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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Sept. 27, 2023

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Girls from the North Country

The boy who became Bob Dylan used to hang out with these sorority sisters

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
7 Photos
Vancouver resident Julie Sauer displays an autograph from her old friend, music legend Bob Dylan, at her home last month.
Vancouver resident Julie Sauer displays an autograph from her old friend, music legend Bob Dylan, at her home last month. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

How many myths can a man spin up, and can you still call him a man?

Yes, ‘n’ how many girls can a singer sponge off, when his voice sounds like a tin can?

Yes, ‘n’ how many years will they recall the days when he was Bobby Zimmerman?

The answer, my friend, is Bob Dylan. The answer is Bob Dylan.

Apologies to the living legend, but he’s used to this kind of thing. In fact, the folkie-turned-rock-star-turned-Nobel-Prize-laureate has brought it on himself, with an astonishingly prolific output that’s matched only by his endlessly mysterious, elusive, ambiguous self.

At last count, Bob Dylan has released 37 studio and 11 live albums as well as a steady stream of bootlegs and outtakes — with an exhaustive triple-disc box of American songbook standards coming out in March. But, at age 75, he’s become almost as famous for his reclusive, publicity-avoiding and just-plain-weird persona as for folk anthems such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and rock epics such as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Julie Sauer's story, in her words

The guy from Hibbing who played guitar and sang

When Dylan stunned the cultural world last year by winning the Nobel Prize for literature, he mailed in a sweet thank-you speech but didn’t show up in person to collect the award. When director Todd Haynes made a fictionalized movie about Dylan in 2007, he cast six different actors — including one woman — to play the singer’s many selves, from druggy rocker to holy roller to country gentleman. The movie’s very on-point name was “I’m Not There.”

But Bob Dylan was definitely there, at the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota, in the winter of 1960, according to Salmon Creek resident Julie Sauer. Except he wasn’t Bob Dylan then. He was a local kid named Bobby Zimmerman — a scrawny small-town beatnik whose so-called singing voice was a razor-sharp twang. That voice was despised by the owner of The Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse where Zimmerman regularly played and regularly got the boot. He relocated to another place called The Bastille and took his fans with him.

Those fans included Sauer and her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters, who all sensed something special in Bobby Zimmerman.

“He was very charismatic. We all liked him a lot. We respected and admired him,” Sauer said.

They had no problem with his unique voice, which seemed exactly right for the earnest, soulful songs of protest he was starting to write, she said.

“He was always very focused on the music. He was always learning everything he could. He was a musical sponge,” Sauer said.

One of her sorority sisters, Cynthia Fisher, was already an accomplished guitarist, and Sauer thinks Zimmerman may have learned some songs and picking techniques from her. Fisher was the one who first brought Zimmerman around to the Theta house — where he irritated the house mother by banging on the piano and singing gospel tunes, as well as by sponging free food off the house dinners. His friends sneaked him plates out the back door, according to Sauer.

Zimmerman told them he was contemplating a name change, Sauer said. The girls urged him to reject “Dylan Stone,” the latter his mother’s maiden name. They preferred his other idea, “Bob Dylan,” and that’s what he started going by.

Dylan and his sorority fan club loved sitting around with guitars and ukeleles, singing folk standards such as “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Riding in My Car,” the latter an original song by Dylan’s musical hero, Woody Guthrie.

Some see it as a turning point in cultural history when Bob Dylan decided to trek to New York City to worship the hospitalized Guthrie. (Guthrie suffered a long, slow decline with Huntington’s disease and died in 1967.) Sauer may have played an instrumental role in that: She said Dylan asked her for a ride to the nearby railway station in January 1961. She dropped him off, she said. But she’s not certain that that’s when he famously headed east; according to a Rolling Stone magazine article that ran on Jan. 24, 2011, entitled “Fifty Years Ago Today: Bob Dylan Arrived in New York,” Dylan drove the whole way with fellow folksinger Fred Underhill.

At any rate, Julie Sauer never saw Bob Dylan again.

Which one?

But her daughter, Linda, saw him decades later while working as a United flight attendant. Dylan and his entourage were getting off a plane in New Zealand and Linda couldn’t help calling out to him in the terminal: “My mom knew you at the University of Minnesota!”

Dylan’s handlers ignored that, but the rock star stopped and said hello. “Which one was your mother?” he asked. And he pulled out a piece of paper and autographed it — “to Julie.”

“That’s the only indication since 1961 that he might have remembered us much,” Sauer said.

Sauer remembers, but she hasn’t exactly kept up. She’s a folk music lover but not a Dylan superfan; she owns a couple of “greatest hits” CDs and has not attended a concert since Bob Dylan was Bobby Zimmerman.

What’s her favorite Dylan song? She has to think about it. “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” maybe?

• Bob Dylan vaulted to fame after The New York Times reviewed his appearance at Gerde's Folk City, calling him "a bright new face in folk music," "busting at the seams with talent," and, of course, with a voice that's "anything but pretty." He was 20 years old.

• "Like a Rolling Stone" has topped numerous lists of the greatest rock 'n' roll songs of all time.

• Bob Dylan was booed by folk purists when he started playing with an electric rock band in 1965.

• After Dylan was in a serious motorcycle accident in 1966, he withdrew from touring and returned to a simpler, acoustic sound. He has been changing sounds and styles ever since.

Making myths

About a decade ago, the sisters of Kappa Alpha Theta started combining their memories of Bobby Zimmerman. They wrote a short article as a group, but somehow it didn’t get snapped up by The New York Times Magazine.

The humble Columbian, however, was happy to receive Julia Sauer’s individual tale of her memories of Bobby Zimmerman. It was originally intended for our “Everybody Has a Story” column, but we decided it warranted more attention than the bottom of the Neighbors page on a random Wednesday.

We also had to fact-check it as best we could. We sent a copy of Sauer’s story to Bob Dylan’s management for confirmation, but we’re not holding our breath. We also read up on obscure details of Dylan’s Minnesota days, and quizzed and cross-checked Sauer and her memories until we became convinced that she’s no fame-seeking fraudster.

It’s impossible to verify the absolute accuracy of Sauer’s tale of yet another side of Bob Dylan. But that seems perfectly appropriate. What’s one more myth for this quintessential American mythmaker?

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