On August 2nd, 1962, civilisation would change forever when a 21-year-old Minnesotan called Robert Allen Zimmerman would make the decision to be now known as Bob Dylan. It may have felt like a small moment at the time but little did he know it would soon become a moment in history.
Zimmerman’s bold decision to change his name to Bob Dylan wasn’t the first time that he had performed under a different alias. The growing folkie first gained a notable reputation whilst going by the name of Elston Gunn as well as variations on his birth name such as Robert Allen. But it was on Bob Dylan that he would eventually settle.
Whilst Zimmerman was still performing in his local area, before he escaped for the bright lights of New York City, the pseudonym allowed him the mask of anonymity. It meant that whilst he played on stage he could morph into a brand new character which he created. It not only allowed him to perform songs without a care for repercussions but it also gave him a fleeting escape from himself.
“The Elston Gunn name thing was only temporary,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just called myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was – that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king, and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.”
The Dylan moniker was one that stuck but it did have a couple of different variations before he landed on the perfect formula, such as Bob Dillon which originated all the way back in 1959, when Zimmerman was only 18-years-old.
“The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities,” he noted in Chronicles, “I instinctively and automatically, without thinking, simply said: ‘Bob Dylan.’ Now, I had to get used to people calling me Bob.” That instinctive decision would turn out to be one of the best things that Zimmerman would ever do and if you told him that almost 60 years on he’d be revered as one of the greatest artists who ever lived under the name of Bob Dylan — he would almost certainly believe it.
Some people incorrectly believe that Dylan’s name is a tribute to the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas but on many occasions over the years, he has denied this, even on one occasion stating he barely rates Thomas’ work which he has since retracted. “Dylan Thomas’ poetry is for people that aren’t really satisfied in their bed – for people who dig masculine romance,” Dylan once told The New York Times.
“I didn’t change my name in honour of Dylan Thomas, that’s just a story,” he told Jules Siegel in 1966 before brutally adding. “I’ve done more for Dylan Thomas than he’s ever done for me,” he added.
Thomas did, in fact, have a part to play in the creation of the name but as Dylan wrote himself in Chronicles it was more of a subconscious influence that came from him reading a lot of his work when he created the moniker, rather than a tribute.
“I had suspected that the musician changed the spelling of Allen to Allyn,” Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “I could see why. It looked more exotic, more inscrutable. I was going to do this too. Instead of Robert Allen, it would be Robert Allyn. Then, sometime later, unexpectedly, I’d seen some poems by Dylan Thomas,” he added.
“Dylan and Allyn sounded similar: Robert Dylan, Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide – the letter D came on stronger. But Robert Dylan didn’t look or sound as good as Robert Allyn. People had always called me either Robert or Bobby, but Bobby Dylan sounded to skittish to me, and besides, there was already a Bobby Darin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Dydell, a Bobby Neely and a lot of other Bobbys,” Dylan continued.
This identity he created allowed Dylan to form a guise for his music which gave him the perfect cover to become the world’s greatest storyteller and gave him the confidence he needed in the early days to start on a clean slate as the bohemian character Bob Dylan, that we all love so dearly today.