While reading No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan several months ago, the fact that Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota struck a nerve with me. Not that I didn’t already know Robert Zimmerman’s hometown; what caught me off guard was the way author Robert Shelton described Dylan’s disdain for small town life. Being a fellow small town Midwest boy who couldn’t wait to escape, I felt a spiritual connection to Bob, like maybe that internal yearning for bigger things is what has always drawn me to his music. On the first page of the biography, Shelton encapsulates the mining town: “Hibbing had dug its own grave with sixty years of mining shovels, now only good for burying miners.” This description reminded me of my hometown that imploded when the Morrell’s meat packing plant left town three decades ago. As the book went on to describe the very familiar scene of empty storefronts and prevalent backwater conservatism, I decided I had to visit Bob Dylan’s hometown, a seven hour drive north from where I grew up.
As luck would have it, this summer I had plans to go to the Twin Cities on a Saturday to visit my friend Steve and attend a Minnesota Twins game. That following Monday, one of my favorite bands of the moment, Woods, were playing at the legendary 7th Street Entry in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Realizing I had a day to kill between plans, I decided it was a better time than ever to make my spirit quest to the homeland of my hero.
After an afternoon viewing of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead with Steve (I don’t remember this film being so atrocious), I started the northern trek. Once I reached the outskirts of the Twin City suburbs, the drive transformed into a sea of tall evergreens, and the view didn’t change much for the next four hours. As I traversed the miles and miles of uninhabited land, Bob’s feelings of isolation made more and more sense. I at least grew up in a town where you could drive two hours in any direction and hit a big city. Hibbing was in the middle of nowhere.
My eyes began to glaze over from the constant stream of green rushing past my peripheral for two hours. I broke out of my trance when I noticed an exit sign for Highway 61. “Highway 61?” I thought. “THE Highway 61?!” I veered onto the next exit and pulled over beside a road sign to gather my thoughts. There, standing over me, was a sign for Highway 61, the legendary road that Dylan named an album after (Highway 61 Revisited). This was also the road often mythologized as the highway that led him all the way from Hibbing to New York City. As with many of Dylan’s stories, It was apparent that this little piece of history was another fib. For one, the “highway” was technically not even a highway anymore. Instead, it was labeled “Old Highway 61” and is now merely a brief scenic route. Seeing this remnant of Dylan folklore rekindled my anticipation. If a simple highway sign could get me this excited, what other nuggets from the past would I discover in Hibbing?
I’d planned to camp in the woods outside of Hibbing (my options were limitless from my viewpoint), but soon after my sign-post tourist stop, the rain began falling down. Instead of camping in woods that little Bobby may have spent time in, I had to settle with a night stay at the Hibbing Park Hotel. Before going to bed, I took a moment to research options I had for my time in Hibbing: a Bob Dylan self-guided walking tour, a Bob Dylan museum at the library, and a Bob Dylan themed restaurant named “Zimmy’s.” My day in Dylan’s homeland was set.
The next morning, I drove my car into town and parked it on 5th Avenue East where the walking tour began. The first stop was a building that was once Zimmerman Furniture and Electric, a family owned business where Bob worked as a teenager. The building wasn’t the most exciting of stops, considering any remnants of the famous Zimmerman name were gone, and in its place was a modern façade (modern being 1980s wood siding), and a sign for Excel Business Systems. It disappointed me that the town didn’t have the forethought to try to restore some of the legendary buildings from Dylan’s childhood.
As the tour continued down East Howard Street, my discontent would continue. The café Bob and his girlfriend would hang out at, the music store where he bought records and sheet music, and the store where his mom once worked – all of them now stood as empty storefronts. Ironically, each dusty store window contained a sign stating “We Support Mining.” Looking into the empty buildings, I wondered what ghost had put up the placards.
Turning up 1st Avenue, the tour started to improve. First up was the Lybba Theatre, a theatre named after Bob’s great grandmother. Unlike the other stops on the tour, the theatre still featured its old façade despite now being called the Sunrise Dell Lybba Restaurant. After staring into empty buildings, this lifted my spirits. The tour continued from there into the small town neighborhood where I passed Bob’s grade school (now a parking lot, of course), the Memorial Theatre where Bob performed several times, and the high school he attended. I attempted to get into the school to see the theatre where he performed for the first time, but it was locked.
Eventually I reached his childhood home. In front of the house stood a sign for “Bob Dylan Drive.” I stood back and snapped pictures, taking in the moment, trying to imagine little Bob running around the yard. Then I realized someone still lived in the house and decided I’d better move along before cops were notified.
As I moseyed toward the last stop in town, I couldn’t help but notice the weird looks I got from passing cars. Was it strange for someone to be touring the streets a legend once roamed, the streets that helped shape the man he would become? The townspeople gave off a vibe that was a cross between “What the hell are you doing here?” and “Here comes another hippie.”
It became clear during my walk that the citizens of this town were not the same type of tree hugging, free love hippies that adored Bob in the 60s. This was a town separated from the modern world, a town still holding tightly onto the belief that mining is a sustainable career choice in the year 2014.
