Bob Dylan Early Years

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Bob Dylan early years with guitar case

Where i live now, the only thing that keeps the area going is tradition—it doesn’t count very much—everything around me rots…if it keeps up, soon i will be an old man—& i am only 15—the only job around here is mining—but jesus, who wants to be a miner…i refuse to be part of such a shallow death—everybody talks about the middle ages as if it was actually in the middle ages—i’ll do anything to leave here—my mind is running down the river—i’d sell my soul to the elephant-i’d cheat the sphinx—i’d liei to the conqueror…tho you might not take this the right way, i would even sign a chain with the devil…please dont send me anymore grandfather clocks—no more books or care packages…if youre going to send me something, send me a key—i shall find the door to where it fits, if it takes me the rest of my life. DYLAN, 1966 1

He not busy being born is busy dying. DYLAN, 1965 2

Bringing It All Back Home

It’s a long way home from the movies. The marquee of the Lybba Theater was dark as the plump, sandy-haired boy walked into the merciless cold. First Avenue was even colder by contrast with the heat of the Texas plains he’d felt from the screen inside. Even James Byron Dean couldn’t have been a hero on First Avenue. He would have frozen in his tracks. Texas was rugged, but Minnesota was impossible.

Across the street was the sign of the Hibbing Tribune—stately Olde Englishe in flaming red neon. Out First Avenue were fainter neon signs, in Moderne American, offering quick credit to the miners and quick drinks to help them forget their instant debt.

The boy glanced toward the pool hall, hesitated, then decided against the small talk that would have accompanied a game. The film Giant was still in his head, with the stinging disbelief that James Dean was really dead, more than a year now. The boy turned onto Howard Street. He stood “at one end of Hibbing on the main drag and saw clear past the city limits on the other end.”3 There were red iron-ore mining dumps at nearly every fringe of town. “The richest village in the world” wasn’t so rich anymore. They’d cut down the trees and dug the good ore out of the earth. He walked by storefronts, well stocked and confident, and others that had run empty when confidence and money gave out.

Main drag, Minnesota. Sinclair Lewis would have taken notes and James Dean would have built monuments. They’d have known about Howard Street, and would have left it as fast as they could. They were both dead now, just like this town. Hibbing had dug its own grave with sixty years of mining shovels, now only good for burying miners. “Desolation Row,” Take One.

The stores of Hibbing, 1956, and those of Lewis’s Gopher Prairie, 1926, must have all come from some factory assembly line. Montgomery Ward, J C Penney, and Woolworth patterned small-town America. Would there be the same shop fronts down in Macon, Georgia, where Little Richard was born? At least Georgia didn’t have skin temperatures of twenty below zero. The boy stepped into the doorway of Chet Crippa’s Music Store. He scanned the record display. No Little Richard, no Hank Williams, no Buddy Holly. Bing Crosby was still dreaming about a white Christmas. So was Little Richard.

In front of the New Haven Lounge, he could hear the sputtering little band wheezing its way through “Moja Decla,” the Slovenian national anthem. Or was it a lively polka of “Whoopee John,” or the “CIO Polka” for the union men? Some band! The wind from Lake Superior and the Canadian plains knew more songs, but who else listened, as the boy did, “when I first heard the ore train sing,” as he wrote in the liner notes to Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.

No songs that night, as he approached Fifth and Howard, where the brick solidity of the Androy Hotel exuded permanence and prosperity for traveling salesmen and local Rotarians. A few hundred yards away, the Zimmerman Furniture and Appliance Company reposed in chrome and Formica. (“A kitchen range for the Iron Range.” “Absolutely no part ordered without a deposit.”) I would rather be a miner than an appliance salesman, but Jesus, who wants to be a miner or an appliance salesman? As Howard Street tapered off toward the bush, the boy turned right onto Seventh Avenue. The darkness of the side street created a vacuum, which he filled with wide-screen Technicolor.

