Myth-making has long been intertwined with the world of music. Throughout history, artists have embraced personas or magnified certain aspects of themselves to craft public images. However, in the case of Bob Dylan, this practice evolved into a bold, outright lie.
For a considerable period, Dylan portrayed his childhood as tumultuous. According to the iconic singer, he was a social outcast from an early age, breaking away from the shackles of normalcy and conformity. By his account, he embarked on a solitary journey, seeking companionship among the unconventional and peculiar. By the age of 13, he claimed to be a runaway with the circus, yearning for the adventures that lay ahead.
“I was with the carnival off and on for six years,” Dylan shared in one of his earliest recorded interviews with Cynthia Gooding. “I was a clean-up boy. I used to be on the main line on the Ferris Wheel, just run rides.”
This myth, in the realm of storytelling, carries a touch of humor. Picturing a young Bob Dylan strapping mischievous kids into a carousel or tending to circus animals paints a whimsical picture worth contemplating. Perhaps he believed that coming from the fringes of social isolation would lend his music more credibility. If his upbringing echoed an environment of utter chaos, would it elevate his underdog social commentary, making it more profound? In the spirit of the 1960s belief that consuming copious amounts of LSD could unveil life’s true meaning, Dylan seemed to think that a fabricated childhood filled with strife could serve as a key to the podium of the people’s voice.
Contrary to the narrative, Dylan’s actual childhood was entirely ordinary. Born as Robert Zimmerman into a working-class family in the industrial town of Hibbing, Minnesota, he experienced a typical upbringing. His family, part of the close-knit Jewish community in the area, ran a furniture shop. Far from the imagined trapeze life, Dylan had a childhood with familiar elements – food on the table, school to attend, friends to play with, and a space to be a regular child.
In reality, Dylan shared a common experience with the majority of musicians. He grew up listening to the radio, developed a fondness for country and blues, and later transitioned into rock and roll during his teenage years. His high school days involved starting bands, playing covers of Little Richard and Elvis Presley, embodying the quintessential high school rockstar experience.
Zimmerman epitomized the small-town kid with dreams of a tortured artist. By the time he completed high school, he had adopted the name Bob Dylan, drawing inspiration from poet Dylan Thomas. He shifted from mainstream rock and roll to the darker, moodier realm of folk, expressing, “I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.” He was the type of person you might encounter in your early 20s at a local venue’s bar, convinced he’s the musical messiah or the next Jim Morrison – or even, ironically, Dylan himself.
It wasn’t until 1960 that Dylan truly became the social dropout he had claimed to be since childhood. He left college, ventured to New York, and gradually evolved into the folk legend we recognize today.
The reasons behind Dylan fabricating the circus tales and when he did so remain unknown, but he clung to the narrative until its inevitable exposure. He once said, “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie,” suggesting that myth-making and fictional embellishments never troubled him. His peculiar fascination with the circus persisted as a recurring theme throughout his career – from the circus-style poster designs he favored to staging his version of a traveling freak show during the Rolling Thunder Revue, where he took renowned figures in rock and folk on a tumultuous tour.
One might argue that Dylan was a fraud, concocting a fictional childhood to feign poverty or appear more disadvantaged, exploiting the social currency of struggle. Alternatively, it could be viewed as another instance of affluent artists romanticizing hardship and instability, a luxury rarely afforded to those who have genuinely faced such challenges. On the flip side, it could be a whimsical tale, serving as nothing more than an addition to the mystique surrounding Dylan, used by the artist to amuse himself amidst a perpetual cycle of interviews.
After immersing himself in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, writer Sam Shepherd contemplated Dylan’s myths and lies, seemingly concluding that they empowered him, propelling him into a brighter artistic spotlight. Shepherd wrote, ‘Some myths are poisonous to believe in, but others have the capacity to change something inside us, even if it’s only for a minute or two.’
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