Finally, I reached the last stop of the uneventful walking tour – the library. From what I read online, a museum had been built inside, commemorating the life of the town’s most famous son. I entered and began roaming a library reminiscent of the one in my hometown. Eventually, I came upon a small glass case filled with old magazine covers featuring Dylan. Was this the “museum”? One glass case with old magazines I had sitting at home?
Frustrated by the continued lack of appreciation for Bob, I approach the front desk. “I heard you have a Bob Dylan museum?”
She glanced up with an annoyed look on her face and said in a deadpan voice, “Did you see the glass case over there?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She pushed away from the desk with thinly veiled irritation. “Well, we have a room downstairs with more stuff. If you really want to see it, I can have someone unlock it for you.” she said this with a tone that suggested she really didn’t want to go to the trouble of opening up the shrine for me.
“Um, yes, I would. I drove all the way here from Texas,” I answered, a bit confused as to why the Bob Dylan museum was stashed away behind lock and key in the basement of a library. She didn’t seem impressed by my long journey.
She picked up the phone and said, “Can someone open the Bob Dylan room up?” Then she looked to me, “The stairs are over there.”
I walked down into the darkened catacombs, my mind reeling as to what this museum would contain. Old instruments? Original photographs? Rare audio?
I entered the empty room to find a wall covered in dozens of Dylan’s LPs protected by a pane of glass. I turned to the next wall to see several items behind glass cases: a photocopy of a birth certificate, a photocopy of a yearbook, a photocopy of a photo of his childhood home. Needless to say, the authenticity of the museum quickly took a shift for the worse. In the corner sat an old, beat-up acoustic guitar. I looked at it in awe. “This must be Bob’s first guitar,” I thought. I leaned in to read the placard next to it only to be disappointed once again; it was the guitar of his band mate in high school.
The experience only worsened with the next wall, plastered in drawings and paintings of Dylan done by local “artists.” Bob Dylan’s cover to the album Self Portrait put these amateur creations to shame, and that’s not saying much. The only item to actually bring a smile to my face was a paper mache Dylan, leaning precariously in the corner over his over-sized guitar. After my lackluster day in Hibbing, the statue may as well have been filled with candy for all the town folk to hang from a tree and beat with a stick.
I had one last bastion of hope before leaving town: Zimmy’s, the Bob Dylan themed restaurant located in downtown Hibbing. I’d read online that the restaurant had been created as a reaction to the town’s lack of admiration for Dylan. As I walked the several blocks back to downtown, I anticipated a rewarding completion to my otherwise substandard journey.
And of course, it was closed. I spotted it from down the block, a giant “Village Reality” sign just below the bright yellow Zimmy’s sign in front of the restaurant. As I walked back to my car, I was filled with disgust for this town’s lack of reverence. If my hometown had a famous son like Dylan, they’d build a statue, hold an annual parade, and change the high school mascot to something like “The Tambourine Men” or “The Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hats.” But in Hibbing, Bob Dylan was a footnote in their mining town history.
As I walked back to my car, I pondered the cause of the town’s disinterest in their most famous citizen. Maybe it bothered people that Dylan at first denied even being from Hibbing, or maybe it rubbed people the wrong way that he changed his name. Maybe it bothered people that he always said he ran away from Hibbing as fast as he could or maybe it was his song “North Country Blues,” a scathing analysis of his hometown’s obsession with a mining industry that would predict the town’s demise:Come gather ’round friends And I’ll tell you a tale Of when the red iron pits ran a-plenty But the cardboard filled windows And old men on the benches Tell you now that the whole town is empty. With the song in mind, I decided to make one last stop before I left town. After a short drive to the outskirts, I came up to the town’s bread and butter, the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine. To my surprise, a dozen other cars were already parked at the look-out post. When I got out of my car, I noticed several families standing along the fence, taking photos and pointing in awe at the historic destruction of planet Earth. I couldn’t believe it. A stupid mine, the same mine that destroyed the town, attracted more visitors than anything Bob Dylan related. It spoke volumes about the people and their feelings toward Bob.
As I drove out of town, I passed a Greyhound Bus Museum. Once again, I shook my head in disgust. An entire building dedicated to the history of Greyhound Buses but Bob Dylan simply gets a locked room in the basement of the library filled with poorly drawn pictures and a paper mache statue? I decided it was time to get out of this town and never come back, much in the same way Dylan did 60 years ago.
Six hours later I stood inside of Minneapolis’s 7th Street Entry surrounded by like-minded music fans as Woods performed an amazing set on stage. When they broke into “Leaves Like Glass” I thought to myself, “Wow, I never realized how much this song sounds like a Blonde On Blonde -era Dylan song.” Then it hit me – Dylan didn’t need his hometown to celebrate his life with festivals, museums, and memorials. The legacy of Bob Dylan can be heard everyday by the musicians who grew up listening to his powerful music and allowed his influence to help shape their sound. It was the reason Bob left so long ago and never looked back – his legacy is just too big for a small town like Hibbing to handle.