Bob Dylan Long Ago

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young bob dylan with guitar

Beyond the Horizon ‘My childhood is so far away … it’s like I don’t even remember being a child. I think it was someone else who was a child. Did you ever think like that? I’m not sure that what happened to me yesterday was true.’ Interview with Rolling Stone, 1978

BOB DYLAN was born - and  ROBERT ALLEN ZIMMERMAN WAS BORN, and Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham also was born — when half the world was at war and the other half was edging towards its Bogart-in-Casablanca moment. This was in May of 1941, the 24th,1 in Duluth, Minnesota, a shipping port in the path of the winds that traverse the vastness of Lake Superior, where sometimes in winter the ice sheet is thrust twenty miles from the shore for three unending months of the year.

The town has two seasons, Dylan has said: damp and cold. Once mocked as ‘Zenith City’, Duluth slips towards the water’s edge from a worn volcanic rim of hills. ‘The train yards go on forever too,’ the native son has observed. ‘It’s old-age industrial, that’s what it is.’ Or it was. ‘It was as if Duluth sat,’ recalled one visitor, ‘on an edge of infinite blueness.’2

Six years after their child’s arrival at St Mary’s Hospital, Abram and Beatrice ‘Beatty’ Zimmerman would migrate 70-some miles northwards with their firstborn to Hibbing, a mining town whose best days were about to become a bleached memory and whose disappearing mineral wealth was memorialised in the rusty deeps of the biggest man-made hole — or so the depleted community would boast — on the planet. Hibbing, properly South Hibbing, was a long way from anyone and everything. From anyone who counted as anyone, that is, and from everything that someone might someday want. But Abe, like anyone, needed work.

Hibbing — ‘We’re Ore and More’ — was a small town then and has grown smaller since.3 The city limits are spread wide, but by 2009 the population had fallen to 16,237, down 4.9 per cent on the 2000 census. A century ago, just after the open pits of the Mesabi Range had been consolidated into one big operation and given birth to US Steel, the new township contained perhaps 20,000 souls. Getting things out of the ground still preoccupies their descendants. Recent city statistics record that near 20 per cent of local men are engaged in mining, quarrying, and the extraction of oil and gas. Another 10 per cent are in construction. Women work, as often as not, in health care or education.

They are white, overwhelmingly (97 per cent), these progeny of German, Norwegian, Irish, Swedish, Finnish, Serb, Croatian and Italian settlers. Churchgoers, too: half these days say they are Roman Catholics; one in five are affiliated to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With household incomes only two-thirds of the Minnesota median, not many are rich — 11.7 per cent live below the poverty line — but they don’t suffer much from crime, as averages go. Often enough they are staunch still for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor interest. In 2008 each and every county in the Iron Range came out for Barack Obama.

Minneapolis, the only real city within touching distance, is 170 miles or so from this hard land; Chicago is 464 miles distant. In winter, the weather is fierce, often touching 40° below, and given to dumping 100 inches of snow annually on the hinterlands of Lake Superior. Meanwhile, that giant hole, the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Mine, counts nowadays as a tourist attraction. Locally, the statistics are boasted. Three and a half miles long, two miles wide, 535 feet deep, the void — a National Historic Landmark since 1966 — is evidence of a billion tons of iron earth taken and gone.

Old North Hibbing, such as remained in Dylan’s childhood, was a ghost town, sucked dry and abandoned for the sake of the ore, the creaking ruins a spooky allegory of progress. Between 1919 and 1921, 200 buildings — houses, stores, even hotels, some cut in half for the purpose — were evulsed from this first settlement to make way for the Oliver Mining Company and dragged down the First Avenue Highway like so many surreal carnival floats. The parade continued, inching along, for decades thereafter. In Chronicles the singer remembers poking around, a curious child, amid what was left behind.

A strange land. In his 1980 book American Dreams: Lost and Found, Studs Terkel, memorialist and oral historian, transcribed an interview with an 81-year-old Minnesotan, Andy Johnson, who understood the strangeness. Brought from Finland, ‘the Old Country’, as a child in 1906, Mr Johnson recalled logging and homesteading and mining on the Iron Range.

Your American Dream? You got a terrible-looking hole down in the ground where we used to live once. It’s filled with water, and the wealth is taken out of the land. I don’t know what it’s good for. On the other hand, people live in nice houses, they’re painted well. There’s jobs for those that have jobs, and there are a lot of people on welfare in this country. I see a wonderful future for humanity, or the end of it.

Judging by photographs, bits of film and reminiscences, North Hibbing’s surviving sister community would have passed for any version of the old, ubiquitous Main Street USA in the days before Wal-Mart crushed the heartland in its embrace. In the winter snows it could have been Bedford Falls, waiting for Jimmy Stewart to dream again.

In fact, the author of Chronicles paints a pretty picture, possibly in imitation of one of Norman Rockwell’s discards, of Dickensian scenes never dared by Dickens, of streets full of sleighs, angel-decked Christmas trees, carol singers and wreaths on storefronts. Hibbing becomes a place frozen in time and snow. Remembering the town in winter, the writer could as well have been composing the notes for a festive Bob Dylan album (had anyone suspected that possibility in 2004). In his nostalgia — or in his joke at nostalgia’s expense — he writes of believing that his greeting-card Christmas was a universal experience. All that’s missing is ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night’. The point being: Dylan knows this perfectly well.

Where are the Jewish people in this tableau? As a matter of fact, if it was Christmas Eve the Zimmermans were probably attending midnight mass at the local Roman Catholic church. As Bob’s mother would explain in a 1985 interview, Christian neighbours would always be invited over for potato pancakes on Hanukkah; come the Christian holiday, the gesture would be reciprocated. It was all part of fitting in — two of Beatty’s brothers had married non-Jews, after all — and of being, whenever possible, if permitted, a part of the community. Hibbing’s Jews, business people dependent on goodwill, families with children whose schoolmates were invariably Gentile, understood what was required.

Dylan’s father and uncles, selling their electrical appliances from their store, were part of that. His mother’s family, the Stones, selling clothing to mining folk, were part of that. Yet even when the boy was growing Hibbing was notable, if notable, only because it seemed less remote than forgotten. Somehow it felt as though it didn’t connect with anywhere, or anything.

