Summer With a Young Bobby Zimmerman

by Pam Price October 24, 2016


dylanTurning back the pages of Herzl Camp, a popular Zionist enclave in Webster, Wis., reveals a chapter in Bob Dylan’s history that predates his reign as the most poetic voice in rock ‘n roll. The youth camp, located 100 miles from the Twin Cities, was founded in 1946 by a group of ardent Zionists from St. Paul, Minn., who saw potential for Jewish kids to explore the great outdoors in a town with a population of 502.

This founding of Herzl Camp  made  an inimitable impact on Midwestern Jewish culture, and the story has found its way into  a book-in-progress, to be published by Random House, called “The Boys from the North Country.” The author is former Herzl camper Louie Kemp. In the forthcoming memoir, it is revealed that Bobby Zimmerman – a.k.a. Bob Dylan, from Hibbing, Minn. – registered at Herzl Camp in 1954, the year he met Kemp, who hailed from Duluth. As these two small town Jewish boys shared the same rustic cabin for three weeks in the Wisconsin woods (which cost just $165 for the whole session!), a long friendship blossomed. That connection, rooted in those carefree days, endures like the memories of so many Jewish summer-campers throughout the U.S.

Bob and Louie continued to meet up at summer camp for a few years, and I was there too eventually, in a different dorm of course, but always wanting to be involved in the action. It was the summer of 1957 that stands out as the most raucous of all the years.

“Herzl was a Zionist-inspired camp and Israeli songs were part of the program,” Kemp recalls.

But by that summer of ’57, Bob Zimmerman was playing a different tune. His guitar was his constant companion, and it was clear Zionist songs were not to be his calling.

After camp that year, Bob and a group of us from Herzl spent the remaining long summer days in Highland Park, the Twin Cities’ Jewish neighborhood, mostly watching Bob jam on any available piano or guitar he could get his hands on. October 13 is a date I’ll always remember.

There was an impromptu basement party at a friend’s house that quickly expanded to my cousin’s living room – there was a Baldwin piano there and Bob was in the mood to sing.

Bob Dylan was already making people uncomfortable with his new rockin’ brand of rhythm and blues. Aunt Bess and Uncle Teddy were quite traditional and the verses that came out of Bobby that day are still unfit to mention in a story such as this.

An excerpt from my diary dated Oct. 13, 1957 reads “Zimmerman was looking at
Judith [my cousin] while he was singing one of his songs. … So, he likes her!”

My instincts were proven right when Bob accepted her invitation to the B’nai B’rith Girls dance that November. I still remember the “Milton J. Blumenfeld” color photo that
sat on her dresser for ages – it showed Bob Dylan in a solid black suit and pink ruffled shirt, the only one with such a bold style which would come to define his career not too long after that photo was taken.

It’s memories like these that keep camp and the excitement of adolescence alive for years long after they’re both gone.

When Bob Zimmerman left the Twin Cities for New York in 1961, Louie Kemp eventually caught up with him and in 1975-76 managed Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Review” tour. Kemp’s family, established
in Duluth’s fishing industry, conveniently “provided the smoked salmon”  for the Review’s Thanksgiving dinner. Later, in the 1980s, Kemp lived with Bob for three years, as chronicled in Seth Rogovoy’s “The Rogovoy Report.”

Kemp eventually sired six children producing four grandchildren. He remains an advocate of  Jewish summer camp. In retrospect he says, “This is where children realize opportunities and life experiences away from home, in a  Jewish environment.”

Reflecting on his Jewish camp experience of more than 60 years ago, Kemp reaffirms that “children will find fundamental opportunities to  grow in mind and soul while being exposed to Jewish experiences away from home.”

The bottom line, he says, with a wise smile, is that “the skills kids might otherwise not experience from camp can impact their life and friendships in ways they could never imagine.”

In his case, it was a Jewish camp deep in the Wisconsin woods that established a deep friendship and the stories of a lifetime.

Pam Price, from St. Paul, Minn., is a contributor to the San Diego Jewish Journal.

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