Illustration by Greta Kotz
Bob Dylan has never much cared for homecomings. You don’t leave town, drop out of college, change your name and not look back for more than half a century if you do. An eternally restless soul, he has always found his home somewhere down the highway. And on the never-ending tour of life, Minnesota never stood a chance at winning him over.
Not that it’s personal — for the most part. Born in the edge-of-civilization port of Duluth then raised in the one-horse mining town of Hibbing, Dylan simply wasn’t destined to stick around. His world wasn’t the world of the snowbound blue-collar laborers who surrounded him. His was the world of mythical heroes bound for epic journeys. He left because he had to; it was the only way he could discover that world.
Some places came closer to home than others, and the musician maintains plenty of properties. But houses are not the same as homes. New York City, of course, is where the Dylan we know — the one who left Bobby Zimmerman behind — came to exist. Woodstock, New York, held promise, but that dream eventually evaporated (along with the dream of domestic bliss). Malibu, California, is a home of sorts today, but only when it suits him. And a 100-acre farm in his native land of Minnesota sees him occasionally.
Before long, he will have a real home, if only for posterity’s sake. Thanks to a deal struck in recent years, he is delivering his mother lode to the world in the form of the Bob Dylan Archive. It will eventually house 6,000-plus artifacts from his personal collection: lyrics, photos, handwritten notes, clothing and other personal effects. The collection is available now for approved research projects and eventually will be for curated public exhibitions.
But that news comes with a typically Dylan-esque caveat, especially as far as his fellow Minnesotans are concerned. Home for the archive will not be Duluth or Hibbing or anywhere near the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It will be hundreds of miles away at the University of Tulsa’s Helmerich Center for American Research. The institution and the George Kaiser Family Foundation made that happen, reputedly for somewhere north of $15 million.
One thing Tulsa, Oklahoma, has in its favor is the Woody Guthrie Center. The folksinger (and Dylan’s idol) was born just down the road in Okemah. The archives of Phil Ochs, an old friend of Dylan’s, are also housed there. A would-be folk-music mecca, it’s as close to a holy land as the one-time born-again Christian will ever find.
That’s about as fitting as it’s going to get in his book. For a man hell-bent on following the lead of gypsies, wanderers and footloose rail riders, home is a state of mind rather than a place on a map.
Stories of heroes leaving home on epic adventures are as old as storytelling itself. Legends, poems and songs are filled with such tales — true, false and exaggerated. America itself was built on such a myth, a country and a people destined to push west and ever forward into the promised land. The music world, too, is full of would-be heroes trying to make it big in cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Nashville.
Minnesota is no exception. Even Prince, the man who put his home state on the map, left for Los Angeles on occasion. The difference, though, is that he always came back; this was his home. His sound was the Minneapolis sound, and First Avenue was the house that Prince built. And even though the Purple One kept his hometown fans at arm’s length, he always kept them within reach.
Dylan, on the other hand, is a Minnesotan almost in spite of himself. “It was just an accident of geography,” he told Nat Hentoff in a 1966 Playboy profile of where he was raised. “I didn’t run away from it; I just turned my back on it. It couldn’t give me anything. It was very void-like. So leaving wasn’t hard at all — it would have been much harder to stay.”
Decades later, when he wrote his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, there was no chapter devoted to his life in Minnesota. The story, as he told it, started in New York City. Tellingly, he did recall living through the Red Scare in the fifties. “It seemed peculiar,” he wrote of hiding under his desk during nuclear-war drills in elementary school. “Living under a cloud of fear like this robs a child of his spirit.”
Associations clearly have a strong influence on Dylan’s memories of his childhood. The postwar years were an era of conformity, repression and white flight. A new world was coming, but the old world was still holding tight. That wouldn’t change until the sixties, by which time he had escaped to the East Coast. “All that was over now,” was his brisk summation in Chronicles. “I was in New York City.”