That wasn’t actually true: at the peak of its output the North Country was producing and shipping 80 per cent of America’s iron. Raised though he was on the republic’s fringe, Dylan grew up in an industrial landscape, even if nature was always close at hand. There were contrasts all around: mundane and remarkable, wild and tamed, a small town in a big landscape. His Hibbing was an ordinary place in an extraordinary physical circumstance, seemingly lost in a complicated terrain. That would have left its mark, you suspect, on anyone’s imagination. Yet where did ‘Bob Dylan’ originate? Nowhere to speak of.

People there were like people everywhere, nevertheless. In Dylan’s childhood most Americans still got their milk delivered. They wore few man-made fibres. The mail came twice a day. Everyone — 85 million of them — went to the movies every week. People smoked cigarettes without shame or fear and men drank beer from returnable bottles. They didn’t go to malls. They made do with one bathroom to a family, if they even had indoor plumbing. Everyone listened to the radio — on 44 million sets — but only the cities had their own stations; the rest of the country took pot luck with far-distant 50,000-watt ‘clear-channel’ transmitters that played all sorts of things, if the weather allowed. To fly in those days was rare, and four-lane highways were few. There was no welfare worth the name and in every town save the biggest telephone calls were still placed through an operator. Long distance was expensive.

Standing proud in a ruined world, America then seemed more or less content, or more or less complacent. By the war’s end its money had bought a weapon, the biggest weapon of all, called simply ‘the Bomb’. That instrument was meant to keep Americans safe, but already it was making them a little afraid. They had seen the newsreels. The years of Dylan’s infancy, the years of bloody conflict, had reminded people that the world beyond their borders was a dangerous place. What would happen if, more likely when, their enemies acquired the Bomb that ate cities? Already allies of recent memory were hoisting enemy colours. The America of immigrants, the America of refuge, minding its own business in its own backyard, no longer seemed inviolable. The people had won one war, they felt, only to begin to prepare, in their hearts and minds, for another.

Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, was still in the White House in those days, but his era was fading by the time young Bobby began to come to terms with Hibbing life: ‘To err,’ ran the joke, ‘is Truman.’ Racism, sexism and most of the other isms bar Communism were endemic then. Old Europe’s radical creed dismayed some, angered others and drove a few to vindictive lunacy. Not for the first time or the last, the idea of America was in dispute.

Eight million hunting licences were handed out at the war’s close to men who had become accustomed to guns. Divorce rates were meanwhile going down, birth rates were going up and most women married, said the statisticians, at the age of 21.5. Three in every four mothers stayed at home. Male life expectancy was 65.6 and a loaf of bread cost 14 cents. Fully half the workforce was unionised.

Who remembers? And who is reminded, in an America seemingly locked in the familiar cycles of patriotic war and national defence, that the past truly is another country? Dylan has been investigating that cliché for the last 20 years, perhaps longer. Approaching old age he inveighs against the iniquities and the blindness of these ‘Modern Times’ — mortal sin or digitised recording technology, according to his mood — but two things need to be understood.

First, the world in which he was raised is in every sense a long way distant. That really was another, vastly different America: the people who lived there didn’t even think the way people think now. Second, Dylan has endured the revolutionary’s fate. Once the voice of the modern, of now and tomorrow, he has become the echo of all the ghost voices, raised from the grooves and plucked from the airwaves, of a lost past. It colours his outlook somewhat.

Meanwhile, in Hibbing’s public library there stands a disconcerting papier-mâché statue of a long-gone native son, frozen in place and time, to bear silent witness. Each May brings the town’s ‘Dylan Days’, and those are a lot of fun, they say. Each May, Bob Dylan’s own Hibbing days slip a little further into the ethereal past.

The boy who invented and named the person was dislocated at birth. First, geographically: the North Country, a cartographer’s insult to Canada, was defined by the compass, as though the Iron Range drew the needle inexorably to a long stretch of nothing. Grown up and long departed, the singer would fantasise sometimes that all the iron ore in the cold ground, the latent magnetic force, could do strange and mystical things to people’s heads.

Second, this ‘Dylan’ was set aside by his genetic markers: his Jewish family, its forebears found in Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine, were part of a tiny minority amid Hibbing’s Scandinavian-Finnish-German-Irish majority.4 In 1937, 285 Jews resided in the town; by 1948 the figure was only 268.5 They dominated a modest business district around Howard Street and First Avenue, but their community was a small and discrete entity. Beatty’s family on her mother’s side, the Edelsteins, owned several movie houses — one named the Lybba, in 1947, after Beatty’s grandmother — while other Jewish people were busy in insurance, groceries, a department store or pharmacies. Abe’s two brothers, Maurice and Paul, ran Micka Electric, and were expanding that business to encompass all the new labour-saving appliances bewitching a victorious America flush with money to spend.

For all that, the community could not support a full-time rabbi, or so it is said, and its small-time entrepreneurs were not conspicuously devout. They ‘shaved their beards’, as Dylan has recalled, ‘and, I think, worked on Saturday’. In reality, those Jewish men failed to observe the Sabbath in the conventional sense simply because they had no other practical choice. Their businesses would not have survived Saturday closures. But their heritage, like their synagogue, like Dylan’s upbringing, was Orthodox.

So what does that make him? Or rather, what kinds of identity and allegiance were made in Hibbing, in that small, remote community? Chronicles is silent on the question: its author has never had much patience for such enquiries. Over the piece, Dylan has been as spiritually promiscuous as any questing rock star, accepting Jesus at one moment, drawing close to the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement at another, but capable of declaring Old and New Testaments to be equally ‘valid’. He has also seemed happy, as often as not, to detach himself from fixed religious loyalties and local patriotism. He cuts himself loose, time and again. Is that, perversely, Hibbing’s mark? That was his story, once upon a time.

No one is left now to judge. Hibbing’s Jews, but for a handful, are gone, just as they are gone from every corner of the Iron Range. It is as though the tide of migration that once swept them in has carried them away. The synagogue known to Bobby Zimmerman and his parents was abandoned a generation ago. He severed all the ties save memory’s tether, but the once tenacious community into which he was born has faded entirely. That wasn’t Bobby Zimmerman’s doing; he didn’t cause the old world to disappear. Still, in the twenty-first century nothing important remains of his past except halts on a local Bob Dylan ‘heritage’ trail.

