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Local View: Old library, Bob Dylan at crossroads of Superior history

From the column: "The times, they are a-changin.’ Osterlund Architecture is poised to receive a $3 million state grant to restore the old Carnegie Library and to showcase its past. ... And

Bob Dylan
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
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Like Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” this story begins with a sub-sub-librarian. A few years ago, the former director of the Superior Public Library called me out of nowhere, after an absence of decades, to inform me he’d discovered genealogical research that my late father, Barry Singer, had never completed. There also was a video of the two of them, he said, meeting at the library with Superior’s then-Mayor Herb Bergson.

Their meeting marked the occasion of the last synagogue of Superior permanently closing its doors. Alluding to Superior’s yet-to-be-written Jewish history, my father quoted Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not obligated to complete the work; but neither are you free to desist from it.”

When I returned to my hometown a few years ago, I stopped by the old Carnegie Library, in which I had spent so much of my childhood. Abandoned in the early 1990s, the building has been protected from demolition by a vigilant group of locals for more than a quarter of a century. Situated on Hammond Avenue, which was named for Superior’s founder, Brig. Gen. John Hammond, the large building a few years ago could be had for just $125,000 — but was in need of several million dollars in renovations.

After Osterlund Architecture purchased it, I contacted the head of the building project, Andrew Osterlund and, channeling my father’s passion for local history, told him about the library’s special place in history — and its secret link with Bob Dylan and John Hammond’s ancestors.

Delta blues legend Robert Johnson recorded “Cross Road Blues,'' a song about the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1936. In the song, he asked the Lord above, "Have mercy, now, save poor Bob if you please.” Just five years later, Bob Dylan was born at the opposite end of Highway 61 in Duluth and was raised in Hibbing. Dylan's kinship with this stretch of road produced "Highway 61 Revisited," which was voted the greatest Jewish pop song of all time by The Forward .

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Dylan’s friend, John Hammond Jr., discovered Dylan’s great talent in New York in the early 1960s and referred him to his father, John Hammond II. The record producer, who also happened to be the grandson of Superior’s founder, catapulted Dylan’s career into the national spotlight by signing him to Columbia Records.

Dylan credits “Moby Dick” as one of three literary works that influenced his songwriting. In his 2016 Nobel acceptance speech, Dylan quoted the book’s Captain Ahab, saying, “Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, ‘It’s not down on any map. True places never are.’”

Dylan long kept his place of origin and family history a mystery, but my father helped local author Dave Engel reveal details of his Jewish upbringing in Minnesota in his book “ Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues .” A reporter once asked Dylan about his relationship to his birthplace of Duluth; Dylan responded cryptically, “Maybe I’m really from Superior.”

When John Hammond II visited his grandfather’s city, he didn’t think much of it. According to his autobiography, “Hammond on Record,” he considered it the dreariest city he had ever seen. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said, “but you can see it from there.” A radical progressive, Hammond II discovered and produced several famous Black and Jewish artists over his 40-something-year career.

And he often questioned his own identity, remarking to his conservative father that his grandmother and Superior’s founding mother, Sophia Vernon Wolfe, looked rather Semitic and had a Jewish-sounding last name. At one point, he asked his father very directly if they were of Jewish descent. His father, who’d been described by the press first as “a poor man” and then later as a very wealthy Upper East Side banker after marrying Emily Sloan Vanderbilt, vehemently dismissed it as impossible. Nonetheless, Hammond II deeply admired Jews and genuinely wanted to be counted as one.

Hammond II’s son, John Paul Hammond Jr., always believed in his heart he was a Jew — and his Jewish wife, Marla Joy Farbstein, always introduces him as her Jewish husband. On the eve of Hammond Jr.’s 79th birthday in November, I was able to inform him that his and his father’s instincts concerning the Hammonds’ Jewish ancestry had been spot on.

You see, Sophia Vernon Wolfe was the granddaughter of Benjamin Wolfe, a founding member of Kehila Kadosh Beth Shalome, known today as Congregation Beth Ahaba, in Richmond, Virginia. Samuel Oppenheim’s “The Jews and Masonry” notes that Wolfe was also a prominent member of the Scottish rite of the Masonic Lodge, founded by Jews in America. Wolfe’s temple president and fellow master freemason Jacob I. Cohen Jr., wrote a Hebrew prayer for President George Washington and went on to write The Jew Bill that would allow Jews to hold political office.

John Paul Hammond Jr. was absolutely stunned by the revelation and felt that he and his father had been vindicated. I like to think Hammond II’s fascination with his own family’s deep Jewish and American founders’ past is a big part of what attracted him to Dylan and the other iconic American artists he signed, from Benny Goodman to Leonard Cohen to Willie the Lion Smith to Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen and many more.

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After leading Black troops to fight for the Union in the civil war, Hammond Jr.’s great-grandfather headed the office of American Indian Affairs for the Dakotas, where he became Sitting Bull’s only trusted white friend, convincing him to safely surrender to American troops in 1881. Sitting Bull wrote “ Surrender Song ” for the occasion. After closing down this office, he purchased and developed land across from Duluth on Lake Superior. He designed the city to attract immigrants from Europe who were seeking asylum. Among those immigrants were Dylan’s Lithuanian-Jewish ancestors, the Kaners, Karons, Arnoviches, and others who founded Superior’s Jewish community.

Dylan’s grandfather, originally a Karon, changed his name to Solemovitz and then rolled that to Stone ("Karon” means “cornerstone” or “foundation” in Hebrew) by the time he arrived in Superior. Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” takes on a whole new meaning for me now that I know Dylan’s lineage can be traced back to the cornerstone of King David’s Temple. Psalm 118 says: “The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.”

The rejected stone edifice that still stands on Hammond Avenue has become the cornerstone of this crossroads in time. It is a remnant of the rich history of a small city that was once expected to be a sprawling metropolis and that became the summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge, a business investment for President Theodore Roosevelt, a hometown for a Jew who won the 1940 World Series, and a sanctuary city that saved a generation of immigrants from persecution — ultimately giving birth to a new generation of American music.

It’s a shame that most locals aren’t aware of this rich history hidden in plain sight on the streets of Superior. In the spirit of my father, I feel compelled to share our rich heritage with the potential to bring us back together in such divisive times.

But the times, they are a-changin.’ Osterlund Architecture is poised to receive a $3 million state grant to restore the old Carnegie Library and to showcase its past, as the Superior Telegram reported in November. And award-winning filmmakers David Grubin and Michael Bacon, with Andrew Osterlund and I, are in the early stages of working on a film and concert to document this incredible history.

Perhaps Dylan might even consider revisiting Highway 61.

Superior, this story is our story. I invite you all to get involved and invest in this project, learn more about our incredible city, share our history far and wide, and put our crossroads on the map.

Dan Singer is originally of Superior and is a cantor now at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side.

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Dan Singer.jpg
Dan Singer

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