“James Dean, who was killed in a sportcar crash two weeks after his last scene was shot, clearly shows…a streak of genius,” wrote Time magazine in October 1956. “He has caught the Texas accent to nasal perfection, and has mastered the lock-hipped, high-heeled stagger of the wrangler, and the wry little jerks and smirks, tics and twitches, grunts and giggles that make up most of the language of a man who talks to himself a good deal more than he does to anyone else.”

The 15-year-old moviegoer, who talked to himself a good deal more than he did to anyone else, filled Seventh Avenue with his own Actors’ Studio. He pursed his lips, tried a line of dialogue, locked his hips, shambled like a wrangler, contorted his face to erase the North Country twang in his voice, slowing the words into an oozing drawl. As young Bob Dylan passed the looming expanse of Hibbing High School, he halted his monologue-pantomime. The sprawling four-story pseudo-North Italian turreted castle brought one of its students back abruptly from Texas. The last few blocks, to 2425 East Seventh Avenue, were so familiar that in the dark Bob’s feet led him past memorized breaks in the sidewalk. The corner house was ablaze with lights. Back to family life in a dying town.

He tiptoed through the back door into the kitchen, wishing he could get to his room without being seen, but the house wasn’t built that way. “Bobby, is that you?” His mother’s voice was taut with tension. He reported to the parlor. “I’ve told you a hundred times, if I’ve told you once,” his mother began her litany. “How do you expect to grow up strong and healthy if you don’t get your rest? What are the people in this neighborhood going to think of any boy of mine who is always out roaming the streets at night?” Why was she always so worried? Why did she talk so fast, leaving no room for answers?

“Your mother is absolutely right, Robert,” his father broke in, his low and controlled voice somehow menacing beneath its even surface. The living room was so clean and orderly. Everything was in its place. Maybe that is what they expected of him, to be just another home appliance, to turn on and off. Bob tried to explain that it was a special James Dean movie that ran late. His voice began to rise with anger. “Robert, stop that shouting,” his father said. “You know we don’t tolerate shouting in this house.”

The argument spilled out of bounds and out of the room. It wasn’t just this lateness, his father told me in 1968. It was Bob’s “attitude.” One night he was late. The next night he neglected his schoolwork. He didn’t show up at the store when they expected him. And soon it was going to be smashed-up cars and motorbikes, “that girl,” and those “friends” of his. “Robert, you come back here,” his father said. But he was gone, through the kitchen, down the stairs to the basement. His father followed, hurling recriminations: “We’ve given you a good home. We buy you the best of everything. What more do you want? I never had it so soft when I was your age.”

In the basement den, Bob tried to explain that he had stayed to see part of the movie over again. He talked about James Dean and waved his hand toward the walls covered with pasted-up photographs of the dead actor. “James Dean, James Dean,” his father repeated. He pulled a photograph off the wall. “Don’t do that,” Bob yelled. His father tore the picture in half and threw the pieces to the floor. “Don’t raise your voice around here,” he said with finality, stamping upstairs. Bob picked up the pieces, hoping he might be able to paste them together. No, he wouldn’t raise his voice around there.

Hibbing’s a good ol’ town I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 15½, 17 an’ 18 I been caught an’ brought back all but once…4

Stolen Moment.

Dylan didn’t actually run away from “good ol’ Hibbing” at all, except in his mind, and there he kept running for years. He spoke about Hibbing rarely and wrote about it only fragmentarily. He had trouble coming to grips with his growing-up days, vacillating between nostalgia and repulsion. Hibbing was small-town Minnesota, his incubus and touchstone. This was Babbitt country, home of provincialism, isolation, backwater conservatism. Dylan could say “Hibbing’s got nothing to do with what I am, what I became” and yet sometimes reveal that his flight from small-town Philistinism had shaped him to a degree he was usually unwilling to admit.

“You’ve been there, you’ve seen it,” he told me in 1971. “That big hole in the ground, where they dug up all that ore? They’re actually proud of that, up there. Now they’re digging up the whole country. I went back for a graduation party in 1969. I didn’t have to look at Hibbing. I’ll never forget it. I don’t need to be reminded of what it was like. When I was 15, I said to myself: ‘They treat me pretty lowdown now, but I’m going to come back here and they’re going to look up to me. I said I’ll be back one day and they’ll run up to shake my hand.’ It’s true. I made that deal with myself. It actually came true, in 1969. I sat and signed autographs for an hour.”

