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Bob Dylan: Cultural icon, influential songwriter and UMN alum

The distinguished folk singer-songwriter attended UMN for one semester in 1959, before starting his career as a musician.
Graphic by Ava Weinreis
A recording from Dylan’s UMN days was donated in 2005 to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The most famous figure in pop culture to ever attend the University of Minnesota, Bob Dylan, enrolled at the College of Science, Literature and Arts in the fall of 1959. 

After moving away from his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan lived in Minneapolis for about a year before he would kick start his legendary music career by moving to New York City in January of 1961.

While Dylan’s arrival in New York signified the start of a momentous musical career, it is worth noting Minneapolis was where Dylan started to perform under his now-famous stage name, Bob Dylan, instead of his birth name, Robert Zimmerman. 

Dylan began to perform at Twin Cities coffee shops and honed his craft as a songwriter and performer when he relocated to Minneapolis and found musical inspiration.

In his 2004 memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan cited locations he performed at: “I was making three to five dollars every time I played at either one of the coffeehouses around or another place over in St. Paul called the Purple Onion pizza parlor.”

In a 1966 article by Playboy, it was also documented that “he began singing and playing the guitar and harmonica at Minneapolis’ Ten O’Clock Scholar for two dollars a night; it is said that when he asked for a raise to five dollars, he was fired.”

Decades later, Dylan would go on to sell over 100 million albums worldwide and in 2016 won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

To this day, Dylan’s time at the University is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and rumor, as his life was not extensively documented by journalists until after he made his move to New York City.

One source from 1966, a journalist who interviewed Dylan for Playboy, wrote, “young Zimmerman did manage to finish high school, and went on to spend about six months at the University of Minnesota in 1960.” 

However, another source, cited by the Star Tribune in 2007, said they confirmed with the University, “Robert Zimmerman was registered for four quarters — fall of ‘59 through fall of ‘60 — and declared music as his major.”

Amidst these conflicting reports, all that is known for certain is that Dylan attended the University from 1959 to 1960, as confirmed on an archived University site, meaning Dylan dropped out sometime in 1960, before his move to New York City.

Dylan himself eventually provided some details of his time at the University in his 2004 memoir.

Dylan lived in a Dinkytown apartment during his time as a University student in a building that, at the time, housed Gray’s Campus Drug and would later be occupied by Loring Pasta Bar and recently Gray’s Restaurant.

Dylan detailed his less-than-glamorous apartment in his memoir: “The room above Gray’s drugstore cost thirty bucks a month. It was an okay place and I could easily afford it.”

“Above Gray’s, the crash pad was no more than an empty storage room with a sink and a window looking into an alley. No closet or anything. Toilet down the hall. I put a mattress on the floor, bought a used dresser, plugged in a hot plate on top of that — used the outside window ledge as a refrigerator when it got cold,” Dylan wrote.

One aspect of Dylan the college student that might surprise some is that he was a member of a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu (whose building is now housed by the Alpha Chi Omega sorority).

“I’d come into Minneapolis unnoticed, I rode in on a Greyhound bus,” Dylan wrote in his memoir. “My mother had given me an address for a fraternity house on University Avenue. My cousin Chucky, whom I just slightly knew, had been the fraternity president.”

Dylan went on to describe his surroundings in Dinkytown at the turn of the 1960s decade in his memoir.

“The area around the university was known as Dinkytown, which was kind of like a little Village, untypical from the rest of conventional Minneapolis. It was mostly filled with Victorian houses that were being used as student apartments,” Dylan wrote.

While near the University, Dylan managed to find musical inspiration.

“I found the local record store in the heart of Dinkytown. What I was looking for were folk music records and the first one I saw was Odetta on the Tradition label. I went into the listening booth to hear it. Odetta was great. I had never heard of her until then. She was a deep singer, powerful strumming and a hammering-on style of playing. I learned almost every song off the record right then and there, even borrowing the hammering-on style,” Dylan wrote.

Miraculously, a recording of Dylan’s during his coffee house performing days has survived all these decades later. 

A live recording of Dylan from 1960, while he was enrolled at the University, known as the “Minnesota Party Tape” was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society archives in 2005. According to the Star Tribune, the tape, featuring a 19-year-old Dylan performing cover songs, was recorded in Dinkytown.

While not necessarily the most monumental or well-documented era of Dylan’s career, his short time as a college student is a piece of the University’s history.

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