In Britain in 1965 a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle put the question bluntly: ‘Are you Jewish?’ Dylan answered: ‘No, I’m not, but some of my best friends are.’ In 1978, a Playboy interviewer asked him if he had thought much about being Jewish while he was growing up. He replied: ‘No, I didn’t. I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish. I don’t have much of a Jewish background.’ In another encounter with the press, he was asked directly if he had been ‘aware of any anti-Semitism’ as a child.

No. Nothing really mattered to me except learning another song or a new chord or finding a new place to play, you know? Years later, when I’d recorded a few albums, then I started seeing in places ‘Bob Dylan’s a Jew,’ stuff like that. I said, ‘Jesus, I never knew that.’ But they kept harping on it; it seemed like it was important for people to say that — like they’d say ‘the one-legged street singer’ or something. So after a period of time, I thought, ‘Well, gee, maybe I’ll look into that.’6

In Dylan’s childhood, despite vicissitudes, the Zimmermans earned their share of American dreams — Pop in his store, Mom in her kitchen — and suffered no overt bigotry, or so it used to be said. Beatty herself insisted, on one occasion at least, that the family encountered no problems with their Gentile neighbours. Robert Shelton nevertheless quoted ‘a teacher at Hibbing High’ who vouched that ‘the Finns hated the Bohemians and the Bohemians hated the Finns. Nearly everyone hated the Jews.’ It has also been alleged that Abe Zimmerman, a keen golfer, was barred from the local ‘restricted’ Mesaba Country Club. In Minnesota, back then, that wasn’t even half the story.

When Dylan was a child the state had a tainted reputation. In 1946, the writer Carey McWilliams, later editor of The Nation, described Minneapolis as ‘the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States’. In 1948, a survey commissioned by the city’s mayor, the future presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, found that 63 per cent of local firms employed no Jews, blacks or Japanese-Americans. In the late 1930s, when Abe and Beatty were embarking on married life, job ads in Minnesota had still carried the qualification ‘Gentile preferred’. In 1938, one Elmer Benson had faced a viciously anti-Semitic assault in his doomed attempt to succeed Floyd B. Olson as the state’s Farmer-Labor governor: the party, said his enemies, was ‘run by Jews’. In the Depression, William Dudley Pelley’s fascist Silver Shirts, the ‘Silver Legion of America’ in their leggings, stormtrooper caps and bizarre glittering blouses, could muster 6,000 members in the state, according to an extensive investigation conducted by the Minneapolis Journal.

So did someone say, ‘Jesus, I never knew that’? He managed sarcasm and denial simultaneously. He knew all about being a Jew in small-town Middle America, yet refused to accept that it mattered. Anyone inclined to ponder Dylan’s persistent ambivalence towards Judaism and his Minnesota roots might want to bear the strategy in mind. Certainly Tony Glover, the musician and journalist who was a close friend in Minneapolis at the start of the 1960s, would later suggest that Bobby Zimmerman’s change of name to Dylan was ‘a racial thing’, a response to the possibility of anti-Semitism.7

After the war, anecdotally, discrimination became ‘discreet’ in Minnesota as reforms were enforced. You sense, nevertheless, that the rarity of Jews gave rise to circumspection, even in little Hibbing. They kept to themselves, as ever, and attended to their own affairs: that made sense. Judaism, whatever it has meant or truly means to Dylan, was in those days a cultural force in the big cities of the new American land, but no Jew ever forgot the old story of pogrom and flight. Dylan’s paternal grandfather had seen it unfold at first hand. Zigman (Zisel) Zimmerman had arrived at Ellis Island in 1907 from Odessa, in Ukraine, after the infamous Kishinev pogrom in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews were hunted out and murdered.

Nor had the promised land ever been free of the poison: from the Civil War onwards anti-Semitism was a reliable card for American demagogues to play. The census of 1860 had identified 31.4 million Americans, with four million slaves among them, but by most estimates Jews were numbered in a few tens of thousands before that time. Mass migration, transforming America and Europe alike, began with the arrival of some 200,000 German Jews on the eve of the struggle between the states. Between 1882 and 1914, when Dylan’s forebears made their way to the heartland, four million of their coreligionists crossed the Atlantic. Bigotry was by then ingrained, in some places almost respectable.

When Abe and Beatty were preparing to marry, one Father Charles Coughlin, ‘the Radio Priest’, was pumping out anti-Semitic propaganda from Chicago to an audience of millions. Coughlin and his allies denounced Franklin Roosevelt for conspiring with Wall Street’s ‘Jew bankers’ while the German American Bund, swastikas on its banners, was parading in New York City. Equally, it was not just in Minnesota that Jews found it hard to join certain clubs, enter certain professions or even holiday at certain resorts. By the war’s end, as though to complete the lesson, hideous news was on its way, yet again, from Europe. Safe enough, the child Robert, known from the first as Bobby, was nevertheless birthed, ready or not, into that category called ‘different’ in the North Country. Forty nationalities had converged on the Iron Range mines at the beginning of the century, but Jews were, for some, still Jews.

That reality foreshadowed the third thing. Dylan has sometimes struggled to explain, perhaps most tellingly in No Direction Home, the 2005 TV documentary overseen by Martin Scorsese, that Hibbing was never a place in which he felt comfortably rooted. He loved his mother, they say, and in 1968 he wept over his father’s death, but somehow home was always elsewhere. No doubt he was talking to the film’s title when he tried to describe his uneasy relationship with his origins. On the other hand, the bare facts of his life and long, itinerant career seem to confirm the claim. ‘I was born very far from where I was supposed to be,’ he told the camera, ‘so I’m going home.’

