Today is the birthday of Minnesota native son Bob Dylan; he turns 69. He is a remarkable artist, self-invented, deep in the American grain. Attention must be paid.
A few years back I visited Dylan’s old house at 2425 7th Avenue East in Hibbing. The house is a small two-story residence with a one-car attached garage on the side. The house is exactly two blocks from Hibbing High School, Dylan’s alma mater. A Dylan fan must be somewhere in the chain of title. The garage door has the cover of Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album painted on it.
Howard Sounes’s Dylan biography Down The Highway does the best job of capturing the Hibbing period of Dylan’s life. Sounes’s research is impeccable, including his discussion of Dylan’s teen-age friendships with Larry Kegan and Howard Rutman in the Twin Cities.
How could Dylan have absorbed all the strains of American popular music in a town as remote as Hibbing? The radio was apparently Dylan’s indispensable source, but the development of his gifts seems incredibly unlikely. How could he have formed the ambition to become “Bob Dylan” from his roots in Hibbing? The town must have provided some encouragement, even if it also provided the impetus for him to move on and not look back. The people he left behind there remain incredibly nice.
In his outstanding City Journal essay on Pete Seeger (“America’s most successful Communist”), Howard Husock placed Dylan in the line of folk agitprop in which Seeger stood at the head. Husock’s essay is an important and entertaining piece. Dylan is only a small part of the story Husock has to tell, however, and Husock therefore does not pause long enough over Dylan to observe how quickly Dylan burst the shackles of agitprop, found his voice and tapped into his own vein of the Cosmic American Music. Looking back on his long career, one can discern his respect for the tradition and his ambition to stand at its head as first among its number.
On 1964’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” album, Dylan foreshadowed his break from the folk movement in “Restless Farewell,” the album’s closing song. Later that year he turned in a more personal direction with “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” his last folk album. Ben Macintyre notes:
Dylan set words to music in a way that no one had done before. He refused to be pigeon-holed by the folkies, the protesters or the rockers. He borrowed and synthesised from the literary, artistic and actual worlds like a musical magpie, and he skilfully evolved his own mystique. And he kept going, even when his listeners booed or complained or, like the enraged Pete Seeger in 1965, threatened to chop off his sound cable with a hatchet at a folk festival in Newport because he had defected to electric sound. At a British concert, we see a furious folkie leaping to his feet and shouting “Judas!” Dylan is defiant: “You’re a liar…Play it ****ing loud,” he instructs the band.
That last moment comes from Dylan’s legendary concert of May 1966 documented on volume 4 of Columbia’s Dylan Bootleg Series (and can now be viewed here on YouTube). The concert was misattributed to the Royal Albert Hall when it surfaced on bootleg albums in 1970, though it has now been identified as having taken place in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall — in the interest of history, of course.
Macintyre briefly sums up Dylan’s self-education:
In 1960 Robert Zimmerman, a gawky Jewish boy from Minnesota, hitch-hiked to New York City. He came to join the burgeoning folk music circuit, but he also came to read, hunkered down on the sofas of his bookish new friends in Greenwich Village. “I read all of Lord Byron’s Don Juan and concentrated fully from start to finish,” he wrote later. “Also Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan.’ I began cramming my brain with all kinds of deep poems. It seemed like I’d been pulling an empty wagon for a long time and now I was beginning to fill it up and would have to pull harder. I felt like I was coming out of the back pasture.
Gogol, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Thucydides (“a narrative which would give you chills”), Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells: all were piled into the wagon, alongside the music of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, and the films of Marlon Brando and James Dean. He spent nights studying the American Civil War at New York public library and consuming newspapers: “What was swinging, topical, up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel…this was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.”
By the time of “Highway 61 Revisited” in 1965, Dylan was singing: “I need a dump truck to unload my head.”