Beatty Zimmerman talks Bob Dylan's early years and road to fame
Bobby is very much like I am. You either do or you don't. He would tell you one thing and do another. He was a little contrary. He was always very courteous though.
Abram: He started reading them when he was about 13 or 14.
Beatty: Oh, yes, he was in the library a lot too.
Shelton: Was there anybody in the family that was a writer?
Abram: (pausing) No, outside of me there was no one.
Beatty: What did you ever write, a letter?
Abram: I could write if I wanted to write.
Bobby is very much like I am. You either do or you don't. Remember, we bought the piano and gave Bobby lessons. Harriet came – that was our cousin, Harriet Rutstein. He said, “No lessons for me.” She was a music teacher, a University of Minnesota graduate, and she said I will give the boys lessons. He took one lessen and he said, “I’m going to quit.” He said, “I’m going to play the piano the way I want to.” Now when he plays “Mr Jones” by himself, he's pretty good. He has a gorgeous concert grand piano in his living room.
I was born in a town 12 miles out of Hibbing called Stevenson Location, named after a man who went there to mine. My father opened one of the first stores there, 55 years ago, in Stevenson Location in 1913. I was born there two years later. In fact, all four children were born in that little town. My brother, who will be 56, I will be 53, my other brother. My brothers' names are Lewis, and Berne, who is in the Bahamas, and my sister Irene.
The house we were in then was 519 3rd Avenue East. It was a nice place. Believe me, in Duluth it was one of the nicest apartments that anybody had. We had many courtships there. I had many a couple that I brought together in that building. It was a double house, We had our own yard, It was a frame building and it was painted beige.
I don't think Bobby can remember kindergarten at the Nettleton school in Duluth, because when we came here, his life got so filled with confusion, with more family, and school, right away, next door. It was just one year. He only went to the kindergarten there. I would get his white shoes ready and he was ready. When he'd see me polishing the white shoes, he got ready to go out. He was the most gorgeous child in Duluth. It was a waste on a little boy. He must have started talking when he was two, because he would say, “I am two in May.” People would come up and ask him how old he was and he would say “I will be two in May.” and people would stand back from him and look, because of the way he talked and how he dressed. He was dressed in outfits all the time. I only put outfits on him. Even when this little boy was dirty, he was clean. I’m going to find you the little white suit that he wore at my sister’s wedding, at five years old. He sang Some Sunday Morning. He sang it at Irene’s wedding that morning. The uncles all got together at the wedding and gave him $25 to sing. He got stubborn, the uncles said: ''Bobby you've got to sing.” He went to his father and asked If he should sing.
He was a real family pet, they loved it just if he would say a word. It wasn't a boy soprano voice. It was just a middle-range voice. So he sang and took the money. He took $25. Then he came over to me and said ''Mummy I'm going to give the money back '' And he went to the uncle who wasn't really an uncle, but a brother-in-law on the other side, and gave him back the money and they absolutely ate him up. One thing you have to remember about Bobby, and that was true when he went off to start his career; he wanted it quiet when he would sing. “If it’s quiet, I will sing.”' He said that even when he was five years old. This was in the Covenant Club, a private Jewish social club in Duluth, on 2nd Avenue West, at 1st Street.
He started first grade at the Alice School. Our address was then 2323 3rd Avenue. My mother and dad lived there. We were there exactly one year, we wanted to give the people here time to move out. Their son lived in the basement. I went to all of their weddings, all of their confirmations, to their graduations, there was no religion here. They were all different faiths - Catholic, Lutheran and we were Jewish. We absolutely respected each other.
He was a gorgeous child who just exuded personality. He had very blond hair. I put ribbons in his hair up to a year old. I used to say to him, ''Bobby, you should have been a girl.” Here is a photograph with oil painting over it. He had gorgeous hair, like a halo. Here's a picture taken on his fourth birthday, everything had to match, all his clothes just had to be just so. He was clean. He didn't get dirty.
When he was born, I was in hospital for a few days. There was one false alarm before the birth. If it hadn't been for the best doctor in Duluth, Bobby would have been born dead, because I had a crooked bone at the end of my spine. I didn't know this. Only because I had the leading obstetrician in Duluth, the nuns told me that. He did operate, and it was a forced labour. Bobby was almost a 10 pound baby. (Note: Robert’s actual weight was 7 lb, 13 oz, 10 grams). As you can notice, even on this picture his head was large, he was a chubby little guy. He weighed 30 pounds at one year old.
After a week at the hospital I went home. I had a girl at home for about a year. I also had a nurse, because I was pretty sick with my spine. It was only after he got into high school that he began to dream and – scheme or sing. He was never detached from family or friends, But he dreamt a lot. He would go upstairs and dream that someday he would be famous and do something very different. He was going to dream what that was going to be.