That Faustian “deal” had given him motive, energy, ferocious drive, and will. “North Country Blues,” written in 1963, is an understated folk-epic encapsulating the history of Hibbing. His notes to Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 dwell upon his early attitudes toward beauty in life and nature. On his third album, the second of his “11 Outlined Epitaphs” paints a dark portrait of his hometown’s hollow death and decay, a town which had uprooted itself as it dug beneath for more precious ore. That all had set him running, made him a refugee. Finally, in that “Epitaph,” he dreams of accepting Hibbing (and his family and his childhood) without expecting what they could not offer him.

A more figurative retelling of his adolescence was his autobiographical “My Life in a Stolen Moment,” written in spring 1963 as a program note for the tradition-hungry folk-music community that demanded roots, sources, and influences. Ringing with Woody Guthrie cadences, “Stolen Moment” was fine early page writing—rhythmic, sardonic, self-revealing. Dylan took years to accept it, denying its veracity and worth, claiming others had “made” him write it. Ultimately, he decided to include it in Writings and Drawings. One problem was that his reference to running away pained his family. Perhaps the most revealing omission was his refusal to examine the source of his creativity: “I never ever did take the time to find out why I took the time to do those things.”

If he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, take the time, I felt I had to try to find the clues, setting off like that reporter in Citizen Kane, looking for the elusive “Rosebud.” Prior to my two visits to Hibbing, in 1966 and 1968, Dylan told me: “I didn’t leave home because of my curiosity to see what was going on elsewhere. I just wanted to get away. Yeah, get away. Hibbing was a vacuum. I just kept going because I was bored. I’ve always been very bored, only I’ve never settled and accepted boredom. I can lay on my bed for three hours and look at the ceiling, but, you know, that doesn’t mean boredom. You see, I don’t come from what you would call a ‘Great Society middle-class family in the suburbs.’ Where I lived, there aren’t any suburbs. There’s no poor section and there’s no rich section. There’s no wrong side of the tracks and right side of the tracks.” Waving his hands, Dylan continued: “There’s no lines where I come from. There never was. As far as I knew, where I lived, nobody had anything that anybody else didn’t have, really. All the people I knew had the same things. I’ve thought about it some, but Hibbing really has nothing to do with what I am today, with that I became. Really nothing!”

He meant it when he said it. For Dylan, reality is a prism, not a plate-glass window. Through that prism he would look back on Hibbing and his formative years there, sometimes with anger, frequently with remorse, but sometimes with love, and warmth. “My family?” Dylan repeated while he chose his response. “I never really had that much contact with them.” That’s not quite the way his family remembered it.

Home On the Range

History has left no record of what Franz Dietrich Von Ahlen’s family thought about his decision to leave Hanover, Germany. Von Ahlen was a restless individualist, who decided, eighteen years after his birth in 1856, that Hanover was not where the action was. He packed his bags for the New World. He left behind his name and took instead an all-American moniker, Frank Hibbing. After farming in Wisconsin, losing three fingers in a shingle mill, and reading law, he became a timber cruiser, a prospector, and a woodsman. In 1885, hearing that the forest and mineral riches of northern Minnesota exceeded those of northern Michigan, he moved to Duluth as a land broker. He made and lost a fortune. When iron ore was discovered in 1890 on the Eastern Mesabi Range, largest of three iron ranges in Minnesota, Hibbing decided to prospect, and led some thirty men westward from Duluth to the area that would soon bear his adopted name. Near what was to become the town center, Hibbing is reported to have stuck his head out of his tent one morning in January 1893. It was forty degrees below zero. Three feet of snow mantled a frozen pine forest. Hibbing, a lean and determined man with a handlebar moustache, high-top boots and a pickax, supposedly said: “I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly.” His men began to dig, and soon found ore. Hibbing helped form the Lake Superior Iron Company, leasing lands and mineral rights. Soon he was the town’s first millionaire.

