Local View: This may be why Dylan so slow to acknowledge Nobel
Nearly 50 years ago, during a cross-country motorcycle trip and while coming across Minnesota, I saw a sign for Hibbing off U.S. Highway 2. The destination was Duluth, but the decision was made to take a detour to see where Bob Dylan grew up.
With the help of locals, my traveling companions and I found the Zimmerman home, and, after some trepidation, we knocked on the front door. Dylan’s parents, Abe and Beatty, sized us up, commented on our motorcycles and invited us into their living room. They were gracious and hospitable, offering us refreshments and a tour of the house, including Dylan’s upstairs bedroom, complete with high school memorabilia and a life-size cardboard photo of the folk-rock star.
Bob’s father proudly showed us a brand new Cadillac in the garage, a gift from his son, and implored us to visit Dylan when we returned back East and, if the opportunity arose, to encourage him to write more often. Although we reiterated we were “only fans,” they seemed impressed with our commentary regarding Dylan’s wide popularity among the Vietnam generation.
Unbeknownst to us then, their son, at that time, was in seclusion from a serious motorcycle accident near his home in upstate New York.
Perhaps the motorcycle bond was an icebreaker, but my companions and I had just completed four years of college in a small town in the Midwest, and we knew the comfort-zone limits of folksy hospitality and the rules of respect and reciprocity. Within a short time we were back on the road, heading for Duluth and beyond.
Some weeks later, I was outside New York City and decided on the spur to visit Woodstock, to try to find Dylan himself.
That decision, and what transpired, offers some insights, I feel now, into Dylan’s delayed acknowledgement of his Nobel Prize for Literature. This story also says a bit about the current state of privacy and small-town America.
Emboldened by the Hibbing visit, I drove up the New York throughway, rehearsing strategies to obtain an audience with Dylan. Without a real introduction or even an address, I knew the difficult task ahead.
Small towns like Woodstock protect the privacy of their residents, especially famous ones. Luckily, I caught a break a few miles out of town, driving on a two-lane road. I encountered a major traffic back-up due to an accident. As I threaded my motorcycle along the shoulder, a woman flagged me. She could see I was making progress through the mayhem and asked if I would take her into town where she was late for her waitress job. After a quick negotiation, during which I explained my need for directional help, she agreed and climbed on the pillion seat. It had begun to drizzle, but once at the diner she consulted with some old-timers and provided me with several vague tidbits of information, not including an address.
I was directed to find Upper Byrdcliffe Road on the outskirts of town and then to look for a pool table in the woods next to a gravel driveway and two huge, menacing St. Bernard dogs that were all bark but no bite.
Rain was falling harder, so I pulled on my rubber gear and found Byrdcliffe Road. The few split-level, ranch-style residences far off the road seemed almost invisible in the dense woods. After several passes, I was about to retreat when, suddenly, I spied a bright green pool table under a lamp in a covered carport. I turned toward it down a driveway into a small, circular entrance in front of a dark, redwood, single-story house. When the barking dogs appeared, I knew I was in the right place.
I dismounted with purpose, talking quietly to calm the canines, and proceeded to knock on the screen door. I suddenly felt exhausted and soaked to the skin. Inside the house a figure moved into the front hall, but hung back from the door. At first I could see only his outline as the backdrop light framing the interior was weak. It was an awkward exchange, conducted in the third person, even as I recognized Dylan’s unmistakably quiet, raspy voice.
After briefly identifying my purpose and earlier Hibbing visit, Dylan asked what message I was bringing. I imagined my appearance, standing in the rain, helmet still on, hinting for a cup of coffee in exchange, and reminding my “host” I had traveled a great distance and was a long-time fan since his Greenwich Village days six years earlier.
He drew closer to the screen and the familiar outline of his face and mane of unruly hair left no doubt. He thanked me for the news of his parents and told me he was working, in the middle of composing, and I realized the door wouldn’t be opening. A wave of disappointment and relief simultaneously swept over me. I respected his honesty and the ethic of hard work. We knew the exchange was ending.
Dylan leaned in, asking slyly if I wanted to take a message back to Hibbing, but I demurred. I had discharged my reciprocal obligation and recognized the boundaries of privacy had been pushed, if not breached.
I was expected later that day in upstate Vermont in the small town where I was born. As I bid him farewell and headed north, the warm rain ended. Dylan showed himself to be a private and shy giant. I reflected on the quiet civility of our brief conversation and the reservoir of humanity and patience I experienced. And I gave thanks for the strength of small-town, rural America.
A few years later, the Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), moved to Cavendish, Vt., after refusing to travel to Stockholm to receive the prestigious recognition in person. His written acceptance statement castigated just about everyone in the Soviet hierarchy, but the West was not spared his barbs, either.
Perhaps the old contrarian rebel in Dylan will not permit him to accept one more accolade, or its cash prize, in person, especially a Nobel with blurred definitions. He is 75 with too few tomorrows.
But I will always cherish my summer-of-1967 visits and, like so many Americans, identify with the genius of Dylan’s musical poetry, his “rolling-stone” outlook on life and the underpinning values of small town heritage.
Nicholas E. Hollis lives now in Washington, D.C. He is president of the nonprofit Agribusiness Council (ABC) (agribusinesscouncil.org) and writes for projects within its Heritage Preservation Committee.