'Bob Dylan in Minnesota': New book is full of facts about Nobel laureate's Northland roots
Four Minnesota writers collaborated with a British author to pen a volume that dives into the details regarding Dylan's Duluth childhood, Hibbing youth and Minneapolis sojourn.
DULUTH — KG Miles, author of four books about Bob Dylan, lives in England and has never been to Minnesota. If he could magically teleport to one spot, anywhere in Dylan's original home state, what spot would Miles pick?
Speaking to the News Tribune last week, Miles didn't pick Dylan's first Duluth house or the musician's former family home in Hibbing. He didn't pick the Hibbing High School Auditorium or the Duluth Armory. Nor did he pick the Minneapolis location of Dylan's (long gone) folkie haunt, the Ten O'Clock Scholar.
"I would teleport back to that crossroads where Bob was nearly hit by a train on his motorbike," said Miles. "That's really, to me, the young Minnesota Bob Dylan. Out with his mates on their bikes, the classic crossroads and the train just whizzing past him, a hair's breadth away."
If the Hibbing spot where 16th Avenue East crosses a set of railroad tracks (between 13th and 14th streets) wasn't on your Bob Dylan checklist, you'd better get another sheet of paper. There are many more tidbits like that in "Bob Dylan in Minnesota: Troubadour Tales from Duluth, Hibbing and Dinkytown."
It's the third book in what Miles calls a "trilogy of guide books" pointing Dylan fans to points of interest in three locations that have been crucial in the artist's career: London, New York and our fair Gopher State.
"The third place for the guide trilogy had to be Minnesota," said Miles. "I had the choice of either moving to Minnesota for 10 years, or getting the right experts on board."
Those experts turned out to be Paul Metsa, a Duluth-based musician and writer; Ed Newman, a writer who lives in Solway Township; and Twin Cities writers Marc Percansky and Matt Steichen.
Metsa wrote the book's foreword, which begins, "I lived in Bob Dylan's house."
Not just any house: Dylan's very first house, at 519 N. Third Ave. E. It's now owned by Dylan collector Bill Pagel, and Metsa lived there before recently buying a house in Lincoln Park.
"It's interesting to be able to take whatever knowledge I've gleaned from Dylan's journey over listening, seeing him and reading about him for 50 years and put it to some good use," said Metsa, "and not just let it go to waste sitting at the bar talking to strangers."
Newman wrote a chapter about Dylan's possible connection to one of the artist's childhood neighbors: Albert Woolson, the last surviving verifiable veteran of the Civil War. Woolson lived in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood, very near to the young boy who would become Bob Dylan.
Sources indicate that students at Nettleton Elementary School, where Dylan attended kindergarten, would annually parade past Woolson to honor his service in the Union Army.
Newman can only speculate as to whether Dylan's possible childhood brush with a nonagenarian Civil War veteran inspired the song "'Cross the Green Mountain," but the book documents numerous ways Dylan's Northland youth crept into his lyrics.
Dylan has "an absolutely sponge-like mind," said Miles. Through the course of writing the new book, Miles learned just what a supportive environment the young artist had in Duluth and Hibbing.
While a Little Richard cover might not have gone over well at the high school talent show, Miles said that overall Dylan "had a really nice, comfortable upbringing that allowed him to explore and to do different things and to be himself."
The book also highlights the importance of the artist's comings and goings in Minneapolis, where he lived in the Dinkytown neighborhood while attending the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. It was there that the young man born Robert Zimmerman developed the folk singing style he brought to Greenwich Village, and it was there he adopted the name Bob Dylan.
"If you take the average Bob Dylan fan, they have a timeline," said Miles. "Duluth, Hibbing, Greenwich Village, the world, and there's very little turning back." In fact, Dylan has maintained active lifelong connections to his home state, and may even now be spending more time in Minnesota than you realize.
"I think he's back a lot," said Miles. Dylan owns a farm on the Crow River, northwest of Minneapolis. In the book, Percansky writes that the photo of Dylan on the cover of his album "Infidels" (1983) was taken there, not that you'd ever know from the close-cropped portrait.
If "Bob Dylan in Minnesota" tells the story of the artist's relationship with his home state, the relationship vice versa could fill its own book. Newman moved to Duluth in 1986, the year the City Council infamously yielded to constituent protests and reversed its own decision to name a street after Dylan.
(Dylan himself spoke with the News Tribune shortly thereafter, and joked to the Duluth paper that "I think everybody that was born there should have a street named for them.")
"There's that saying, 'a prophet is not appreciated in his own country,'" said Newman, "and a lot of people here have some funny ideas, because they're not informed. Bob has referred to us many times over the years, and his parents are buried here."
Duluth's attitude toward Dylan has changed markedly in recent decades, and the Duluth Dylan Fest is evidence of that. A range of smaller efforts have snowballed into the annual festival, which this year runs for nine days from May 20-28.
"I just think it's great that they're saluting him in his birthplace," said Metsa. "It kind of turns the whole idea on its head where Minnesota doesn't completely love and respect the guy. That might be true for people over 80, but I know 15-year-olds, I know 75-year-olds, I don't know a fellow Minnesotan that I associate with that's not a Bob Dylan fan on some level."
Metsa's keeping busy, with gigs including a new weekly Wednesday gig at the Black Water Lounge — which Dylan might vaguely remember as the former Black Bear Lounge — and more books. A collection called "Alphabet Jazz" is out now, and in September, the University of Minnesota Press will publish "Blood in the Tracks: The Minnesota Musicians Behind Dylan's Masterpiece."
The latter book, co-authored with Rick Shefchik, dives into the only occasion on which Dylan made a subsequently released studio recording in Minnesota. As it happened, it was a doozy: half of "Blood on the Tracks," regarded by many as Dylan's single greatest album, was recorded at Sound 80 in Minneapolis.
Jeff Slate, the journalist who wrote the liner notes for the 2018 outtakes compilation "More Blood, More Tracks," will speak at Sacred Heart Music Center on May 25 as part of Duluth Dylan Fest. Metsa and Sonny Earl will perform an opening set of music at that event.
Newman said there's a "family-ness" to the Duluth Dylan Fest, an annual reunion of fans from the Northland and beyond. He said he hopes the new book helps fans outside of Minnesota learn about stories that "have been floating around" locally for years.
Though Miles hasn't yet been to Minnesota, he has visited the new Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. He had high praise for that new museum and repository, but said he was left with the nagging feeling that despite the Bob Dylan Center's proximity to a similar facility focused on Woody Guthrie, it might have been more meaningful up north.
"The overwhelming thought" Miles had at the center, he said, is that "this should be in Minnesota." Where in Minnesota? "It'd be lovely to be in Duluth. Lovely to be in Hibbing." Minneapolis? "Perfectly fine."
For information about the book "Bob Dylan in Minnesota," see casemateipm.com. For information about Duluth Dylan Fest, see duluthdylanfest.com.