Before big money rolled in early in the 1900s, lumbering provided capital for mining, timber for local buildings. Most of the first 326 residents were lumberjacks earning forty dollars a month and all the salt pork, baked beans, and splinters they could take. Pine Street, the first main drag, had nearly sixty saloons to combat central-heating problems. A frontier town then, right in the Midwest: mud streets, wooden sidewalks, saloon brawls, lumbering and mining accidents, Typhoid fever. A two-square-mile town site was laid out in 1893, first called Superior then changed to Hibbing. The German refugee advanced money to build a sawmill, a water plant, an electric generating station, roads, the first hotel, and a bank. He died at 41 in 1897. For the next ten years, logging was the chief industry. While mining development continued, a slump, which may have been engineered by the big finance men, made the entire Mesabi Range available dirt cheap. John D Rockefeller loaned a million dollars for the purchase of Iron Range land, and made a tidy $50 million on the transaction. Rockefeller connections enabled the US Steel Company to gain a foothold in the Mesabi.

Hungry mechanical mouths were invented to wolf out the ore from above, wood-burning power shovels that snorted and gulped like dinosaurs, and fed the cars of the Duluth, Missabe, and Northern Railway. The big hole in the ground that haunts Dylan’s memory was a “stripper,” or open-pit mine. By 1964, the Hull-Rust pit covered 1,600 acres, measuring three and three-quarter miles by one mile and a depth of 535 feet. From this running sore was extracted a billion gross tons of earth—more than was dug for the Panama Canal—which yielded 500 million tons of iron ore. Great claims are made for Hibbing’s mine—America might not have won both World Wars without this high-grade ore, which supplied nearly a quarter of all the ore used in the nation. The shovels devoured the choice lode under the original township, so the village of North Hibbing was moved a few miles south. “The razzle-dazzle village,” “the iron ore capital of the world,” “the center of the melting pot,” and “the richest village in the world” became “the town that moved.”

The transplanting took forty years, beginning in 1918. Some 200 miners’ homes and twenty business buildings were slid onto timbers, mounted onto steel wheels, tied to steam crawlers, and shunted to new resting places in Alice, first called South Hibbing. Countless more buildings were wrecked. The journey to Alice took a few days for smaller homes, but nearly a month for the Colonia Hotel. The old Sellers Hotel never made it, ending up as debris. Property owners began complicated litigation with the mining interests, who still calculated that their cache of iron ore was worth it. The courts generally sided with the mines, and the relocation of Hibbing continued piecemeal until the late 1950s.

Dylan witnessed this curious social upheaval, and it left a strong impression on him. In his second “Epitaph,” he reflected on that move, on the decaying old courthouse and his mother’s school, left rotting like the shattered wreckage of a wartime bomb.

Poor Immigrants

Hibbing was built mainly by Europeans. While urban bankers and financiers made big money, immigrant hands did hard labor. The Iron Range was Louis Adamic country, a melting pot as diverse as any city. The loggers were mostly Scandinavian, Finns primarily. Others arrived to dig the pits: Yugoslavs, Poles, Bohemians, Czechs, Italians. There was even a handful of Eastern European Jews. While Hibbing was digging itself into a golden hole, a pair of local drillers tapped another source of wealth. Andrew G Anderson, a former blacksmith who came to be known as Bus Andy, and Carl Eric Wickham, a young Swedish immigrant, decided to use Andy’s unsalable old Hupmobile car to transport passengers between Alice and Hibbing. In spring 1914, regular runs began; a two-mile trip cost fifteen cents. During the mine boom of World War I, the bus service expanded, and by 1916, the Mesabi Transportation Company had five buses, some off to Duluth and Minneapolis. In the 1920s, following more mergers and purchases that added links to small companies as far away as California, the Greyhound Bus Company was formed. All because, in 1914, Bus Andy couldn’t sell that brassy Hupmobile to anyone. Fatter with war profits, Hibbing boomed in the 1920s. Residential additions were tacked on, schools built, and Howard Street constructed. During that decade, the village reached an assessed valuation of $90 million, the richest in the world.

