Dibs on Dylan: Can Minnesota claim credit for the success of Robert Zimmerman?

BobDylan_PhotoCreditBillHickey

Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Bill Hickley

When Bob Dylan was announced as the winner of 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Minnesotans rejoiced. The first rock star ever to win the Nobel, and he’s one of our own! Born and bred!

Or…is he? Throwing cold water on the prairie party, many pointed out that Dylan was nowhere near the Gopher State when he wrote, recorded, and released almost all of the work for which he was being recognized.

Dropping out of the University of Minnesota after only spending a matter of months in Dinkytown, Dylan headed east in January of 1961 to meet a dying Woody Guthrie and make his way as a singer-songwriter. The following year he released his self-titled debut album, and the rest is history.

Given the trajectory of Dylan’s career, can Minnesota claim credit for the man who became, by growing consensus, the most important songwriter the rock era has yet seen?

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing at Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 1963

Joan Baez (left) and Bob Dylan sing at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., in 1963

As we mourned the death of Prince in 2016, Dylan’s relationship with his native state may have seemed especially tenuous by comparison. Like Dylan, Prince was born and raised in Minnesota. Unlike Dylan, Prince stuck around to share his fame with his neighbors. “Purple Rain” made First Avenue an iconic venue, and Prince chose Chanhassen to be the site of his personal palace: Paisley Park.

Prince lived here, and he died here. Dylan, on the other hand, comes back only very occasionally, especially since his mother died in 2000. He owns property here, but it’s a remote farm.

In a sense, it’s futile to argue about what region deserves “credit” for any artist’s work. Both Prince and Dylan were born with otherworldly gifts, which they used to create work that has universal resonance. It’s not as if Paul Bunyan shaped the artists out of Red River clay and brought them to life with a whiff of bison breath.

That said, no biographer would start at age 18, assuming that an artist’s entire youth was irrelevant to his or her adult work. Both Dylan and Prince had their early, formative music experiences here; they’re part of Minnesota’s story, and Minnesota is part of theirs.

_HP_6145

Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Bill Hickley

Prince grew up in North Minneapolis, though he went to high school on the Southside and grew up familiar with the very different worlds of black and white Minnesota. He learned from his father, from his music teachers at school, and from the rich funk and soul scene surrounding him—as well as from the rock bands he’d see live and hear on the radio. He would go on to bridge musical worlds with his art.

Dylan was raised in Hibbing, on the Mesabi Iron Range. He was 17 years older than Prince, and his personal coming-of-age coincided with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll—which Dylan sometimes had to strain to glimpse. He cites a Buddy Holly show in Duluth as a formative experience, and he briefly performed with Northland teen idol Bobby Vee. Like Prince, he kept his ear to the radio; in Dylan’s case, that meant AM radio signals drifting across the continent, carrying high lonesome country music and explosive R&B.

Then Dylan moved to Minneapolis, where he got hip to the fact that folk was the idiom of the day for socially-conscious singer-songwriters. It was on the Dinkytown coffee shop scene that Bobby Zimmerman first started introducing himself as “Bob Dylan,” honing his persona under the influence of established performers like “Spider” John Koerner, Dave Ray, and Tony Glover.

While both men came from local roots, they were both responding to broader trends. Dinkytown denizens espoused many of the same values as their compatriots in Greenwich Village and Harvard Square, and Prince’s first band (Grand Central) was strongly influenced both in name and sound by the pride of Flint, Michigan: Grand Funk Railroad. Prince and Dylan both would have had creative success if they’d come from anywhere else in the country.

_HP_6216

Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra’s Bob Dylan mural in downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Bill Hickley

If there’s anything that unites Minnesota’s music icons, though, it’s a proudly iconoclastic spirit. Think of not just Dylan and Prince, but also The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, and Atmosphere. That same maverick strain runs through local greats like Sinclair Lewis, the first American to ever win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Does our geographic isolation promote an innovative spirit of DIY self-sufficiency? If so, Dylan surely caught it.

Even in the SoundCloud era, there’s no substitute for an enthusiastic live audience—and it’s no coincidence that great collaborations are nearly always sparked by geographic proximity. Keeping our local music scene strong not only improves our quality of life, it increases the chances that Minnesota will nurture the next Dylan.

That said, great music can’t be contained by borders—and it shouldn’t be. Minnesota deserves some credit for Bob Dylan, sure. So does New York, and Cambridge, and Woodstock. So does Oklahoma by way of Woody, and Ontario by way of Robbie Robertson, and the Mississippi Delta by way of Chicago where Muddy Waters was playing on the airwaves.

One of the first East Coast writers to travel to Minnesota to explore Dylan’s roots was a groovy cat named Toby Thompson, who talked his way into a Hibbing assignment in the late ‘60s. He interviewed Dylan’s family members, the Girl from the North Country (a.k.a. Echo Helstrom), and discovered a delicious local brew called Grain Belt Premium.

In the end, though, Thompson found Hibbing to be cold and isolated—a place that Dylan ran to escape. Prince, on the other hand, found his heartbeat in Minneapolis. His home was here, his collaborators were here, and his close association with Minnesota added to his mystique.

Water, as my own Minnesotan father likes to put it, finds its own level. Still, that doesn’t mean a stream’s point of origin is irrelevant.

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.

 
Northern Stacks Banner