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Did Bob Dylan actually inspire the name of Rolling Stone magazine?

Bob Dylan in 1965. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Bob Dylan in 1965. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

by Hanna Bubser

July 02, 2018

When a Rolling Stone article recently dissed Duluth, Mayor Emily Larson responded with an open letter that, among other things, invoked Bob Dylan. "Isn’t your magazine named after a song by some guy?" she wrote. "Yeah. He was born here."

Dylan was born in Duluth and lived there until he was six years old, after which his family moved to Hibbing. The song in question is "Like a Rolling Stone," which was released by Dylan in 1965. Rolling Stone magazine was founded just two years later, in 1967, by Jann Wenner and Ralph J. Gleason. So the timing checks out...but, as a commenter on our site notes, Dylan wasn't the first musician to sing about rolling stones.

The phrase "like a rolling stone" has a long history in music. As the commenter pointed out, Muddy Waters released the song "Rollin' Stone" in 1950, inspiring the name of an English blues-rock band formed in 1962. In the first issue of Rolling Stone (November 9, 1967), Wenner mentioned the Muddy Waters song, the Rolling Stones band, and Bob Dylan.

You’re probably wondering what we are trying to do. It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper. The trade papers have become so inaccurate and irrelevant, and the fan magazines are an anachronism. Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces. We’ve been working quite hard on it and we hope you can dig it. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bulls**t, and bulls**t is like gathering moss.

Muddy Waters used the name for a song he wrote. The Rolling Stones took their name from Muddy's song. "Like a Rolling Stone" was the title of Bob Dylan's first rock and roll record. We have begun a new publication reflecting what we see are the changes in rock and roll and the changes related to rock and roll.

Waters and Dylan seem to have accepted the upstart publication's title as a tribute (although Dylan passed on Wenner's invitation to write a story for the magazine), but the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger was not amused. As Wenner's biographer Joe Hagan writes, Jagger regarded Wenner as "the San Francisco kid with the chutzpah to name a magazine after his band and then trash his latest record."

Hagan continues, "Mick Jagger was startled by the audacity of Rolling Stone — to name a newspaper after his band and not even put the Rolling Stones on the cover of the first issue." According to Hagan, Jagger said, "Why would Jann call it that, when there was a band called that? You could have thought of something else, to be honest. I mean, I know it [derived] from a song name, but that's not really the point." Jagger's bandmate Keith Richards regarded Wenner as "a thief."

In the end, Wenner talked Jagger down, in part by suggesting that the Stones had more to gain from the continued existence of Rolling Stone than they did from a lawsuit. Ultimately, Jagger would partner with Wenner on an ill-fated British edition of the magazine, and graced the magazine's cover a total of 31 times — more than any other artist in the publication's history.

Dylan's now had 19 cover appearances. Muddy Waters? Just a single appearance, as a tiny face among dozens of others (including Jagger and Dylan) in a 3D image on the cover of the magazine's 1,000th issue in 2006.

So, Mayor Larson is correct that Dylan's song was partly responsible for inspiring the name of Rolling Stone magazine. There's another guy from a little further on down Highway 61, though, who deserves even more credit.

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