A new book promises to shed more light on music legend’s summer days in Burnett County
Gary King | Editor
WEBSTER – For some locals there undoubtedly still exists a fascination and mystic quality about stories of the legendary musician Bob Dylan and the time he spent as a teen at a summer camp in Burnett County.
It’s easy to imagine the enigmatic wordsmith sitting next to a campfire by a lake, strumming a guitar and making up the lyrics to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” on the fly as fellow campers swayed to and fro.
With all due respect to mystic, it didn’t all go down quite like that.
Dylan did attend a summer camp for Jewish youngsters on Devils Lake – three weeks each August from 1954 to 1958 – and he did sing to fellow campers. But that was before he penned any of his hit songs and before he became one of the most influential poet/songwriters of the 20th century.
To his fellow campers in Burnett County back in the 1950s, he was Robert “Bobby” Zimmerman. And his fans would be glad to know he didn’t just follow the campfire routine but performed on a different level altogether.
“My recollection of Bob Dylan is of a young man sitting on the roof of one of the cabins, strumming on a guitar and singing loudly with his characteristic high-pitched nasal twang,” Joel Unowsky, a former counselor at Herzl Camp, wrote in a letter to the editor published by momentmag.com.
On more than one occasion Dylan and a half dozen other campers climbed to the roof of the shower house, pulling their ladders up after them. They sang and taunted the counselors from on high.
“Bobby just about took over the whole camp that year – I thought they were going to send him home,” Dylan’s father, Abe Zimmerman, told biographer Robert Shelton.
Unowsky remembered Dylan as “an intelligent and friendly kid who was well-liked by his fellow campers and counselors” who spent most of his time playing his guitar and opting out of most of the camp activities. Aside from music, swimming was his favorite pastime there.
Dylan arrived at camp each summer from his hometown of Hibbing, Minn., at least one time on a motorcycle with his guitar slung over his shoulder. The motorcycle was a gift from his parents in exchange for attending the camp. The 150-mile trek likely included a stretch on old Hwy. 61, a road he would later iconify.
Dylan biographers and worshipers acknowledge Herzl was a training ground for the legend but Dylan himself has said
little if anything in print or song about it – and only a handful of those who were there have gone on record. So is there anything else to say about Dylan’s accumulative 60 or so days at Herzl Camp?
Another Dylan bio, but different
A book expected to be published later this year, titled “The Boys from the North Country: My Life with Robert Zimmerman and Bob Dylan,” may offer one of the more comprehensive collections of memories of Dylan’s time at Herzl Camp – and beyond.
Co-authored by Kinky Friedman and Louis Kemp, longtime friends and cohorts of Dylan, the book is told from Kemp’s perspective with several pages devoted to his and Dylan’s time at the camp, which remains to this day one of the most celebrated summer camps for Jewish children in the Upper Midwest, if not the entire nation.
“What the world needs today is another book on Bob Dylan,” drawled Friedman from his ranch in Texas, sarcasm almost eclipsed by his serious delivery. A humorist, musician and author – not to mention former candidate for governor of Texas and columnist for Texas Monthly magazine – Friedman first met Dylan when he and his band joined the second leg of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-1970s. He cordially offered up what he described as a “teaser” for the new Dylan book, noting it’s a bit early to launch a full-blown marketing effort.
“This book will be quite different,” Friedman said, “because almost all the other (books on Dylan) are by people who never met the man.” He described the adventures in the book as “amazing,” beginning with the early years at Herzl Camp, a time which has been credited with fostering Dylan’s guitar, piano, harmonica and performing talents.
“That’s where a lot of it started,” Friedman said. “There’s a chapter with Bobby on the roof at the camp and performing with the kids from the rec hall.”
Picture Dylan standing at the piano, entertaining fellow campers with his imitation of Jerry Lee Lewis.
The book follows the friendship between Dylan and Kemp from childhood to the present.
“Louie was Bob’s childhood toboggan companion,” Friedman said, “and they’ve remained close ever since. I see these stories kind of like a Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer adventure – Louie was a champion boxer up there in Minnesota – he was the protector and Bob the dreamer and leader – slightly older. Theirs is a 50-year, heroic friendship.”
Among the numerous stories is the 1959 adventure where Kemp and Dylan go to a Buddy Holly concert in Duluth, a stop on Holly’s fateful final tour, and Dylan gets within a few feet of the stage and makes eye contact with Holly, something Dylan has described in previous interviews in near-spiritual terms.
Kemp would go on to be a successful businessman, establishing Kemp Fisheries. Friedman said Dylan somehow convinced Kemp into managing the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in the mid-’70s. Kemp ended up supplying smoked salmon from his Alaska fishery for the band’s 1976 farewell concert, “The Last Waltz.”
