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Our View: It’s OK to celebrate Dylan

(Chris Ware / Tribune News Service)

We’ve all heard the scoff, that Bob Dylan never gave a dang about his roots and his first hometowns Duluth and Hibbing. The claim usually is followed by a dismissal of the legendary singer and any suggestion we honor or even acknowledge his presence.

But the scoff is a myth. It’s just not true, insist Dylan fans who currently are planning a sixth-annual weeklong celebration of his music and Northland ties. Duluth Dylan Fest kicks off Sunday and includes music — lots of music — a bus tour from Duluth to Hibbing and back, a film festival and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Dylan’s first home in the Duluth hillside.

“It’s OK to love him back,” Duluth Dylan Fest Chairman Brad Nelson said in an interview this week with News Tribune editorial board members. “Not only should we, regardless of how he feels about us, because he deserves that and we should feel inspired by him, (but it’s just not true) that he feels (negatively about the Northland. Dylan) has, over the years, from the ’60s on up to the present, said glowing things about the Northland and about his roots. He’s proud of them.”

Don’t believe it? John Bushey has compiled an impressive list of the many mentions. From songs. From interviews. Bushey is especially fond of a quote from author and historian Douglas Brinkley, who interviewed Dylan for a piece in Rolling Stone magazine.

“He went on to me for so long about the virtues of Duluth, Minn., hoping that I would get it in the article because he said he always tells people how much he likes Duluth and it always gets cut,” Brinkley said. “So I made sure I kept just a little bit in there to show how special he finds the city of Duluth.”

“He does have very fond memories, very fond feelings toward the northern Minnesota area,” said Bushey, whose “Highway 61 Revisited” radio show is 25 years old. “We just want to celebrate with the rest of the world Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday (which is Tuesday), although we are in the unique position of being in the area where he is from.”

“We are the only city in the world that can say we are the birthplace of Bob Dylan,” Nelson added.

Even so, Duluth always has had an uneasy relationship with its famous son. Perhaps because he seems so aloof. Or evasive. Or not here. Perhaps because of the politics suggested in his music. Whatever the reason, in the 1980s, Duluth renamed a street in Dylan’s honor but then revoked it a week later. In the 1990s, another attempt to rename a street for him ended halfheartedly at best with a series of brown signs and sewer covers denoting a curious and uninspiring 2-mile route we called Bob Dylan Way.

In addition, we have Positively Third Street Bakery, but Dylan’s popular song was titled “Positively Fourth Street.” The Armory on London Road where Dylan famously saw Buddy Holly perform, inspiring him and his launch to stardom, never seems able to find the traction or the money it needs to be restored. And Zimmy’s, the Dylan-focused restaurant in Hibbing, couldn’t make a go of it.

Regardless, Dylan is “an internationally important artist of our time and worthy of honor,” Nelson pressed. “He was born in Duluth’s hillside, as we all know, but I think sometimes that fact is actually lost on local residents. He was born right here. He spent the first six years of his life here. And then, of course, he moved up to Hibbing, where he lived until he graduated from high school and became a young man. Only a few short years later, he was internationally famous. I think it’s sometimes easy for all of us to forget that what inspired him and what kind of formed his legend was our culture, was our cultural heritage right here.”

Dylan fans from all over the world regularly visit Duluth, much the same way Elvis fans flock to Graceland or fans of the Beatles take bus tours through Liverpool, England. So why do so many of us in Dylan’s Minnesota hometowns struggle to embrace his connection, his influence on our region and our region’s obvious influence on him and his art?

“What is the nature of genius?” Don Dass, a big part of getting Bob Dylan Way established, asked. “How was it achieved by someone who grew up breathing the same air and drinking the same water and experiencing the same culture as we do? Where does this intellect come from? Where does this creativity come from? I think it’s important that we honor this.”

“But we have done so little,” Dass said.

“It feels like it’s time to lay down our animosity and just celebrate this amazing person,” Nelson said.

That can start with next week’s 15-event Duluth Dylan Fest, a celebration of the artist’s 75th birthday as well as his undeniable, worthy-of-pride Northland roots. No scoffing, please.

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