In 1960, a Hibbing, Minn., shop owner’s son dropped out of college. Robert’s grades had plummeted (D- in Music Appreciation). Late nights found Robert at the off-campus “10 o’clock Scholar” coffee house, appreciating Woody Guthrie records, e.g., “This Land is Your Land.” Hooked, Robert hitchhiked to New York to meet Woody and start over as a troubadour.

Starting over was a Zimmerman family tradition: Robert’s paternal grandparents were Russian Jews who fled to America to escape anti-Semitic pogroms.

Robert rose as a singer/songwriter, but refused to let people define him as a political prophet. Times changed. So did Robert, switching from acoustic to electric guitar. Some accused him of selling out. He played on, including explicitly Christian songs like Saving Grace (“It gets discouraging at times, / But I know I’ll make it / By the saving grace that’s over me.”) and Serve Somebody (“You may be an ambassador to England or France …You may be the heavyweight champion of the world … But you’re gonna have to serve somebody / … Well, it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”) Some fans booed. Still he played on.

In 2011, when China’s government let Robert perform in Shanghai, a New York Times columnist falsely accused him of letting Communist dictators censor him. Actually, Robert “Zimmy” Zimmerman—better known as Bob Dylan—played his standard set list, opening with “Change My Way of Thinking”: “Gonna change my way of thinking / Make myself a different set of rules / Gonna put my best foot forward. / Stop being influenced by fools.” We get the joke, Bob.

This summer in rural towns like Grangeville, alumni gather for reunions. Some may feel tempted to pretend to be what we simply are not: ageless, flawless, and frozen in time. Before becoming anxious, we can take a clue from Zimmy’s back pages. Bob Dylan remembered who—and learned whose—he is. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the Heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Gary Altman


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