Dylan at 70: bedrock

…where i live now, the only thing that keeps the area going is tradition – it doesnt count for very much – everything around me rots… if it keeps up, soon i will be an old man – & i am only 15 – the only job around here is mining – but jesus, who wants to be a miner … i refuse to be part of such a shallow death…
– Bob Dylan, Tarantula, 1966

Seventy years ago today, on 24 May 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born, the son of Beatty and Abe Zimmerman (below), at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in Hibbing, Minnesota, a mining town on the Mesabi Iron Range west of Lake Superior.

My family settled in Hibbing I think in about ’46 or ’47. My father had polio when I was very young.  There was a big epidemic.  He lost his job in Duluth and we moved to the Iron Range and moved in with my grandmotherFlorence and my grandfather. … We slept in the living room of my ghrandmother’s house for about a year or two, I slept on a roll-away bed, that’s all I remember. … This was not a rich or poor town, everybody had pretty much the same thing and the very wealthy people didn’t live there, they were the ones who owned the mines and they lived thousands of miles away.
– Bob Dylan, interview with Cameron Crowe, Biograph booklet

Those early years on the Iron Range were the bedrock of Dylan’s being, though he has rarely acknowledged them explicitly in his writings.

But  on two early occasions he did – in his 1962 poem ‘My Life In a Stolen Moment’, and in the 1963 song ‘North Country Blues’ from The Times They Are A-Changin’.  Both of these, and especially the latter, with its powerful evocation of the town where ‘the mining gates locked/And the red iron rotted’, chimed with my own experience of growing up in a Cheshire village where coal mining had begun in the 16th century, and had continued until just a few years before I was born, imprinting on the local landscape a legacy of overgrown and blackened spoil tips, abandoned machinery and railway tracks, and long rows of whitewashed miners’ cottages.

Come gather ’round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron pits ran plenty
But the cardboard filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty

Iron ore mining along the Mesabi Range was declining in the years that Dylan grew up in Hibbing.  Coal mining in my own hometown of Poynton had gone decades before.  In both communities life was hard as decline set in. Coal mining reached a peak in Poynton in the late 19th century; thereafter, it was a relentless tale of lay-offs and strikes.  The 1926 General strike lasted for 17 weeks in Poynton, and the men went back to pits that lasted only another nine years.

Then the shaft was soon shut
And more work was cut
And the fire in the air, it felt frozen
’Til a man come to speak
And he said in one week
That number eleven was closin’

When the last pit closed in Poynton, the men were offered jobs in Kent.

The summer is gone
The ground’s turning cold
The stores one by one they’re a-foldin’
My children will go
As soon as they grow
Well, there ain’t nothing here now to hold them


Second from the left in the photo above is a 14-year old Robert Zimmerman, snapped at Hibbing Bowling Centre in 1955.  In ‘My Life In a Stolen Moment’, Dylan explores some of the formative influences absorbed during those early years in Hibbing:

Duluth’s an iron ore shipping town in Minnesota
It’s built up on a rocky cliff that runs into Lake Superior
I was born there — my father was born there –
My mother’s from the Iron Range Country up north
The Iron Range is a long line a mining towns
that begin at Grand Rapids and end at Eveleth
We moved up there to live with my mother’s folks
in Hibbing when I was young –
Hibbing’s got the biggest open pit ore mine in the world
Hibbing’s got schools, churches, grocery stores an’ a jail
It’s got high school football games an’ a movie house
Hibbing’s got souped-up cars runnin’ full blast
on a Friday night
Hibbing’s got corner bars with polka bands
You can stand at one end of Hibbing’s main drag
an’ see clear past the city limits on the other end
Hibbing’s a good ol’ town
I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 151/2, 17 an’ 18
I been caught an’ brought back all but once
I wrote my first song to my mother an’ titled it “To Mother”
I wrote that in 5th grade an’ the teacher gave me a B+

[…]

Somewheres back I took time to start plain’ the guitar
Somewheres back I took the time to start singin’
Somewheres back I took the time to start writin’
But I never did take the time to find out why
I took the time to do those things — when they ask
Me why an’ where I got started, I gotta shake my head
an’ weave my eyes an’ walk away dumfounded

[…]

An’ I still can’t find the time to go back an’ see why an’ where
I started doing what I’m doing
I can’t tell you the influences ’cause there’s too many
to mention an’ I might leave one out
An’ that wouldn’t be fair
Woody Guthrie, sure
Big Joe Williams, yeah
It’s easy to remember those names
But what about the faces you can’t find again
What about the curbs an’ corners an’ cut-offs
that drop out a sight an’ fall behind
What about the records you hear but one time
What about the coyote’s call an’ the bulldog’s bark
What about the tomcat’s meow an’ milk cow’s moo
An’ the train whistle’s moan
Open up yer eyes an’ ears an’ yer influenced
an’ there’s nothing you can do about it

Hibbing’s a good ol’ town
I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 151/2, 17 an’ 18
I been caught an’ brought back all but once.

We’re all a long way further down the road now; as the 21-year old Dylan wrote preternaturally in ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ :

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one.

Only Dylan himself and his very closest friends can know what the journey since has meant for him.  For myself, I know this. I  sometimes wonder what the world would be like without birdsong: a bleak emptiness.  In the same way my life and the lives of my generation would be unimaginable without Dylan and his songs.  His words, his music have defined our time.

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Some argue that the rich ore of his youth was mined out by the mid-1970s, with nothing after Blood On The Tracks to equal the work of the sixties.  But for those of us who were electrified by his music back then, that body of work alone is more than enough.  The resistance anthems of Freewheelin’ and Times They Are A-Changin’, with their questioning, their challenge to power,  rejection of the blind acceptance of dogma, and their assertion of civil rights, saw us through times when the battle outside was raging.  Followed by the incomparable trio of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde with their surreal poetry and wild mercury sound, what more could a generation ask?

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

But, an unwilling voice for a generation, Dylan turned his back on all this, retreating to Woodstock  where he created The Basement Tapes, and the album we heard first, John Wesley Harding –  a body of work so timeless that, as Greil Marcus wrote, it could have been written in any century. In songs such as ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’, Dylan affirmed traditional values from an ‘old, weird America’: religious, conservative, at odds with the times. We’ve had to get used to this curmudgeonly, judgemental Dylan ever since.

Then there was the a decade or so when only occasional glimmers (‘Jokerman’, ‘Senor’) recalled the greatness. He wrote in Chronicles:

I hadn’t actually disappeared from the scene .. but the road had narrowed … I was lingering out on the pavement. There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him … I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck. Too much static in my head and I couldn’t dump the stuff. Wherever I am, I’m a 60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days, a fictitious head of state from a place nobody knows. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.

None of us escape our past, and Dylan’s best albums of the last decade (Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times) are filled with a sense of lost love, lost time, and time running out. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Beyond here lies nothin’
But the mountains of the past

I guess that for most of us of the sixties generation, it’s Dylan’s anthems of that decade that have defined us, songs we value like a precious ore that is never exhausted, and to which we return for meaning, again and again:

I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the colour, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Happy birthday, Bob: May your heart always be joyful and your songs always be sung.

Thought I’d shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth
Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin’ the hills of old Duluth
There was me and Danny Lopez, cold eyes, black night and then there was Ruth
Something there is about you that brings back a long-forgotten truth…

(thanks, Joe)

Links

  • Bob Dylan at 70: revolution in the head revisited: interesting piece on Opendemocracy by David Hayes which latterly mentions works that have considered the regional context of Dylan’s work and how it is inflected by the particular inheritances of the United States midwest.

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