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Bob Dylan: The spokesman for a generation - or more - has said much, and very eloquently. Yet Robert Allen Zimmerman has uttered little about his stagename. And when he has spoken, he's given contradictory accounts of what it means (if anything), or where it comes from (if anywhere).
When he left Duluth, Minnesota, he'd wanted to call himself Robert Allen: it sounded like a Scottish king. Then he heard of saxophonist David Allyn. "I had suspected that the musician had changed the spelling of Allen to Allyn ... it looked exotic." He considered Robert Allyn. Some of this is set out in Chronicles Volume 1 (2004). It confirms the present author's own research, save to note the headline, Dylan did NOT rename after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) as was widely reported.
It's quite correct that he saw Thomas's poetry and thought "the letter D came on stronger." Therefore Allyn became Dllyn/Dylan. It's also true that Dylan's lyrics are poetic and the singer chose to be known as Robert Milkwood Thomas when working with Steve Goodman. But he's several times dissed this theory of a direct connection, saying Thomas's poetry "isn't the same as mine." After Robert Shelton published a 1986 biography, Dylan told him: "Please correct your book. I didn't take the name from Dylan Thomas." Shelton expressed his frustration to the author, saying we needed to find out the true explanation if this was wrong.
We dismissed evidence that "Dylan" came from a cowboy sheriff called Matt Dillon in the fictional Dodge City or that he named after a 1950s folk singer called Dylan Todd. More promising was a 1965 interview in which he said: "I took the name Dylan because I have an uncle named Dillion." He deliberately changed the spelling because it "looked better."
I ran birth record checks on "Dylan Zimmerman", "Dillion Zimmerman" and similar spellings. Yet I found no direct proof of any person related to the Zimmermans of Duluth on either side of the family tree. I'd more luck with Dillion as a surname: there have been many Dillions in Hibbing, where Bob grew up: a James Dillion was the town's first drayman.
Dylan was unknowingly following Ethel Merman, a major star of the 1930s, who was born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann - two 'n's on the end in her case.
As for the first name, he felt that "Robert Dylan" didn't work: he was often called Bobby but this sounded skittish and there were already many other Bobbys - Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vee and so on.
A new name gave Dylan the opportunity to create whatever myths he desired, free from the identifier of being a middle-class Jewish kid. This made sense if he was to emulate his hero, Woody Guthrie, and sing about paupers: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean and so on. "Dylan" sounded like a down-and-out drifter's name.
Another reason for a pseudonym: protect your real identity and shield your family, maybe emphasise the break with them? Dylan concluded his poem Advice For Geraldine On Her Miscellaneous Birthday with the thought that when asked for one's real name, one should never give it.
Dylan's other names: His Bobness, to use his Q magazine nickname, has played on many other people's songs, often under more assumed names. These include Tedham Porterhouse (with Ramblin' Jack Elliott); Blind Boy Grunt (with Richard Farina); Roosevelt Cook (backing Tom Rush); Elmer Johnson, Big Joe's Buddy, Egg O'Schmullson and Keef Laundry.
Dylan played as part of the ad-hoc superstar band The Traveling Wilburys as Lucky (1988) and Boo (1990).
He took the part of Alias in Sam Peckinpah's now-classic 1973 film Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid.
Dylan's backing bands have often been nameless, apart from: The Band and The Hawks, The Billy 4, and The Rolling Thunder Revue, named after 1976 The Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Area Code 615 formed after backing him.
His work inspired Marc Bolan, Dylan's Trashcan, Firehose, Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Mystery Trend, Starry Eyed And Laughing and The Weathermen. He did NOT inspire the name Judas Priest but may have influenced Yazoo. Not related: The Bob Dylan Band, BOB and The Dylans.
Related: Jakob Dylan, his son, also a musician.
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