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Why did Bob Dylan change his name? Exploring Anti-semitism and acceptance in 1960s showbusiness


People sometimes assume that Bob Dylan changed his name for artistic reasons; that ditching ‘Zimmerman’ allowed the folk star to morph into a different person on stage and explore aspects of himself that would have otherwise been unreachable. We like to imagine that, like David Bowie, Dylan’s decision to change his name was grounded in creativity, not fear. And while that’s a much more palatable idea, it completely underplays the prevalence of antisemitism in post-war America and the impact that anti-Jewish sentiment had on some of the 1960s most prominent musicians, actors, and entertainers.

In 1971, Bob Dylan gave a TV interview that was never broadcast and was subsequently lost. It was only in 2020 that the transcripts resurfaced. What the interview reveals is that Dylan felt the American public wouldn’t have accepted a Jewish folk singer trying to replicate the songs of blue-collar Christian’s like Woody Guthrie. This, he suggests, was the main motivation behind his decision to abandon his Jewish surname. “I mean, it wouldn’t’ve worked if I’d changed the name to Bob Levy. Or Bob Neuwirth. Or Bob Doughnut,” he began. “A lot of people are under the impression that Jews are just money lenders and merchants. A lot of people think that all Jews are like that. Well, they used to because that’s all that was open to them. That’s all they were allowed to do”.

It wasn’t just Dylan who felt motivated to change his name to get on. A whole generation of Jewish musicians and entertainers adopted American surnames. Lou Reed, for example, changed his name from Rabinowitz; while Melvin Kaminsky (Mel Brooks), Allan Konigsberg (Woody Allen), and Jeffry Ross Hyman (Joey Ramone), also decided to keep their Jewish roots a secret. One of the few artists to buck the trend was Leonard Cohen, who, in his 1974 track ‘Lover Lover Lover’, sings: “I said, ‘Father change my name / The one I’m using now it’s covered up / with fear and filth and cowardice and shame / ‘I cannot change your name’ he said / He said, ‘it is my human work/ ‘Your name is mine’ he said Though you may repeat it like a mocking bird.'”

But still, the question remains: why did this generation feel compelled to hide their Jewish identity? I always assumed that America had welcomed Jewish migrants fleeing persecution in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s with open arms. The Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, for example, escaped Germany for America and wound up teaching at The University of Southern California between 1935–36. He was, it should be noted, already an established figure by the time he relocated – something that, as is so often the case, may have made the public more willing to adopt him as a pioneer of modern ‘American’ musical aesthetics. For the majority of Jewish migrants, however, America was far from welcoming. By 1924, two million Jews had made the crossing from Central and Eastern Europe. Anti-immigration feelings soon boiled over, leading to severe restrictions on immigration from areas of Europe with a significant Jewish population. If it wasn’t for the hard work of the Jewish community in the 1930s, the American government wouldn’t have even allowed Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to set foot on American soil. There was a brief interlude after the defeat of the Nazi’s in 1945 when these restrictions were lifted, but they were quickly re-imposed, remaining in effect until 1965.

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, anti-semitism was never far away, especially in Hollywood, where Jewish film moguls were frequently the subjects of violent attacks. It’s telling that F.W’s Murnau’s vampire film Nosferatu – a movie grounded in the anti-jewish sentiment of Weimer Germany – was such a huge success when it came to America, coinciding with the stock market crash of 1929. Then there are the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, a popular radio personality, who used his broadcasts to criticise what he felt was disproportionate media interest in Kristallnacht when Joseph Stalin had murdered “20 million Christians” in Russia: “Why, then, was there this silence on the radio and in the press?” Coughlin cries, “Ask the gentlemen who control the three national radio chains; ask those who dominate the destinies of the financially inspired press – surely these Jewish gentlemen and others must have been ignorant of the facts or they would have had a symposium in those dark days.”

In the 1950s, when America was falling in love with rock ‘n’ roll, McCarthyism linked Jews with communism. Unsurprisingly, six of the ten directors, screenwriters, and producers held in contempt of court for denying communist sympathies were Jewish. This entrenched paranoia had an impact on the way American Jews conducted themselves in the public sphere, Michael Billig argues in his book Rock ‘n’ Roll Jews: “Anti-Semitism led to a fear of appearing too Jewish in public”. This motivated most of the American music industry’s biggest names to hide their Jewish identity. Many of whom were around long before Dylan, including the writer of that timeless mainstay of middle-American festivities, ‘White Christmas’, penned by Israel Baline, otherwise known as Irving Berlin. When Dylan changed his name from Zimmerman, 30 years later on his relocation to New York, he was only doing what everyone else had done before him.

But with the arrival of the 1960s, things started to change. In the world of entertainment, the era of all-American comedy acts gave way to the more self-deprecating charms of Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, and Lenny Bruce – all of whom explored the idea of Jewishness (and indeed atheism) in their acts to hilarious effect. Labelled “the Jewish style” by Esquire’s Wallace Markfield in 1965, their brand of humour, with its, “heavy reliance upon Yiddish and Yiddishisms,” quickly took America by storm.

Following the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, middle Americans started to engage with the Holocaust on the printed page and on the big screen as well. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Pawnbroker (1965), and the film adaptation of The Diary Of Anne Frank (1959) were released at a time when Jewish-American writing was going through something of a golden age of its own, marked by the publication of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964), Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night (1968) and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) amongst others. The ’60s saw a huge shift in the perception of Jew and Judaism in America. The irony is that just two years after Zimmerman changed his name to Dylan, a folk duo comprised of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had to be actively persuaded by one of the only black producer’s at Columbia Records not to change their names to something more Americanised.

And yet, with all that progress, the American music industry still contains seeds of the anti-jewish conspiratorial thinking that characterised Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts. In 2020, for example, music producer Mark Ronson criticised a journalist for The Voice newspaper, who, in an interview with Wiley, wrote: “You need to get a Jewish lawyer in order to progress in the music business”. Responding via a tweet, Ronson wrote: “Jews do not run the music business in some secret cabal (and if they do it’s mad fucked up I haven’t been invited yet)”. Clearly, there is a way to go before America rids itself of what seems to be an entrenched paranoia of its Jewish population. Perhaps Dylan understood that progress is not a straight line, but a fluid scrawl that doubles back on itself, an ongoing dialogue between past and present.

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