Dylan's Talent Was Clear Even Back in Minnesota

Bob Dylan Photo: AP
Bob Dylan

March 23, 2017 05:03 PM

No one could have predicted all that was to come.

But even back when they were each playing spots like the Ten O'Clock Scholar and the Purple Onion in the Twin Cities, "Spider" John Koerner could tell there was something special about the young kid from Hibbing who was just beginning to go by the name Bob Dylan.

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"I have a dim recollection of a song he'd written back then, and it was just different from what other people were trying to do," said Koerner, the longtime Minnesota musician who knew Dylan during his brief stop at the University of Minnesota before he headed to eventual fame and fortune in New York.

"You could tell he had a knack for it. It was clean, to the point and poetic. So you could see he had talent. I don't think we, or even he, knew what was going to happen. But you could tell there was something special there."

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What was to happen, of course, was one of the most impactful careers in American music history. And it's a career that is still going strong today, even as the man who was born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing approaches his 76th birthday in May.

And while the sometimes media-averse Dylan has long maintained a place on the Crow River near Hanover, and has performed in Minnesota numerous times over the years, it's still notable when he discusses his home state in-depth.   

He did just that in a lengthy interview with longtime music journalist Bill Flanagan posted to the singer's website Wednesday night.

The bulk of the interview was meant to promote the singer's upcoming three-CD release "Triplicate," his third-straight release of American standards made famous by artists like Frank Sinatra.

But the conversation turned to his home state when Flanagan asked if there was something that made Minnesota different from other places.

"Not necessarily," Dylan responded. "Minnesota has its own Mason-Dixon Line. I come from the north and that’s different from southern Minnesota; if you’re there you could be in Iowa or Georgia. Up north the weather is more extreme – frostbite in the winter, mosquito-ridden in the summer, no air conditioning when I grew up, steam heat in the winter and you had to wear a lot of clothes when you went outdoors. Your blood gets thick. It’s the land of 10,000 lakes – lot of hunting and fishing.

"Indian country, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Lakota, birch trees, open pit mines, bears and wolves – the air is raw. Southern Minnesota is farming country, wheat fields and hay stacks, lots of corn fields, horses and milk cows. In the north it’s more hardscrabble. It’s a rugged environment – people lead simple lives, but they lead simple lives in other parts of the country too. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. There is good and bad in most people, doesn’t matter what state you live in. Some people are more self-sufficient than other places – some more secure, some less secure – some people mind their own business, some don’t."

Later in the interview, Dylan was asked if he ever met former Minnesota Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He said he hadn't.

But he did speak about Minneapolis, the city in which he resided for a time after enrolling at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1959. He left for New York the following year.

But before that, he got involved in the folk music scene in Dinkytown.

"He was just one of a bunch of us back then," recalls Koerner, who was backstage when Dylan famously 'went electric' at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but said he hasn't scene the rock and roll legend in person since spending New Year's Eve at his Minnesota ranch in 1989.

"He was part of the scene. We were all playing folk music. I know he had started to get very interested in Woody Guthrie. So that was the direction he was going in."

Still, in the interview, Dylan made it clear rock and roll was never far from his mind.

"Minneapolis and St. Paul – the Twin Cities, they were rock and roll towns," Dylan said. "I didn’t know that. I thought the only rock and roll towns were Memphis and Shreveport. In Minneapolis they played northwest rock and roll, Dick Dale and the Ventures, The Kingsmen played there a lot, The Easy Beats, The Castaways, all surf bands, high voltage groups.

"A lot of Link Wray stuff like “Black Widow” and “Jack the Ripper,” all those northwest instrumentals like “Tall Cool One.” “Flyin’ High” by the Shadows was a big hit. The Twin Cities was surfing rockabilly – all of it cranked up to ten with a lot of reverb; tremolo switches, everything Fender – Esquires, Broadcasters, Jaguars, amps on folding chairs – the chairs even looked Fender. Sandy Nelson drumming. “Surfing Bird” came out of there a little while later, it didn’t surprise me."

Dylan would eventually return to rock 'n' roll himself. And Koerner said his time in Dinkytown served as sort of a footnote for all that was to come later.

"I think that period was sort of a stepping stone for him," Koerner said. "It's where he went from being a kid from Minnesota before going on to become a big star in New York."

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