whose senior yearbook goal was to “join Little Richard's band,” his birth name—Robert Allen Zimmerman—just wasn't gonna cut it.
Dylan Talks about His Name
How the soon-to-be rock star's name evolved from Zimmerman to Dylan has become part of the great Bob Dylan mythology. It happened sometime between Bob's final year in high school and when he moved to Minneapolis to begin his truncated freshman year at the University of Minnesota. By most accounts, Bob was already a Dylan by the time he started hanging out in the cafes and among the folk crowd of Dinkytown, the student section of Minneapolis.
The common mythology holds that Dylan took his name from poet Dylan Thomas, however this absolutely false. Bob was a Dylan long before he picked up any of Thomas's poetry. In a 1978 Playboy interview, Ron Rosenbaum asked Dylan, “By the time you arrived in New York, you'd changed your name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. Was it because of Dylan Thomas?”
Dylan's response: “No, I haven't read that much of Dylan Thomas... It wasn't that I was inspired by reading some of his poetry and going “Aha!” and changing my name to Dylan. If I thought he was that great, I would have sung his poems and could just have easily changed my name to Thomas... I just chose that name and it stuck.”
Zimmerman Becomes Dylan
According to Daniel Mark Epstein in his biography, The Ballad of Bob Dylan, the switch from Zimmerman to Dylan began back when Dylan was 17 or 18. As the front man for of his rockabilly-blues garage band, The Golden Chords, Bobby Zimmerman was the typical James Dean-posing rocker, playing high school talent shows and trying to impress the chicks. Even at that young age, Dylan had an amazing natural sense about the importance of image for entertainers, and he groomed himself accordingly. It was all about the look. The appeal. And paramount to all, the name.
At the time, wrote Epstein, “He was a great fan of Matt Dillon, the sheriff of the television series Gunsmoke. In 1958, he confided to his high school sweetheart [Echo Helstrom] that he planned to devote his life to music, adding that 'I know what I'm going to call myself. I've got this great name—Bob Dillon.' That was how he told new friends to spell his (assumed) last name. He also told them that Dillon was his mother's maiden name (it wasn't), and that Dillon was a town in Oklahoma (it isn't).”
With the name Dillon fully intact, Epstein goes on to assert that the spelling shifted to Dylan in Dinkytown, when Bob began plumbing the depths of world literature, “reading the poetry of Pound and Eliot, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg; the novels of Kerouac and William Burroughs and Dylan Thomas, rebaptizing himself Bob Dylan.”
A Case of Mistaken Identity
When Dylan arrived in New York in January 1961, although he was Bob Dylan, his driver's license still read “Zimmerman.” His birth name was something that he was very self-conscious about; he didn't want anyone to discover the truth. He was Bob Dylan. Nothing else. He didn't even tell his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who found out his real name in late 1961 when, drunk one night, his draft card fell out of his pocket.
Aside from all of his friends and family back in Minnesota, the world at large was ignorant of Dylan's true identity. For some reason—the media has always had a keen fetish for making a big deal about Dylan's given name. Part of this could be because Dylan had done such a thorough job in the early '60s designing an entire life story about his past, which the world took as a given. He was a teenager riding the rails around the country, singing with the great troubadours. He had traveled in a circus for a time. His had played in Bobby Vee's band. All fabrications.
Although he eventually changed it in the courts, his birth name still haunted him on November 4, 1963, when Andrea Svedberg's infamous Newsweek article came out, proving that not only was Dylan's real name once Zimmerman, but that, rather than the mythological rambling hobo and teen runaway character he'd built his entire image around, he was actually raised in a middle class Jewish family. What he discovered, however, was that the fallout of the expose didn't destroy his career, as he thought it might, and instead he went on to become America's all-time most celebrated singer-songwriter.
These days, after five decades of being Bob Dylan, fans still use numerous nicknames lending back to Bob's pre-Dylan past: Bobby Z, Zimmy, the Z-Man, The Zimster, et alia.