Fans who take an interest in Dylan’s spiritual life are hoping the book will shed more light on Kemp’s role in helping Dylan return to the faith of his ancestors after dabbling with Christianity in the 1970s. Friedman did not offer any information on that but did note the Passover seder in California to which Kemp invited both Dylan and Marlon Brando, obtaining last-minute invitations using aliases for both. The surprise request by the rabbi to both stars following the ceremony and their responses will be in the book.
Dylan’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants and his Jewish upbringing led to his four-year stint at Jewish summer camp. His mother, Beatrice, as noted in one biography, wanted him to attend Herzl Camp to “meet other nice Jewish girls and boys.”
Besides taking an interest in girls at the camp, “Bob and Louie” developed other mutual male friendships, including Howard Rutman and Larry Kegan. Rutman, Kegan and Dylan later would form what may have been Dylan’s first music group, The Jokers, which performed at high school dances and other venues in the Twin Cities.
Return to Devils Lake
About 20 years after his time at the camp Dylan would return to Herzl at least once when one of his children – Marie or Jakob – was enrolled at the camp. Perhaps both. There are no records, according to Herzl Camp, to verify that or the story that found its way into cyberspace about Dylan performing on the shore of Devils Lake during his return visit.
Now 75, Dylan seems to only be enhancing his legend, winning a Nobel Prize in Literature last year, the first musician to win the award – and releasing his 38th studio album, “Triplicate,” a three-disc collection, his third album in a row of standards from the Great American Songbook and some of his new songs.
And he recently broke silence about “the North Country” where he grew up – Duluth and northern Minnesota – in an interview on his website noting differences between northern and southern Minnesota and the music scene he experienced in Minneapolis immediately following his summer camp years.
Just a few weeks ago Rolling Stone magazine reported handwritten lyrics from an unpublished Dylan song about Wisconsin, from 1961, were to be auctioned off. The lyrics begin, “Wisconson (sic) is the dairy state/I guess you all know well/I was in Wow Wow Toaster there (Wauwatosa)/The truth to you I’ll tell/It’s milk and cheese and cream.”
Dylan got a bit more serious about his songwriting that year after settling in New York City and signing a record deal with Columbia Records. By 1963 he was writing songs that included, “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
Some fans of Friedman have posted that his co-authoring the new book is a selling point in itself.
Richard Friedman, who got the nickname “Kinky” due to his curly hair as a child, also goes by “the Kinkster.” He’s 72 and still active in music and writing. He said he agreed to get involved in the Dylan book to act as Kemp’s “spiritual trainer,” helping him stay on track in assembling stories he calls “pretty out there but completely true.”
Friedman has an irrepressible and irreverent wit and some of his quotes aren’t exactly what most would label politically correct. The “Kinkster” has written a string of successful detective books, operates a large animal sanctuary on his ranch and is a purveyor of cigars and tequila, namely Man in Black tequila. “It’s not your father’s tequila or your grandfather’s tequila … it’s your grandfather’s gardener’s tequila,” he said.
This spring he launched a 33-date tour – “The Resurrection Tour” – with his band, with one of the stops being the Turf Club in St. Paul in May.
During the interview about the book Friedman accidentally said “Willie” when he meant “Louie,” offering an apology, explaining that “Willie is my therapist.” Eventually it became evident that he was referring to fellow songwriter Willie Nelson.
Friedman credits Nelson with getting him to start writing songs again.
“He called me about a year ago and he asked me what I was doing,” Friedman said. “I told him I was watching ‘Matlock’ on TV. He said, “You know, watching ‘Matlock’ is the first sign of depression. You need to start writing, right now.’
Friedman said he did and just a few months ago he called Nelson who was in Hawaii and asked him how things were going. “He said, ‘a little up, a little down.’ After talking a bit he paused and said, ‘Hey Kinky, what channel is Matlock on?’ I thought that was pretty good – he remembered our conversation from a year go.”
Friedman also agreed to tell a Bob Dylan story.
“There are so many of them,” he said, before recalling the time he and Dylan sat next to each other on a plane and on the other side of Dylan was a woman who eventually recognized who she was sitting next to. “She was mildly hysterical,” Friedman said. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe who I’m sitting next to … ‘ This went on for a while and Bob finally turned to her and said calmly, ‘Pinch yourself.’”
“The Boys from the North Country: My Life with Robert Zimmerman and Bob Dylan,” will shed a lot more light on the man the New York Times once described as someone who “remains hidden in plain sight … confounding fans interested in his personal life for more than four decades.”
The book will also feature some great photos, says Friedman, never before published photos from Kemp’s collection.
And he added one small footnote: the title of the book could still end up changing.
“We have about five working titles,” Friedman said, adding that the book is essentially finished and that Dylan will read it before it is released.
“What Bob thinks, only God knows.”