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BJ taught Bob Dylan, but he was a legend in his own right

PUBLISHED: 14:53 11 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:22 07 September 2010

YOU probably won t have heard of BJ Rolfzen, but before his death last week aged 86, he had earned his own footnote in the turbulent history of modern America. Back in the 1950s, when a young student called Robert Zimmerman began to take a serious interes

YOU probably won't have heard of BJ Rolfzen, but before his death last week aged 86, he had earned his own footnote in the turbulent history of modern America.

Back in the 1950s, when a pensive student called Robert Zimmerman began to take a serious interest in literature, Boniface Rolfzen was the young teacher who introduced his even-younger pupil to Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Byron, the English writers he loved.

In later life, BJ would often recall what would become a famous Hibbing High School concert when 'young Robert' scandalised the audience with his howling, piano-pounding tribute to Little Richard. He would later be asked to recount the story in countless documentaries because a couple of years later, that young student would change his name to Bob Dylan. The rest is history.

BJ's Dylan connection brought him many visitors to his Hibbing home but for those who grew to know him, as was my privilege, we soon learned that he was a legend in his own right. Many an hour I spent with him in his basement hideaway, poring over his vast poetry collection. Although he admired Dylan's work greatly, BJ was just thrilled to have someone to entertain from the Land of Shakespeare.

I especially remember him asking me, at the age of 80-something, to teach him how to play the harmonica 'the way Robert plays it' - as if I could. He kept himself up to date on everything Dylan was doing and when they met at a Hibbing funeral several years ago, Dylan made BJ's day by putting an arm around him and saying: 'This man taught me a lot.'

I was convinced that Dylan was remembering BJ in his relatively recent song 'Too Much To Ask' when he refers to sitting 'up next to the teacher if you can, if you wanna learn anything'. The boy Zimmerman did indeed sit up close in his Hibbing High School literature class and the very next line of the song, which may seem entirely unconnected in the way that Dylan does, refers directly to Romeo and Juliet. And where did Dylan first hear of Romeo and Juliet but sitting up front in BJ's class.

Once, in one of our afternoon sessions in his basement hideaway, BJ reverently produced all of Dylan's early albums - gifts from the great man himself, their covers as pristine as the day they were minted.

Except for one. I couldn't help noticing that in one of the poems which make up the sleeve notes for Another Side of Bob Dylan, BJ had carefully encircled, in blood red ink, an errant apostrophe.

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Geoff Martin


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