While Dylan was later taunted for “having invented his own Depression” out of Woody Guthrie, he had only to listen to a few town elders to know what the slump was like. During the 1930s, mining dropped off and the village fathers issued scrip money for local transactions. Thanks to the Works Projects Administration and World War II, prosperity returned; the Korean War gave the local mines another short-term boost. By 1953, the boomlet was over—the best iron ore had been eaten out of the canyon. The taconite process, in which huge magnets and sifters separate out commercially usable ore, had been developed. But it did not bring economic stability to the Range until the 1960s. By the mid-Fifties, the local Depression couldn’t be ignored by anyone in Hibbing. Dylan mined that vein for “North Country Blues,” which tells of the erosion of hope in a miner’s family. The Iron Age along the Mesabi was over, and only the chamber of commerce held out hope for the taconite process. Miners’ children began to drift away—”for there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.”5

The Refugees

Much as veterans rarely speak of combat, Dylan’s family rarely spoke of its refugee past. Feelings of separateness, persecution, and landless insecurity do not disappear quickly. The strengths and fears of those who escaped the czars’ tyrannies persisted. The link to a young American-born musician becomes clearer if we consider that the life of Russian Empire Jews was not much better than that of black American slaves. Both societies were oppressive, both cultures forced underground. Dylan’s natural affinity with the descendants of black slaves was an extension of his background.

With the pogroms, flight to America became as encompassing a dream as did deliverance to black slaves. To flee the czars, money was crucial. Pity the poor Jewish immigrant who had to arrive in America with about fifteen dollars, less than most other immigrants. This was the life that Dylan’s maternal forebears left in Lithuania and Latvia, and that his paternal grandparents fled from in Odessa in the Ukraine.

The flood of immigrants, who went by way of Bialystok to Dutch or German ports, usually stayed around New York, but many moved on if a friend, a cousin, or even a rumor said that life elsewhere held promise. After hearing about Iron Range prosperity, Dylan’s maternal grandfather, Ben D Stone, made the trip to Hibbing from Superior, Wisconsin. In 1913, he opened a general store at Stevenson Location, a village twelve miles west of South Hibbing. There, some 500 Finns, Italians, and Slovenians worked the mine, in clothes bought from friendly, outgoing Ben Stone. From the handful of Jewish families in the area, he chose a wife, Florence Edelstein, whose family operated a chain of Iron Range movie houses.

Movies came to Hibbing in 1906: twenty-minute, two-reel silents, followed by equally brief, silent westerns. Less than a decade later, the Hollywood dream factory produced five-reel features. By the 1920s, Julius Edelstein, Bob’s great-grandfather’s brother, was part owner of the Lyric Theater. Julius and B H Edelstein, Bob’s great-grandfather, prospered and took over the Garden Theater in 1925. They renamed it the Gopher and in 1928 sold out to a larger chain. In 1947, the brothers built the Lybba Theater, named after Bob’s great-grandmother. This family film link engendered Bob’s early awareness of show business, a connection—however tenuous—to Hollywood and the glamour of the performing world.

Ben Stone attended Range grade schools. Intelligent, with a keen business sense, he knew his market. Friendly, a bit of a back-slapper, he earned a decent living and the respect of Hibbing. When times were hard, Stone’s Clothing tried to help. If a pair of work pants cost $2.00 and a miner had only $1.10, Stone would settle for that. When the Stevenson Location mine dried up, he moved his family nine miles closer to Hibbing and re-established his store at First Avenue and Howard Street in a former bank, keeping stock in an empty vault. Ben and Florence had four children—Lewis, Vernon, Beatrice, and Irene. Beatrice, born in 1915, was Dylan’s mother, a bubbly woman, blonde, headstrong, nervous, volatile, and warm. She felt locked in the small Hibbing Jewish community and longed to get away. Some of Beatty Stone’s restlessness was assuaged by her father’s magnificent four-door Essex. When she was fourteen, her father offered her driving lessons. “I’ll teach you,” he said, moving the gearshift slowly. “You don’t have to,” Beatty replied. She had watched him drive often enough. To her father’s astonishment, she got behind the wheel and drove off. “Bobby is very much like I am,” she said years later. “You either do or you don’t.”