Over the years Dylan has sometimes sounded almost wistful about a distant, snowbound — forever snowbound — home town where the aurora scratched the horizon, a billion trees whispered and life depended on wresting iron from the earth, but always he seems to pull himself back to wherever else he happens to be. In October of 2009 he sat down with the author and broadcaster Bill Flanagan for the benefit of the North American Street Newspaper Association to talk about a Christmas album, of all things. Nostalgia, homesickness and the young man who struck out for New York City were mentioned. Dylan wouldn’t have it. He said: ‘I didn’t bring the past with me when I came to New York. Nothing back there would play any part in where I was going.’ So I’m going home.

In America, that land of transients, there are millions who would probably make similar statements. Heading off to the big city is a rite of passage; travel has a meaning so plainly symbolic it is hardly worth discussing. The journey towards new beginnings is fundamentally American. So what does it mean, then, if you never cease to travel on? Old western movies liked that motif, but so did Homer. Hibbing, as Dylan has painted it, was one of those near-featureless towns surrounded by a lot of empty (‘You probably couldn’t even find it on a map’) seemingly created just to drive off the young and ambitious. In him, nevertheless, the reaction was near metaphysical, the feeling indelible.

In April of 1963 he produced verses entitled ‘My Life in a Stolen Moment’ by way of programme notes for his concert at New York’s Town Hall. This time he didn’t deny Hibbing, or his parents, yet nor did he offer the truth and nothing but. Equally, the absence of any affection for his home of a dozen years was plain enough.

Hibbing’s got the biggest open pit ore mine in the world

Hibbing’s got schools, churches, grocery stores an’ a jail

It’s got high school football games an’ a movie house

Hibbing’s got souped-up cars runnin’ full blast on a Friday night

Hibbing’s got corner bars with polka bands

You can stand at one end of Hibbing’s main drag an’ see clear past the city limits on the other end

Hibbing’s a good ol’ town I ran away from it when I was 10, 12, 13, 15, 151⁄2, 17 an’ 18

I been caught an’ brought back all but once

I wrote my first song to my mother an’ titled it ‘To Mother’

I wrote that in 5th grade an’ the teacher gave me a B+

I started smoking at 11 years old an’ only stopped once to catch my breath

These days, reportedly, Dylan owns many of the fine houses Americans persist in calling ‘homes’. He even has a place in Scotland, a mansion near the small Highland town of Nethy Bridge.8 But a home? He says not and you are inclined to believe him. The fact that all of this fits neatly with a well-worn native mythology — of Shane, Huck Finn who has to ‘light out for the Territory ahead of the rest’, Blind Blake singing ‘Packing up my duffle, gonna leave this town’ — is no coincidence. Still, Dylan has earned those credentials many times over. The American frontier has long gone, ‘the road’ has become fiction, but his restlessness is incurable. So the story goes. Whatever he likes to claim about the life of a working musician, he has been touring relentlessly, as these things are measured, for almost a quarter of a century. He does not, or cannot, linger. ‘The great affair,’ as Robert Louis Stevenson once foresaw, ‘is to move.’ The story also goes that Dylan has felt this way for as long as he can remember.

Still, consider this. The introduction to Peter Guralnick’s fine book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979) is subtitled ‘Trying to Get Home’. Its first few pages amply confirm Dylan’s matter-of-fact claim that travelling is just what a real musician does. But Guralnick — who never once mentions Bob Dylan — is doubly illuminating. Here, for example:

For someone like Ernest Tubb, the road has become almost an escape, providing him with a welcome refuge from all the nagging problems that assault him at home … As one of his long-time associates says, ‘I think Ernest will die right in the back of that damn bus.’

Or here:

Similarly for Bobby Bland, the road has become a refuge, it has insulated him against all the distractions of ‘the street’, given him an aura and a retinue that serve to mask his fears and insecurities, indeed his helplessness in the face of tasks that seem commonplace to those who live in the square world of nine to five.9

In the other world, in Dylan’s world, there is no way home, nor any real desire to get to such a place, irrespective of the poetic truth he offered to Scorsese’s film-makers. Yet he is not, or not quite, consumed by his legend: that above all is resisted. He has returned to Minnesota often enough over the years (a farm there is one of those numerous ‘homes’). He can and does live anywhere he pleases. An existential sense of dislocation, deep as it might be, is one thing. But he will not be typecast, even by his own words. So he grows irritated when people, journalists or fans, keep talking about his ‘Never-Ending Tour’.10 It has become another Dylan cliché passed off as a mystery, a conceit too alluring to be tested. For his own part he told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1997:

A lot of people don’t like the road, but it’s as natural to me as breathing. I do it because I’m driven to do it, and I either hate it or love it. I’m mortified to be on the stage, but then again, it’s the only place where I’m happy. It’s the only place you can be who you want to be. You can’t be who you want to be in daily life. I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be disappointed in daily life. But the cure-all for all that is to get on the stage, and that’s why performers do it. But in saying that, I don’t want to put on the mask of celebrity. I’d rather just do my work and see it as a trade.

Nevertheless, Guralnick’s invocations of Tubb, Bland and others besides might explain some things, or at least leave you wondering about roads not taken. Is Dylan still searching for home as he travels, as he buys ‘home’ after ‘home’, the better to shelter his wealth?11 Or has he understood that for the likes of him there never was, and never will be, a final destination, personally or artistically, and that for as much as it matters the road will be his refuge too, until the end? What does that say about him? What does that say about the place where he was raised? This is as American, mythic and actual, as it gets.

Just as the newest Zimmerman was busy being born in 1941, lusty and cute, a 28-year-old singer of populist sentiment and democratic intent was securing a month’s paid work in Oregon, and grateful for it, with the Bonneville Power Administration. Woodrow ‘Woody’ Guthrie had cut a few records and done some radio, but the jobs had dried up. With a bunch of blond children to feed he had seized the chance to become an Everyman-narrator for a documentary film on the dams and electricity schemes that were harnessing the Columbia River. The picture never got properly made, and his role was soon curtailed by jittery producers, but in his 30 days’ employment Guthrie experienced an upwelling torrent of his own.

Twenty-six songs in a month, or so the legend would run, all manner of songs, arch and artful, ‘artistic’ yet accessible, but taken together they formed a montage with a clarity and instinctive sympathy no camera could match. Political, of course, perhaps (the Feds and worried film-makers guessed) red — even if Guthrie was never clear about such details — but intrinsically American. While Soviet propaganda boasted of a revolution to tame nature itself, sweat-salted democrats were raising their own monuments to progress, and inching towards their own kind of brave new world.