Did he ever tell you the story, when he was five years old how he went with his grandma, Zimmerman, to the mother-son day affair, I couldn't go, David was very young. It was Mother's Day, 22 years ago (1947). Bob was just going to be five two weeks later. So he gets up, and they see this little codger get up with his tousled curly hair and he is going on the stage too, he stamps his foot up there – she makes the sound – and he commands attention and he says, “If everybody in this room will keep quiet I will sing for my grandmother Zimmerman. This is Mother's Day and I'm going to sing Some Sunny Morning. And he sang it and of course they tore the place apart. And then they clapped and he sang the other song – he didn't know much more. Well, our phone never stopped.
He would tell his grandmother, “Grandma, someday I'm going to be very famous. Grandma, you are never going to have to worry about anything.” This was when he was about ten or 11. He would tell his grandmother that she would never have to want for anything, because he would buy it for her. He said he was going to do something different. “I am going to make a lot of money and I know that I will give you anything you want.” Unfortunately, she never lived to see that come true. He was very good to my mother, both of my boys were. In fact, they still call it Grandma's room. It is still Grandma's room although she has been gone seven years. She was an unusual woman too, she lived here 15 years and I don’t think she ever had a cross word with the boys. We never had words in our house. All that father used to say to the boys was, “Look, you do as you’re told, there’s no talk, there is no question, just do as you’re told.”
We were more like friends. We'd tell them that they would have children of their own and they would want to be friends with them. We did not have anything to quarrel about because these two boys were not night-raiders. The only argument that we had - we would come in, David would be on the floor and this kid (Bobby) could lift the refrigerator, he was strong – and I was afraid that he would break a few bones. And I would say, “'Bobby, what are you doing to him? Why don’t you leave him alone, and you go upstairs, and you go downstairs.” That was when David was five and the “other one” was ten. And then they would go to bed and they would have a fairyshow on television, or something, and Bobby would say, “'I'm gonna get you tonight.” And he would scare the dickens out of the little one. The little one would never step out of his room. He would pull the covers over his head and go to sleep. Like I told both of them, it was a privilege to raise them because they were never any trouble. No-one was ever calling me and telling me that they were throwing rocks in the yard, or they were touching their dog, nothing but high regard in the whole neighbourhood for them. They didn't go out of their way to be a nuisance. He would come down here and pound and pound on the piano, and always Hank Williams. Hank Williams was always there. They'd leave the front door open and the whole neighbourhood would hear it. He never had the time to get in trouble. The kill was in the house or mowing the lawn or taking the garbage out.
Bobby was an artist, in fact, I thought that Bobby would be an architect. Oh, he loved it all the years. He was always drawing and painting. I thought he would be an artist or an architect. I tried to push architecture. I figured, at least he could make a living. From these poems, you are going to die and then be discovered. I told him these poems aren't going to make you a living. No, this wasn't in college, I didn't even talk to him in college, he was in and out so fast. That was in 10th grade, maybe 9th grade that I told him he couldn't make a living with his poems. Yes, he was writing poems in high school. He wouldn't show them to anybody, he would show them to me, to his dad – they were about the wind. I said to him you can't go on and on and on and sit and dream and write poems.
Buddy Holly, he mourned him, how he mourned him when he died. In his senior year, he fell off the honour roll three times. It was very unusual for Bobby. I told him that he had ruined all his chances. . . After three years, all of a sudden in the senior year he fell down. He said ''Oh, Mother, the honour roll isn’t everything,” He was the kind of kid, though, that was home a lot. Even graduation night, I had about a hundred people in for cocktails or something. I said, “Bob, are you going to be home from school? Because everyone wants to come over to wish you well.'' He said: ''Gee, Mother, I don't think so, don't have a big party for me.'' About three or four days before that party he said, “Mother, I'm not coming home at all.'' He said he was going out with the other boys. I said that he should come for 15 minutes because I wasn't going to call the party off. He came home and stayed here 'till 12 o'clock. It was a Friday night. About 2 or 2:15, as I was cleaning up the dishes with the cleaning woman, he returned. I asked him why he was home so early and he said there wasn't much doing elsewhere. He would tell you one thing and do another. He was a little contrary. He was always very courteous though. He was always a gentleman at all times Always nice to people. All the kids that Bobby and David went with were very nice kids, but there was nothing here for them.
When he first went to visit Bobby Vee, he and Bobby Vee were very good friends, you know, until Bobby Vee dumped him of course. Bobby Vee was in Fargo, North Dakota. Where did Bobby Vee dump him, out on the coast? Well, I mean, he wasn't too nice to him. It had to be junior or senior year, because he was Dylan when he got to Minneapolis the first year.
