Bob Dylan: The First Interview
DYLAN: Well, let me say that I was born in Duluth, Minnesota – give that a little plug. That's where I was born and, uh, out in the midwest most of my life. Well, about three-quarters of my life around the midwest and one quarter around the southwest – New Mexico. But then I lived in Kansas – Marysville, Kansas, and, uh, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I bounced around a lot as a kid.
Was that your choice?
It was my choice partly. Partly it wasn't. I ran away a lot – stuff like that. I'd rather say just that.
When was the first time you ran away, as you put it?
I took off when I was in New Mexico. I lived in Gallup, New Mexico.
How old were you then?
Seven. Seven – eight – something like that. For the most part my base has been in upper – way upper – Minnesota. Almost to the border. Can I mention the town? Hibbing, Minnesota – that's a mining town – lumber town. I was there off and on ever since I was about seven to seventeen.
You were in Gallup when you were seven and you took off? Were you alone?
Yeah, well, I was with a carnival when I was about thirteen and I used to travel with a carnival – all kinds of shows.
Where did you go with the carnivals?
All round the mid-west. Uh, Gallup, New Mexico, then to Texas, and then… lived in Gallup, New Mexico, and…
How far did you get when you were seven and left Gallup?
Oh… Well, I was with an uncle and, uh; I was in Texas, then Kansas. But this stuff you see, I can't really remember so hot. All I remember is basic – base things. Where I could, uh, just base things, sort of like…
Did you go to school much?
Yeah, I went to school. I graduated. I graduated from high school – that's where I graduated – Hibbing.
I see. Did you go to high school for four years in Hibbing?
Well. I graduated. I skipped a grade.
How long were you with the carnival?
I was with the carnival for a long time every year. I was with the carnival summers and even part-ways into the winters.
What did you do?
Uh, roustabout. I sung around. I didn't sing for any money but I learned a lot of songs in the carnival. That's why I know all these songs they do now and I'm only 20. I hear a song now – at least a folk song – I've heard a version of it or something like it before.
And you have a good memory?
Yeah. I guess I've memorised a lot of what I've heard – things I can remember back. Well, I write a lot of songs and I forget them. As soon as after I write them or sing them out loud – to myself or something – and them I forget 'em. But a lot of times when I take the time to write them down I usually sing 'em once in a while. I just wrote a new song, about, oh, last week about New York. I wish I would have recorded it. Some people are singing it now at the Blue Angel: lan and Sylvia. I taught it to lan.
What are your earliest memories of singing?
Well, I've been singing for an awful long time. First guitar I ever had was a very old guitar and the strings were about an inch from the keyboard. That's why I use a flat pick when I play now – and I never got unused to using that flat pick – because I could never get those strings. They were heavy strings and my fingers hurt.
How old were you?
Who gave it to you?
Down at, uh, uh… I got it in Chicago on the South Side. I think from a street singer – I didn't get it from him, I get it from a friend of his – Aravella Grey. He was the singer and, uh, let's see – there's Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I learned a lot of songs there. I learned – not alot, but I learned. I didn't learn songs, I just learned way of singing. I learned the way of singing I do. I didn't really learn so many songs.
There was this fella there on a farm right in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – a little bit out – played autoharp. And he was just a farmhand there. He was from Kansas. I learned just ways of singing from people like that. But I never really heard any other way. I played piano when I was seventeen. I played piano for this rock and roll singer. His name is Bobby Vee and he's a big star now, I guess.
Now where was this?
That was in Fargo, North Dakota. Then we went all around the midwest. Went to Wisconsin, Iowa, toured around there and then I left.
How long were you with him?.
I was with him for about, uh, every night – just about every night –for about a month or two. And then as soon as I left him he got on another recording label and then I saw his picture in big picture magazines and that kind of stuff not too long after that. So that was sort of a disappointment. But I always figured that – I just like to feel that I know where I'm at. Because if I know where I'm at then I figure I got anybody beat. Because then if nothing happens that I expect to, then if I don't get some girl that I like, or if I don't get something like that, I always just figure that if I know where I'm at, then nothing will hurt me and then I'll never be disappointed. Then if something comes up, you know, then it's for the good. I mean, it's not really pessimistic or anything like that, but it's just that I like to feel that I know where I'm at.
Yeah. Pretty sure I do. I'm at the stage now where I never thought I could sort of look back and see some thing but I knew I could sing better than all those people that are singing now. And I knew that I could sing the same songs much better if only I had the chance to and I'm just getting that chance to in New York. I had the chance to around the country – but I can't reach as many people around the country. And I've had the chance just breaking for me now in New York.
Because my idol is really – like when I'm even on the stage – and not even on stage – my biggest idol goin' all through my head all the time is Charlie Chaplin. This takes a while to explain, but he's one of the men.
© Billy James, 1961
Article Courtesy of Bob Dylan: The First Interview, the Online Library of Music Journalism. For schools interested in subscribing to Rock's Backpages, please click here.
To browse all of the material provided by Rock's Backpages, browse our Bob Dylan: The First Interview partner page.