Or so Guthrie told it. Each day he would travel the wild river’s banks, watching, seeing, talking, scribbling. Always scribbling. He was catching the voices and giving voice. And each night back in Portland he would refine the words. He was a man entranced.

Two decades later, a boy besotted with Guthrie, flattering his hero into myth by dint of imitation, would feel his own dam burst and let the songs come out. He would absorb Guthrie, right down to the bare stolen bones of those Okie speech patterns, but then he would digest the legacy. He would swallow it whole. The ‘Bob Dylan’ who hitched a ride to New York in the unspeakably cold January of 1961, and thereafter took the bus to New Jersey’s Greystone Park Hospital just to play Woody’s songs to Woody — because he knew ‘200 of them’ — soon surpassed the old man without appearing to try. But then, the others, the rest of them, did not appear even to try.

Huntington’s chorea, an inherited degenerative disease,12 had turned Guthrie’s body into a shambles by the time Dylan knew him. Despite medication, the jerks, spasms and tremors were near uncontrollable, the formerly sure dry voice often almost indecipherable. The dying man’s biographer13 would later assert that a ‘real rapport’ developed between Guthrie and Dylan. Visits from ‘the boy’ were eagerly awaited, it was said, and the baton passed: ‘That boy’s got a voice … He can really sing it.’ Others have declared categorically, sometimes with asperity, that by this stage in his terrible illness Guthrie was often barely capable of recognising his oldest friends, or of making himself understood, far less of bestowing his blessing on another guitar-playing acolyte. Howard Sounes, in his portrait of Dylan, quotes Pete Seeger and Harold Leventhal, Woody’s manager, to that effect: they detected no special bond. Variations have been added to the theme. In a widely circulated yet unattributed account — one that nevertheless surfaces in Guthrie’s Wikipedia entry — Woody seemed at first to take a shine to Dylan but later, on his ‘bad days’, berated the youth. In the end, it is claimed, he had no idea who the young interloper might be.

So which was it: a deep and instant affinity, intrinsic to the Dylan legend, or no big deal? Given the nature of Huntington’s disease, the probable answer lies somewhere between the two. In notes based on researches in the Woody Guthrie Archives, Thomas H. Conner makes frequent mention of the singer’s irrational ‘rages’, those first symptoms of his affliction.14 Guthrie’s violent behaviour, long misdiagnosed as alcoholism or schizophrenia, had caused his second wife, Marjorie, to fear for the safety of her children back in 1952. Berating Dylan, or anyone else, was the least of it.

As Woody’s body began to shut down he sometimes fell into ‘a sort of trance, and no one could reach him’.15 The extent of his awareness of his surroundings was far from clear. He had a lot of young visitors, meanwhile, and they all sang Woody Guthrie songs: when able, the sick man demanded no less. It isn’t obvious that one devoted boy was picked out for praise or abuse. He no doubt received his share of each.

Dylan, though, has never wavered in his devotion to his hero. Twenty-first-century interviewers still comment on the fact. You might also say, equally, that he has never wavered in his loyalty to his youthful self. The kid who found something in Woody’s songs — the history-in-tradition, the mythologised loner, the truth-to-power truculence, the humour, the idea of authenticity — found his own voice and identity in an act of loving impersonation. So the older Dylan sticks by that boy. He also abides by the bargain struck: true to the music still, as he conceives it, and true to the idea of America that is embedded in Guthrie’s ballads. Things would have been simpler if Dylan had remained a Little Richard fan.

Woody was a fake in his own way, of course, a master phoney, and incurably feckless with it. For one thing, he was not raised poor. Before things went sour in the 1920s his father, Charley, was a prosperous and politically ambitious property speculator — a staunch anti-Communist too, ironically enough — with 30 rental properties to his name, and the first automobile in Okemah, Oklahoma. Woody explained all of this well enough in his ‘autobiography’, Bound for Glory, but somehow managed to sound as though little of it had anything to do with him. For his part, he preferred to play the cornpone singing philosopher: a conventional enough pose in his chosen field in the late 1930s. That he would soon become deeply serious in his ragged anger and in his compassion is beyond question. But ‘Woody Guthrie’ was a deliberate creation just as much as ‘Bob Dylan’ ever was.16

Granted, Woody rode the rails and stood by the workers. He knew their lives and understood their hopes and fears: the songs are his vindication. Guthrie had seen some hard times of his own, and experienced at least one ‘Great Dust Storm’. But he was never an authentic part of the ‘great migration of Okies and Arkies in second-hand trucks piled high with possessions and heading west’,17 never a proletarian dirt farmer driven by the wind. Unlike such refugees, he chose to make for California in 1936 — deserting a young wife and family in the process — because, well, Woody felt like it. Barely a year after quitting Texas, he was a radio star in LA, exploiting the craze for novelty ‘cowboy’ singers and laying on the Okie accent for all he was worth.

For much of his time Woody Guthrie was an accomplished writer and performer, a professional entertainer with a conscience. But when Dylan was being born Guthrie was creating the music for which Dylan was being born. Not that anyone suspected such a thing.

America had joined the effort to eradicate the Axis powers before he could walk. Guthrie and others of the formerly pacifistic, non-intervention, union-organising left had changed their tunes, or at least their lyrics, with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. By the evening of Sunday, 7 December 1941, with Pearl Harbor a blazing ruin and the US Pacific Fleet shattered, they were finding new songs for what Woody called ‘the new situation’. ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ said the famous warning pasted on his guitar. Suddenly, the loner’s line was national policy. And Bob Dylan’s first president, the first of many, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Before the child was much older 12.1 million Americans were in uniform. News of war was ubiquitous, but the conflict itself was a distant thing in Minnesota, though it kept the mines busy. At its end in 1945, as Europe crawled from the rubble, as cauterised Japan contemplated its scars and the Soviet Union counted 24 million dead, Americans had some good reasons to be content. There were 140 million of them then and their wages had roughly doubled since 1939.18 With consumer goods in short supply in the war years, they had salted their earnings away, $30 billion worth. Now they were ready to spend. The great prosperity, the unparalleled age, beckoned. It would endure, economists reckon, until 1973. This was the American Century and here, never bashful, was ‘the American Way of Life’.