For Beatty, the original “rolling Stone,” the car meant access to Duluth and its more sophisticated social life. She could drive down to clubs like the Covenant, to see and be seen. She sought status, solidity, and the right marriage to a nice Jewish boy. To that end, she dressed impeccably in Iron Range high fashion, and kept the Essex highly polished. What others thought of her was important; material success meant security. Beatty’s dream of getting away from home began to be realized at a New Year’s Eve party in Duluth at the start of 1932, a dark winter of the Depression. She was a popular girl, but one man she met that New Year’s Eve had something beyond a sense of humor, quiet intelligence, and good looks. Abram Zimmerman had a job.

Swinging Duluth

Born in Duluth in 1911, Abe Zimmerman had, in fact, had some sort of a job since he was seven. His father, Zigman, had run a substantial shoe factory in Odessa, but in 1907 he traded it for a peddler’s cart in Duluth. He then sent for his wife, Anna, along with Abe’s older brother and sister. Every member of what became a family of eight pitched in. Abe shined shoes and sold papers, and also became a semi-professional ballplayer. Although Duluth had its Jewish ghetto “up on the hill,” the Zimmermans grew up in a neighborhood with many Scandinavians. Abe took long walks to play ball with his fellow Jewish boys. He spoke Yiddish to his family, but English otherwise.

The Zimmermans lived in a six-room house on Lake Avenue. Abe’s father had finally parked his peddler’s horse and buggy, having learned enough English selling fabric to farmers to sell shoes in the Fair Department Store. With everyone working, there was enough money to install a telephone. But whom could they call? They didn’t know anyone else who had one! Abe’s childhood was apparently uneventful, except for the great forest fire of 1918. Hundreds perished, but the fire was halted three miles outside Duluth.

By the time Abe was 16, the Zimmermans had moved to a nine-room house, and he was hired as a Standard Oil messenger boy for sixty dollars a month. He saved part, and contributed the rest to the family. “You wanted to do something for your parents then. You don’t see parents working and suffering as hard as they did in those days.” Abe also wanted to do some things for himself. When he sighted the bright and vivacious Beatty Stone at that party, he made a mental note to see her again. She was snowed in in Hibbing for most of that winter. When did they start to get serious? “Weather permitting,” replied Abe with characteristic sly humor. They were married two years later, in 1934, and Beatty escaped Hibbing for Duluth. By then, Abe was earning $100 a month. Abe and Beatty feathered their first nest at 519 Third Avenue East, living on the top floor of the two-family Overman frame house. Abe knew that Standard Oil was no place for him to make a fortune, but it was secure. He rose through the seventy-five-employee office to junior supervisor.

One evening in mid-May 1941, Abe and Beatty were listening to the radio. Abe scanned the newspapers. The Nazis were on the rampage throughout Europe. Jews were being hunted again. The Battle of Britain had been won, but elsewhere Axis armies were triumphing. Roosevelt was in the White House. The radio and jukeboxes of 1941 incessantly played “The Hut Sut Song,” a bit of nonsense in an unintelligible pseudo-Swedish dialect. (It was remarkably similar to a 1914 folk song, called “Hot Shot Dawson,” sung by a blind Negro minstrel.) Minneapolis’s own Andrews Sisters had sold their eight-millionth record, and their manager forbade them from taking music lessons for fear of spoiling their success. The radio broadcast family serials like One Man’s Family, The Goldbergs, and Fibber McGee and Molly. The Lone Ranger was a favorite with kids.

Although it may not have been widely noted in Duluth, the literary world of 1941 mourned three of its giants. James Joyce died in Switzerland. F Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson, two of the writers whom critic Maxwell Geismar later numbered among “the last of the provincials,” also died early in the year. Meanwhile, Beatty had a news bulletin of literary and musical significance. “Abe,” she exclaimed. “Abe, I feel it! I think the baby is coming.”

Continued here: Bob Dylan's Birth