Book review #16: Bob Dylan in Minnesota
Locating the early Zimmerman
Bob Dylan in Minnesota: Troubadour Tales from Duluth, Hibbing & Dinkytown by K.G. Miles with Paul Metsa, Ed Newman, Marc Percansky and Matt Steichen (McNidder & Grace, 2023)
IN THE MYTHOLOGY of Bob Dylan, the boy from the North Country who emerges from a crusty Midwest chrysalis as a Greenwich Village glow-worm, the relevance of Dinkytown is crucial to the life-cycle of this most literate of balladeers, a geographical marker that transcends the parochial anonymity of an otherwise minor neighbourhood.
Dinkytown, a place with a fairytale timbre, a location with a twinkling unreality, was a very real bohemian corner of Minneapolis at the tail-end of the 1950s where Robert Allen Zimmerman was first exposed to the left-field writers, and even the lefty folkie Woody Guthrie, all of whom would vitally shape his remarkable rise over the decade that followed.
Named for the locomotives and hand-drawn carts, dubbed dinkeys, parked by the train conductors in a nearby railroad yard, this micro community of bars and diners, family cafés and small stores, Dinkytown was the quarter where outsiders – a mix of locals and university students, guitar players and would-be poets – gathered to share ideas and stories, songs and verses, hopes and dreams.
It was here that the young man, soon to be Bob Dylan, a largely absent undergraduate from the nearby college campus, would first encounter the writings of a gallery of new novelists and radical versifiers – Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso among them – and their way with words would stimulate his future approach to his own life, his own lyrics.
He was particularly taken with Kerouac’s 1959 title Mexico City Blues and certainly inspired by the notions of movement, the lure of the highway, which so drove much of the Beat Generation ethos. Soon Dylan would be compiling an imaginary trail of his own adventures to impress strangers he met with his personal travelling credentials
Yet Bob Dylan in Minnesota, the latest in a lively string of histories by the British writer K.G. Miles, never actually mentions those poets’ names, those key connections, indeed barely the idea of Beat at all. But this particular volume is much more about the fine detail of the singer’s historical links to his home state – principally the towns of Duluth and Hibbing – rather than a focused account of his musical mentors or literary influences.
And the Minnesota edition – which follows Miles’ always entertaining work on titles that concentrate on London and the Big Apple and indeed the artist’s links to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas – is undoubtedly a mighty handy guide for those Dylan obsessives who desire the sort of minute factual background which literally extends to the street numbers of houses and other associated landmarks which feature in this admirably fastidious survey.
This book though is a good deal more than an old-style A-Z – though there are elements of that, too, with street maps in the supplement – because the supporting anecdotes rush thick and fast, often told by those who were there – early collaborators with Dylan, friends, relatives and other contacts – which add colour and humour, personality and heart, to the grand tour.
It is a travelogue, yes, but, extra to that, a social history, a cultural portrait of parts of the US hinterland which have long slumbered in the shadows cast by the major cities on the two coasts. Dylan grew up in once economically significant industrial centres on the Great Lakes – iron ore was the core source of local wealth – in which harsh winters seemed to grip the landscape for almost three-quarters of the year.
Yet, in the interviews and other exchanges, an emotional warmth seeps through. These close-knit clans, who face the forbidding challenges of climate and economic downturn together, see Dylan simply as one of their own and, in the process, the singer’s own humanity is emphasised – an individual with a large family network in these wild outposts who owes loyalty to relatives and old pals. The global icon, the anti-social recluse, is hardly present here.
There are some fascinating details along the way: that remarkable night Dylan sees Buddy Holly live at Duluth Armory just days before the fatal plane crash; the city’s 1920 lynchings of three black circus workers after a kangaroo court rape trial which provide a dark cameo in the opening lines of ‘Desolation Row’; and B.J. Rolfzen, the Hibbing English teacher who knows Conrad and Whitman and Wolfe, and, incredibly, inspires a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Then there is the famed Spider John Koerner, a guitarist who would impress Dylan in Dinkytown, and the striking redhead thespian Flo Castner, a boho fixture in the folk haunt the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a chess wizard who would preach an anti-McCarthy line and inculcate a liberal progressivism in a teenager destined for such great things.
Nor can we avoid mentioning the potent Minnesotan link to possibly the greatest song from arguably Dylan’s finest album Blood on the Tracks – the opening bars of ‘Tangled up in Blue’, played by Kevin Odegard on a Martin D28 and recorded in the city’s Sound 80 studio in 1974.
There are special sections dedicated in this volume to Odegard’s contribution to that epic song – a rolling, rambling odyssey in mind and space, as close to a musical evocation of Kerouac’s On the Road as you are likely to find, not a detailed re-telling of. that earlier picaresque journey but a convincing metaphor for Dylan’s own life, an existence led on the run, an unresolved escapade, a never-ending tour, an ongoing search for love, truth and friendship.
In the near 180 pages of this particular book, there is a very strong sense the quest for that trio of holy grails is always most likely to be answered in Dylan’s own state and in the three cities of his birth and childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. For those planning a pilgrimage to the original Zimmerzone, this bright and breezy but often touching tribute feels like the perfect companion.
See also: ‘Book review #12: Bob Dylan in the Big Apple’, November 26th, 2022; ‘Book review #9: The Two Dylans’, August 27th, 2022