These days, the singer can count to a round dozen if he ever stops to wonder about the men in the White House who followed FDR. In Chronicles Dylan talks of being a child at the end of the 1940s, and of hearing Truman speak in Duluth. He recalls that Minnesota folk were not inclined towards Republicanism in those days. Instead, they embraced the remnant American Left of the Farmer Labor Party, social democracy, socialism and Communism. Yet by the close of polling in the general election of 1960 Minnesota was too close to call in the struggle between Democrats and Republicans. In the end, the state granted John F. Kennedy only 50.6 per cent of the vote.

In the present era Dylan is a citizen of a wider country in which, for perhaps half the population, a ‘liberal’ is the next worst thing to a red, in which the state rescue of a corrupt banking system is labelled ‘socialist’, and in which the white God’s enemies plot and swarm. The fear of a vast conspiracy against America, a terror supposedly confirmed by the 9/11 atrocities, seems ubiquitous in the world’s most powerful country. True, a black man has occupied the Oval Office, finally, but the world of Dylan’s childhood, of FDR, Guthrie, radicals and ‘Social Democrats’, is a forgotten dream. Forty per cent of the singer’s fellow Americans identify themselves consistently in opinion polls as firmly, morally, socially and politically ‘conservative’. Things have changed.

Which is to say, again, that Dylan’s native land is long gone. He came into an America utterly alien and entirely lost to most twenty-first-century Americans. His attitudes, his responses, his tradition are each as fragile now as ancient movie stock. The old-time musical stuff over which he exults — and which he preserves — was once the stuff of his life. He, too, is a kind of conservative.

If anything, in fact, his responses to the age are reactionary in most senses of the word. The old progressive crowd from Greenwich Village and their heirs, the people who still from time to time mourn Dylan’s willed absence from the ideological front line, don’t grasp the half of it. On most matters, he’s with the God-happy 40 per cent.

Which side are you on, boy? That was one of Woody’s favourites. An answer, pieced together, would not thrill the standard soi-disant liberal of today. Dylan doesn’t care for modern times, even if — especially if — there are no others available. It is no coincidence at all that the second chapter of Chronicles is entitled ‘The Lost Land’.

His parents were married fully six years before his birth, in a country still attempting to crawl from the wreckage of the Great Depression. Clearly, the two facts were connected. Guthrie’s Okies were still being blown westwards from the Dust Bowl to California when Abe and Beatty were joined in Hibbing, her home town, before moving to Duluth, Abe’s birthplace, to start married life in his mother’s busy household. Dylan’s father had begun his working life as a messenger boy for Standard Oil, rising steadily. By the time of the son’s birth Abe was a manager with the company, ‘senior’, by some accounts, or just the man in charge of the stock department in other versions. It was no road to riches. Instead, the Zimmermans seemed to have a degree of security, and that was neither a small nor a bad thing.

When genius appears the temptation always is to attempt to find the child in the parent, or to account for the fact that lineage seems to explain nothing. What was there of Bobby in Abe? The father was a steady man, it seems, a hard worker (from the age of seven onwards), briefly a (company) union personage, not too tall, sometimes affecting a cigar, deliberate in speech, and in all appearances a methodical soul. He was also something of a moralist: not doctrinaire, but devout enough and dead certain about what he knew of right and wrong. When his pretty firstborn was lauded by family and friends as precocious and bound for glory, Abe — in Shelton’s account — didn’t buy it. His greatest discernible gift to his son was that he did not manage to impede Bobby by much.

The infant liked to perform; Abe did not. It seems he had played some violin in his own childhood, in a little family ensemble, but there is no evidence that he encouraged or discouraged his boy. Instead, he and Beatty did all the right things, as things were measured in 1940s America, but without flamboyance. Hibbing, its streets still full of the sounds of elderly immigrant voices, had never been in their plans; nor did they rush — a sense of caution, of common sense, hangs over the pair — to build a family until circumstances and Abe’s career allowed. They had waited six years to have their first home and their first child, and close to a further five for their second boy, David Benjamin Zimmerman. Then events, their sequence unclear, combined to test them.

David was born in February of 1946. Abe lost his Standard Oil job just before or (more likely) shortly after the birth. In that year, in any case, a vicious epidemic struck the country and left Dylan’s father a different, diminished man. Polio, the terrifying poliomyelitis, tended to lay waste children and adolescents, crippling, paralysing or killing them. It struck without warning, often with no symptoms at all. If the virus got into the blood and the central nervous system, however, the carnage wrought on motor neurons was absolute. In 1946, the scourge claimed Abe. It changed his life, and Dylan’s life, and yet, nine years before the introduction of Jonas Salk’s vaccine, the elder Zimmerman was among the lucky ones. So too, if you stop to think about it, were his children. There would be 25,000 reported cases of polio in the US that year; by 1952, the figure reached 58,000, a national emergency in that older, other America. As a doctor who was near at hand in 1946 remembered:

The first summer when I was home in Minnesota was that gosh-awful polio epidemic they had there … Maybe two or three hours after a lot of these kids would come in with a stiff neck or a fever, they’d be dead … At the height of the epidemic, the people in Minneapolis were so frightened that there was nobody in the restaurants. There was practically no traffic, the stores were empty. It just was considered a feat of bravado almost to go out and mingle in public. A lot of people just took up and moved away, went to another city …19

Bobby was oblivious to all of this, as far as we know, but what we know isn’t much. In 1978, already older than Abe had been amid the crisis, Dylan told a journalist from the French newspaper L’Express: ‘My father was a very active man, but he was stricken very early’ — Abe was then 35 — ‘by an attack of polio. The illness put an end to all his dreams, I believe. He could hardly walk.’ Dylan would also say that his father ‘suffered much pain his whole life. I never understood this until much later, but it must have been hard for him.’20

In Chronicles, nevertheless, a slightly strange claim — among several — is made. There Dylan writes that the ravages of polio had prevented his father from joining up during the war. The disease was not rare in the first half of the twentieth century, but 1946 suffered what was, as Time magazine noted, America’s ‘worst polio year in three decades’. Outbreaks in the war years were far less severe. Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis (2010) involves an imagined, metaphorical epidemic taking place in Newark, New Jersey, in 1944, but Roth chose that year precisely because there was no epidemic. Perhaps Dylan’s childhood memories failed him, or perhaps he was applying his imagination to a problem: namely, his father’s failure to enlist when his uncles had served in the forces and survived the ordeal. Shelton interviewed the elder Zimmerman and was specific about 1946 as the grim year when Abe was left to ‘crawl up the front steps like an ape’. He had been 30 for just a couple of months when Pearl Harbor was bombed. What prevented this ‘very active man’ from joining up?