The minute Bobby graduated, he was off to Central City, Colorado, and to Denver. He was going out to scare, he didn't care how he was going to go. He took the bus – Central City was very exciting to him. I think there was a guy named Don Crawford, a Negro singer. I, myself, don't understand how a kid of that age can go away from here and keep his sanity and try to get into doing the things he wanted to do. Sometimes when you just sit down and think about it you wonder if it is possible.
In my poem that he wrote to me, I read the ones that he wrote to me when he was ten, with 18 stanzas. I read to the women. That was 17 years ago. These women are all dead and buried, but I must have had 20 of them crying, crying their eyes out. Those poems are in my drawers, but I promised him that I would never give them away to anyone. One of them I held so long, that the words are already off the paper. Bobby doesn't care now about having them read. He cared in the beginning. Now I could show it to the world but he still says, “Mother, never give that away.” There are some things that are sacred. He just said, “Mom, I have a present for you – it's a Mother's Day poem.” Then it was sketched and outlined, and there were phrasings. I remember there were 12 stanzas, not phrases. There were about five lines – then a gap, you know. It was on school paper, notebook paper. To my mother and how I took care of her, and how my shining face was in the light aIl the time. Everything rhymed, and how I put him to bed and how I kissed him goodnight – everything – where would I be, mother, if it were not for you? Probably six feet under, stuff like that. Everything rhymed. And the last stanza said:
My dear Mother I hope that you
Will never grow old and grey
So that people will say:
“Hello, young lady, Happy Mother’s Day.”
Everything was “Love, Bobby.” Everything was love.
All I can tell you is I hope all our friends and relatives are as happily married and have as nice a life as we have had, because we have had a very beautiful life. It has been very full. We've done a lot, we have not missed anything, really, in life.
He sent me $1000 one day in this kind of envelope – well, that's Bobby. It was to me, you know. Now, here is his card that he sent. Text on postcard sent from New York, 28 April 1961.
“Dear everybody – I've finished my time at Folk City now I am at the Gaslight in New York, too. My union costs were $128. It came out of my pay at FoIk City, I am now making $100 a week for five nights playing – that's not bad considering that three months ago I was unknown. I’ve already played the top place in New York for folk music. I will call home on Sunday at Aunt Irene's house. I don’t know if I can come home then – or when.” Beatty said he meant he didn't know when he could come home. “I am clean and I am brushing my teeth. Say hello to everybody for me. Love, Bob.”
We came home from Minneapolis once and somebody asked me if Bobby goes by the name of Bobby Dylan. I said that I didn't know. The next time he same home, I asked him: ''Bobby do you play the guitar and sing at Twin Cities?” He never needed money! He kept saying that he never needed money, that he had plenty of money. We knew that he played for himself, but professionally, we didn't know that anyone wanted to listen to him. And I told him: ''Somebody said that you go by the name of Bobby Dylan. Is there a place there called The Purple Onion? He said, “Yes, Mother, there is.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell us?” He said, “Oh, Mother, you wouldn’t like that name.” Dylan. Beatty: It was just another gimmick, and it's still a gimmick today. To this day five or six people a day ask me how my son pronounces his name. Did Albert really think that people aII over the world would believe that he was an orphan?
There was nothing here for him – what could he do here? There was an audience in Minneapolis, yes, but that wasn't tile audience he wanted. The audience he wanted was in New York. He knew it was either New York or California.
When we saw him at Carnegie Hall and Milwaukee he was already… At Carnegie Hall, when we saw the people that turned out, we were thunderstruck. We didn't know what to think. Is it possible? Is it a dream? Can anybody do these things? With no help at aII from anyone, really? You are mystified. I thought, oh my gosh! Then he sang With God On Our Side. He was a little ahead of his time. He knew more than he let on! He was quietly upstairs for 12 years becoming a writer. He read every book there was, he never bought really foolish comics, he would buy something in a comic that had meaning to it. He liked Classics Illustrated comics.
If he was to be an architect, he was going to be the very best of architects. He was going to go to New York and build something different. It wasn't going to be the general plan, it was going to be something different. If there was someone going to the moon, he was going to be that someone.
Beatty Zimmerman’s banana bread recipe
Sandy Thompson of the Duluth News-Tribune interviewed Beatty Zimmerman, June 30, 1999 and Beatty Zimmerman shared this recipe.
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine, softened
2 eggs 4 tablespoons sour cream
2 ripe bananas, mashed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 (6-ounce) package chocolate chips (or up to 12 ounces, if desired)
2 medium disposable foil loaf pans (about 8-by-3-by-2 inches)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the sugar and butter. Add the eggs and beat well. Add the sour cream and ripe bananas; mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the dry mixture to the sour cream mixture, then fold in the chocolate chips. Divide the batter between two greased loaf pans. Bake for about 50 minutes. Turn the loaves out on to cooling rack or aluminum foil as soon as they’re done.