His blasé attitude about his home land hasn’t subsided. When Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year — a first for a musician — the only reference to Hibbing in his acceptance speech was about the great distance he journeyed to see Buddy Holly in concert: “I had to travel a hundred miles,” he said. And in an extended interview with Bill Flanagan earlier this year, Dylan spoke callously of his birthplace: “I was born in Duluth — industrial town, ship yards, ore docks, grain elevators, mainline train yards, switching yards. … It was a dark place, even in the light of day — curfews, gloomy, lonely, all that sort of stuff.”
Still, at times he spoke charitably, even poetically, about northern Minnesota. “Your blood gets thick,” he told Flanagan. “Birch trees, open pit mines, bears and wolves — the air is raw.” His descriptions were evocative, but if there was a certain dignity in the “hardscrabble” environment he described, it was still an anonymous way of life. “People lead simple lives, but they lead simple lives in other parts of the country, too,” he added. “People are pretty much the same wherever you go.”
After leaving Hibbing, he spent all of six months in Minneapolis, a blip on the radar in the life of a septuagenarian. Plenty has been made of his time there, with countless anecdotes from fellow musicians like Tony Glover and Spider John Koerner to reinforce just how big of an influence the city allegedly had on Dylan’s artistic development. There’s even the mural on Fourth Street in Dinkytown to suggest that it was the inspiration behind “Positively 4th St.,” one of his greatest putdown songs — a rather dubious honor to wear with such pride.
Dylan knew the Twin Cities music scene was no place for him. “I was traveling down a different path and already my consciousness had been recast,” he told Flanagan. “I had been bailed out of the past and had broke free. I wasn’t going to go back to that other place with button-down shirts and crew cuts for anyone or anything.”
He was more interested in storytelling, and he found that in the music of blues and folk legends Lead Belly, Memphis Minnie and Charley Patton — traditional music, as he dubbed it. “It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death,” he told Hentoff. “There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels — they’re not going to die.”
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, given exactly 50 years after that interview, Dylan drew a line directly from the storytelling of that traditional music to the literature that inspired him, like Homer’s Odyssey and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. He identified in particular with Melville’s Ishmael, paraphrasing his famous line about another character’s home: “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.”
Much like the through line Dylan saw from classic literature to blues and folk music, he saw a direct route from northern Minnesota to the Deep South, where much of that sound originated. That route was Highway 61, which at one time ran from New Orleans all the way through Duluth and up to the Canadian border at Grand Portage State Park. Son House and Muddy Waters lived along it, Mississippi Fred McDowell and countless others sang about it, and Robert Johnson even allegedly sold his soul to the devil alongside it.
“I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere from it, even down into the deep Delta country,” Dylan wrote of the roadway in Chronicles. “It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors. The Mississippi River, the bloodstream of the blues, also starts up from my neck of the woods. I was never too far away from any of it. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”
Dylan may not be a homebody, but every storyteller needs his story. And there’s no better metaphor for his musical odyssey than Highway 61. That’s why when he went electric in 1965 and cut an album that wed his love of folk storytelling with electric blues he called it Highway 61 Revisited. The rowdy title track encapsulated all the unruliness he saw in traditional music with the conformity and paranoia he associated with home. God, kings and gamblers — they could all be found along that 1,600-mile stretch.
Nearly a decade later, Dylan would return to his home state to write and record his most personal album, Blood on the Tracks. Several of its songs, including its most famous, “Tangled Up in Blue,” were recorded at the now-shuttered Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis. That album, more so than any of Dylan’s other 37, just feels like the North.
Although his worldly possessions are destined for Oklahoma, a permanent return to Minnesota may not be out of the question for Dylan. “I didn’t want to die there,” he told Hentoff in that Playboy interview. “As I think about it now, though, it wouldn’t be such a bad place to go back to and die in. There’s no place I feel closer to now or get the feeling that I’m part of — except maybe New York, but I’m not a New Yorker. I’m North Dakota–Minnesota Midwestern. I’m that color. I speak that way. I’m from someplace called Iron Range. My brains and feeling have come from there.” So, too, has his music.
Read this article as it appears in the magazine.