In 1946 he emerged from hospital relatively quickly, outwardly almost unscathed, but after six months spent recuperating at home, and condemned to carry a slight limp — no one thought he could ‘hardly walk’ — his chances of reclaiming his job with Standard Oil, or finding another, were slim. For his family’s sake, he had no choice: Hibbing it was.

Micka Electrics opened for business in the summer of 1947. Maurice and Paul took brother Abe on as ‘secretary-treasurer’ — bookkeeper, in effect — in a town whose future seemed suddenly precarious. Hindsight could construct a tiny metaphor for the American century at its apogee from little Hibbing, immigrant melting pot, in that moment. The country was victorious, the country was rich, but suddenly, unthinkably, the ore seemed to be running out. Who could have suspected such a thing? The Mesabi Range — in Ojibwa the word means ‘giant’ — is, or was, a strip of iron ore deposits 110 miles long, between one and three miles wide, and in places 500 feet deep. Nevertheless, in a handful of decades it had been consumed. Wealth, even American wealth, was not infinite, and Hibbing had been left vulnerable by pit owners who had spent years ‘minimising’ their tax obligations. Miners were restive; strikes would follow; more than once, the town faced straitened times.

Come gather ’round friends

And I’ll tell you a tale

Of when the red iron pits ran plenty

But the cardboard filled windows

And old men on the benches

Tell you now that the whole town is empty

‘North Country Blues’, recorded in 1963 for Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, was one token of an unbroken connection with Hibbing, that town ‘very far from where I was supposed to be’. Barry Feinstein’s monochrome cover portrait of the singer with rough-cut hair and well-worn work shirt even makes him resemble some downtrodden miner (not that he would ever have accepted that fate), or a sharecropper fugitive from the pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.21 Nevertheless, for this piece Dylan adopts the persona of a miner’s wife widowed with three children. A folk convention or a disguise? He had been none too forthcoming — meaning downright evasive or hilariously dishonest — about his Minnesota roots in his rise to cult stardom during 1963. He paid no attention, then or later, to the indigenous folk music of the northern Midwest. Yet in this song a cliché is jolted into life: ‘North Country Blues’ is layered with home truths.

The widow tells of mines shutting down (‘your ore ain’t worth digging’) and of a husband, John Thomas, dead and gone. That was Hibbing’s story, at least until the unlovely taconite process seemed to save the industry.22 But the last verse concludes: ‘My children will go / As soon as they grow / Well there ain’t nothing here now to hold them.’ That was Dylan’s story.

First there was the dreamtime of childhood. It fell, as it falls for most, into two phases: paradisal innocence, then the experience, gathering pace, of restlessness and inevitable revolt. Dylan took it further than most. His Hibbing years seem now, in his songs and scattered statements, like a parable of all that was and might have been in America: love, loss, time out of mind, a world gone wrong. Reality might have been another matter, of course: even Dylan now tells the story of his early years.

The Zimmermans lived first with Beatty’s mother, Florence Stone, on 3rd Avenue East. Bob’s mother went back to work as a clerk at Feldman’s Department Store; his father began his duties at the appliance store on 5th Avenue. Soon enough, Bobby would be hanging around, sweeping up or accompanying his uncles on wiring jobs and the like. After a year or so, Abe moved his family to a solid three-bedroomed house at 2425 7th Avenue, a short walk from the high school, from the downtown district, from numerous relatives, and from anything and everything, the great endless outdoors included, that Hibbing might have to offer.

In the composite portrait the child is shy, a little sensitive, but wants for nothing. As he would later observe, no one in his home town was conspicuously better off or worse off than anyone else; the real mining wealth, like the ore itself, was shipped out. Still, Bobby had plenty of friends. In Duluth he had attended kindergarten; in Hibbing he grasped the point of the Alice Grade School23 — it lasted all day — and wore the occasional insults of those who teased him because of his odd, complicated name. It seems, too, that he acquired the retentive, sponge-like capacity of near-infinite memory: he opened his eyes and his ears.

What he saw and heard can seem impossibly quaint now, or utterly bizarre. In Chronicles, Dylan would recall schoolchildren trained to dive beneath their desks when the sirens sounded. This was supposed to save them, and children all across America, from the Russians and their bombs. Those same Russian hordes — the Russians his uncles had encountered as allies — were even then poised to come parachuting down on little Hibbing. Few doubted it. Yet in another part of a child’s world the sight and sound of the railroads, crossing the country roads, halting traffic at intersections, was a guarantor of security. When the trains were running the world was complete, and incapable of change. This mixture, confidence and dread intertwined, was entirely of its time.

Duck and Cover, said Bert the Turtle, a friendly cartoon, in the 1951 civil-defence movie designed to provide America and its children with the illusion that a nuclear war could be endured. You Can Survive, said the official government pamphlet, cultivating ignorance and optimism in equal measure. Kids of Dylan’s age were encouraged to wear ID tags, the better to identify the corpses — though the fact was not advertised — should the government be mistaken in its confidence. The Soviets had set off their first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in August of 1949, adding a footnote to one war and commencing another. Even in the North Country, where miners daily blasted rock as old as the planet, the political aftershocks would be felt for decades. No American child was left innocent. Meanwhile the ore trains, hauled by the big Yellowstone locomotives of the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railroad, Hibbing’s lifeline and reason to exist, went rumbling off into a child’s memory.

