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Flashback Friday: Bob Dylan was born in Duluth 78 years ago

May 24, 2019 10:20 AM

"You know, I was born on the hill over there. I was glad to see that it's still there. You know my first girlfriend came from here. She was so conceited that I used to call her 'Mimi.'"

- Bob Dylan, live in concert in Duluth, 1999

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It was 78 years ago today - on May 24, 1941 - that Bob Dylan was born at St. Mary's Hospital in Duluth.

The man who would go on to become one of the most prolific songwriters in American music grew up in Hibbing, and spent time at the University of Minnesota, before heading to New York City's Greenwich Village in early 1961 and embarking on a musical career that is still going strong today.

Over the years, though, the man who was once the focus of a legendary documentary entitled "Don't Look Back" has done just that plenty of times when it comes to his time growing up here in Minnesota.

"Not necessarily," he said in a 2017 interview on his website when asked if there was something that made Minnesota different from other places, or a quality people here had that he hadn't found elsewhere.

"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."

British author Howard Sounes, who wrote a 2001 biography of Dylan entitled "Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan," said via email that Minnesota has always played a prominent role in the singer's story.

"He had to escape Minnesota to (fulfill) his destiny but he has also been drawn back, to see his late mother and his brother, and he bought a property in rural Minnesota, where he has spent a lot of vacation time," Sounes wrote in his email.

"He clearly still feels a deep connection, though his talent has led him far from Minnesota, and his principal home has been in California since the 1970s.

"As an outsider, coming to Minnesota from London to research 'Down the Highway,' Minnesota struck me as a relatively out of the way place, Hibbing especially, though of course it may not feel like that to its residents. I believe young Bob felt isolated on the Iron Range, and far from where he needed to be to become a star." 

And yet, Sounes said that stardom may have been shaped, in part, by his time growing up there.

"If Bob had grown up in Manhattan, say, he may not have felt the need to leave home and prove himself on the international stage," he said. "Also my feeling for the people I met on the Iron Range was that they were reserved, and polite, and you see that in Dylan."

Dylan himself wrote extensively and fondly about growing up in Minnesota in the aforementioned autobiographical book "Chronicles: Volume One."

"Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time," he wrote of his younger days on the Iron Range. "I always knew there was a bigger world out there but the one I was in at the time was all right, too. With not much media to speak of, it was basically life as you saw it. The things I did growing up were the things I thought everybody did - march in parades, have bike races, play ice hockey. (Not everyone was expected to play football or basketball or even baseball, but you had to know how to skate and play ice hockey.)

"The other usual things too, like swimming holes and fishing ponds, sledding and something called bumper riding, where you grab hold of a tail bumper on a car and ride through the snow, Fourth of July fireworks, tree houses - a witches' brew of pastimes."

The same book contains an interesting passage where Dylan describes a Guinness-fueled conversation he had in the late-1980s with U2 frontman Bono about the roots of America.

"I told him that if he wants to see the birthplace of America, he should go to Alexandria, Minnesota," Dylan writes.

"'Where's Alexandria? Bono asked," the passage continues. "I tell him that's where the Vikings came and settled in the 1300s, said that there's a wooden statue of a Viking in Alexandria and it doesn't look anything like a dignified founding father of America. He's bearded, wears a helmet, strapped knee-high boots, long dagger in a sheath, holding a spear at his side, wearing a kilt - holding a shield that says 'The Birthplace of America.'"

The passage is worth reading if only for Dylan's version of Minnesota driving directions.

"Bono asks me how to get there and I tell him to follow the river up through Winona, Lake City, Frontenac and get onto Highway 10 all the way to Wadena," he writes. "Make a left on 29 and you'll run right into it. You shouldn't have any trouble getting there."


More from KSTP

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Minnesota Historical Society acquires Bob Dylan's high school poems


Dylan has also written and spoken extensively about his time in the Twin Cities, where he immersed himself in the folk music scene in Dinkytown at the time.

And about how, after the musical education he received there, he knew it was time to head east and search out his biggest influence, folk singer Woody Guthrie, who was then in a New Jersey hospital suffering from Huntington's chorea.

"Eventually it was time for me to get out of Minneapolis," he wrote in 'Chronicles.' "Just like Hibbing, the Twin Cities had gotten a little too cramped and there was only so much you can do."

But, of course, his legend has remained strong in his home state - including a long-standing rumor that his classic song "All Along the Watchtower" was written about the Witch's Hat water tower, located in Minneapolis' Prospect Park neighborhood (a seemingly unlikely tale, given he was living in Woodstock, N.Y. when the song appeared on the 1967 album 'John Wesley Harding.')

"I have never heard that story, though there are similar stories about places and things in various parts of the U.S. that supposedly inspired lyrics," Sounes said in his email. "That is a testament to the power of his songs."

And Dylan himself has returned plenty over the years, either to visit, perform or spend time at the place on the Crow River he purchased in the 1970s.

And Sounes said seeing him in his home state at that 1999 performance in Duluth (on a tour co-headlined with Paul Simon) had a different feel than seeing him elsewhere.

"I enjoyed seeing Dylan play at Bayfront Park in Duluth in 1999 more than almost any other show I have seen (and I've seen him play around the world over four decades)," he said. "Seeing Dylan in his home town, hearing the fog horns, seeing the fog swirling in, I got a sense of the man, back in the cradle of his life. He clearly enjoyed playing to his home town, chatting to the audience unusually and even making jokes.

"It was a wonderful experience, so much better than seeing him in a cavernous hall like Madison Square Garden. I'll never forget it." 

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