He did OK. He played in the woods and on the spoil-heaps-become-hillsides. He listened to those unending ore trains as they snaked through the landscape. He tried the Boy Scouts, but it didn’t last. At ten or eleven — said Shelton, curating Beatty’s proud memories — he even tried writing poetry, for Mother’s Day. Somehow that idea endured. In due course ‘Bob Dylan’ became a voice, a form of words.

A nice, white, ordinary Jewish boy was raised by decent, caring parents. There wasn’t much more to it than that. His faith was a little out of the ordinary in a town that was a little out of the way in an early 1950s America whose reality long ago blended with movie myth and nostalgia. But that, too, was OK, more or less. You could arrange the pieces. In 1952, the Zimmermans, early adopters, acquired a TV set to receive news — the signal came and went — from a new age. In 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, a Jewish couple, were executed for selling the secrets of the Bomb to the Soviet enemy. In 1954, a US senator named Joseph McCarthy was censured finally for un-American activities against those he had deemed un-American and a new Bomb, the hydrogen one, turned a blameless Pacific atoll into vitrified slag. In 1955, a western drama named Gunsmoke was the electrifying sensation among all the new cowboy shows on all the new TV sets while the black people of Montgomery, Alabama, were boycotting city buses just for the right to sit where they chose.

In 1955, at the J&M Recording studio in New Orleans, a frustrated 22-year-old former jump blues performer named Richard Penniman began to mess around on the piano, trying his luck again with one of his old stage numbers, a risqué little ditty called ‘Tutti Frutti’.

In 1955, in Nashville, a 20-year-old piano player from Louisiana named Lewis, a handsome devil who had been kicked out of Bible school for adding boogie-woogie to God’s Word, was looking for luck and finding none. The record company guys said he should switch to guitar.

In 1955, one Charles Hardin Holley, Buddy to his friends, had the great good luck to be picked as the opening act for a show in his home town of Lubbock, Texas, with an attentive agent in the crowd and a record deal about to happen.

In 1955, on 15 October, the 19-year-old Buddy Holly was followed on stage by another minor, a 20-year-old sometimes known as the Memphis Flash, sometimes as the Hillbilly Cat, whose act tended to enrage teenage boys and most grown-ups. Over in Odessa, Texas, still another 19-year-old, Roy Orbison, was prepared to drive 355 miles to Dallas just to see and hear what Holly was seeing and hearing. Hibbing, Minnesota, though, had seen nothing yet.

A lifetime later, in that world gone wrong, ‘Bob Dylan’ and Bobby Zimmerman were reunited briefly. Together they said: ‘When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss … Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.’24 Rock and roll could make anything seem simple. In the mind of the young Zimmerman, nevertheless, consciousness of a two-fold problem was forming, day by day, year by year. Steadily it became a conviction. He was the wrong person in the wrong place.


1 Strangely, the front of the booklet supplied with the 1991 compendium The Bootleg Series Volumes 1—3 (Rare & Unreleased) displays what purports to be Dylan’s passport, issued in 1974, due to expire in 1979. Thus: hair brown, eyes blue, height — it says here — five eleven. And a date of birth: 11 May 1941.

2 William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1983).

3 Founded in 1893 by a German named Frank — the key, obviously — who for reasons obscure decided to call himself Hibbing. His town is twinned with Walsrode in Lower Saxony.

4 The Zimmerman name first appeared in medieval Prussia, commonly among Ashkenazi Jews, with its roots in Middle High German. It once meant ‘carpenter’.

5 According to Andrew Muchin, ‘Dylan’s Jewish Pilgrimage’, (March 2005), quoting The American Jewish Yearbook.

6 Interview with Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, June 1984.

7 In a contribution to Scorsese’s No Direction Home.

8 Aultmore House, a handsome, ten-bedroom Edwardian mansion set amid 25 acres of woodland within the Cairngorms National Park. It was purchased by Dylan and his brother David towards the end of 2006 for, reportedly, £2.2 million. The selling agents boasted of formal terraces, lawns, two gazebos and a grotto, no less. The house was built at the turn of the twentieth century by a Scottish entrepreneur grown rich from the ownership of pre-revolutionary Russia’s first department store. Locals say it now contains recording facilities.

9 Tubb died in Nashville in 1984, aged 70. Before emphysema and other problems forced him off the road in 1982, he was still doing his customary 200 shows a year, latterly hauling an oxygen tank around on the ‘damn bus’. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland was last sighted — in the summer of 2011 — performing, aged 81, at Bert’s Jazz Marketplace in Detroit.

10 In his sleeve notes to World Gone Wrong (1993) he says firmly that the Never-Ending Tour ended in 1991. Then he proceeds to reel off successive, separate tours, each with a different name, and all of them, he says, ‘with their own character and design’. It is demonstrable, too, that Dylan’s alleged ‘obsession’ with the road does not interfere with the holiday seasons.

11 The biographer Howard Sounes cites a 1998 law suit brought by Victor Maymudes, a former retainer, in which 17 ‘properties’ in the United States alone were declared.

12 An ‘autosomal dominant neurodegenerative disease’. The cause is a genetic defect. Together with the increasing lack of physical control — ‘chorea’ — the symptoms of the disease can range from irritability to hallucinations and psychosis. Huntington’s operates by an iron law: if either of your parents is affected, you have a 50 per cent chance of acquiring the disease gene. There is no cure. Guthrie’s mother was a victim.

13 Joe Klein, Woody Guthrie: A Life (1980).

14 ‘Tracking Woody’s HD: From Instinct to Institution’ (2000), which can be found at

15 Klein, Ch. 12.

16 See Ed Cray’s Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie (2004).

17 Klein, Ch. 2.

18 William L. O’Neill, American High (1986).

19 Richard Aldrich MD in the 1998 television documentary A Paralyzing Fear.

20 Interview with Cameron Crowe, Biograph booklet (1985).

21 Text by James Agee, photographs by Walker Evans (1941).

22 Once considered waste rock, taconite is a low-grade iron ore. As the supply of high-grade natural iron ore diminished, the industry began to reconsider its view of taconite. The rock is blasted apart, scooped up by giant diggers and dump trucks, crushed, separated by magnets, rolled in clay and baked into pellets. None of this is pretty.

23 These days the site is a parking lot: they paved paradise.

24 Us Weekly magazine, August 1987.