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hibbing pilgrimage

September 7, 2011

When my boyfriend accepted a job in Minnesota my first thought, after Holy Midwest winter!, was that I’d be moving to Bob Dylan’s home state. I truly don’t think of myself as the kind of silly fan that would buy a map of celebrity houses in the Hollywood Hills and spend a whole day driving around trying to sneak a peak, but apparently, I sort of am. I’ve lived in Minneapolis not two weeks – we still don’t have furniture and I still don’t have a job, but a drive up to Hibbing was at the top of my to-do list. (My priorities, in a nutshell.) So yesterday I packed my car with snacks, turned up my favorite albums, and hit the road for a pilgrimage to Mr. Dylan’s hometown…

After three and a half hours of driving through rural Minnesota on mostly deserted roads I reached the Hibbing city limits. I was fully expecting to see a Welcome to Hibbing: Home of Bob Dylan! sign, as most town signage boasts of less (Linn County: Grass Seed Capital of the World anyone?) Instead, the entrance to their fair city was flanked by a Greyhound Bus Museum housed in some kind of pole barn, and a massive billboard advertising a local establishment called The Pizza Ranch. Apparently there are other reasons people visit Hibbing.

Classic car in Hibbing

Many thanks to whoever parked their classic car along my walking tour, really added some atmosphere

I parked just off the main drag of old downtown and was pleased to see that it doesn’t appear to have structurally changed all that much in the fifty-plus years since a young Robert Zimmerman resided there. I followed a walking tour map I found on the website of the Hibbing Public Library. While the stops on the tour were mostly for buildings that once housed landmarks of Dylan’s youth and have since changed hands (the clothing store once run by his grandmother that is now the “China Buffet” restaurant was a particular favorite) it was really nice just to stroll through the neighborhood. And I have to admit, I had a serious moment outside of his childhood home. However, I was a bit thrown to see the full garage door painted as the album cover from Blood on the Tracks. What an utterly bizarre testament to the meteoric trajectory of Dylan’s life – the house your parents owned, and that you grew up in, is now owned by strangers who painted your face on the garage door… so very odd.

Bob Dylan Hibbing House Garage Door

The garage door art

Bob Dylan's childhood home in Hibbing

The house Bob Dylan grew up in

Down the street, which is both 7th Avenue and now also “Bob Dylan Drive,” is Hibbing High School. I passed by it just as school was letting out for the day. I had to fight the urge to stop the throngs of teenagers on the sidewalk and ask them if they ever gave a thought to attending the same grand old high school as Bob Dylan. I resisted though, figuring their answers would probably be disappointing to a fan driving seven hours round trip just to walk around town.

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

Bob Dylan Drive Street Sign

This does sort of look like a novelty sign…

After the high school I stopped into the Hibbing Public Library, whose website boasts of a “Bob Dylan Exhibit” that I’d been looking forward to seeing. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. I followed signs to a corner of the library’s basement where the exhibit is housed in a semi-converted conference room. It consisted mostly of photographs, posters, framed albums, and an impressive array of local artists’ renditions of Bob – all of which bore a charmingly comical lack of resemblance to the man. The exhibit is an earnest effort, but nothing to write home about.

Bob Dylan Exhibit at Hibbing Public Library

Bob Dylan Exhibit at Hibbing Public Library

Bob Dylan Exhibit at Hibbing Public Library

Bob Dylan Exhibit at Hibbing Public Library

The entrance to the exhibit

You’ll find the Bob Dylan Exhibit just beyond the basement coat rack…

Having completed the walking tour I ended my afternoon at Zimmy’s, a local restaurant themed in Dylan’s honor and actually boasting a better display of memorabilia than the public library. The place is predictably kitschy, with a menu featuring items like the Reuben “Hurricane Carter” Sandwich, but I found the kitsch level pretty appropriate for the setting. I guess that’s because it’s a one-off place and not a chain, so it narrowly manages to escape the flaccid gimmickry of a Hard Rock Café. That being said, I was thoroughly disappointed in the music being played. I understand that a restaurant playing all Dylan, all the time might be a little much, but at least throw on the oldies station, or some classic rock – I ‘m pretty sure I heard Nickelback while I was in there, and that’s a fatal error in all situations. But, they managed to win me over at the end of my meal when I was served a complimentary dish of Neapolitan ice cream. This small-town gesture reminded me so much of my Grandma’s house that it melted away all residual cynicism from the public library experience.

Zimmy's Restaurant

Zimmy’s Restaurant

Zimmy's Restaurant

Zimmy’s Restaurant

.I read a review somewhere saying that Hibbing seems “uncomfortable” with its Bob Dylan legacy. After my visit I think that is probably the best way to describe it. Admittedly it’s not like Bob gives them much to work with – he skipped town as soon as he could and spent years evading questions about his origins – not exactly your typical Hometown Hero. The town, whose slogan is Hibbing: We’re Ore and More, prefers to advertise their successful mining industry, and that’s probably for the best. Just don’t go to Hibbing expecting to gain any deeper understanding of pop culture’s most enduring enigma. Go as a silly fan that only wants to stand in the front yard of the house he grew up in and smile.

musicnotes“Rambler Gambler” – “Oh I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler/I’m a long way from my home/If the people don’t like me/They can leave me alone”

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. John Pilecki permalink
    September 8, 2011 8:05 am

    I did my pilgrimage to Hibbing in 1975, a few years after Toby Thompson did his, recounted in his book, “Positively Main Street” (which has been revised and republished). In 1975, there was no visible hint of Hibbing being “Bob Dylan’s Hometown.” Some of the locals seemed a little puzzled that anyone would have been motivated to make such a journey, and among some there was a touch of resentment – though he spoke highly of Abraham, Bob’s father, one Hibbing bartender, more of Abraham’s generation than Bob’s, told me that David Zimmerman was “twice the musician” than was his brother Bob. I talked on the phone to Bob’s cousin, Renee Stone, and she seemed like a real character – “Bobby would kill me if I told you where he lived,” she told me (though I hadn’t presumed to have asked). Laurie Giardino made a similar journey in the mid-80’s, chronicled in her excellent and entertaining site, http://www.lauriegiardino/Hibbing.htm. Hibbing High School’s auditorium is now a shrine to Bob’s student performance there (though one classmate told me in 1975 that his peers “pretty much laughed at him, we thought he was trying to imitate Elvis”), and there is now the annual “Dylan Days” in May, an event that draws fans from around the world. So though there have been recent efforts to recognize (and cash in on) the “Bob Dylan’s Hometown” angle, “uncomfortable” might well be the best way to describe Hibbing’s overall reaction to its “Bob Dylan legacy” in the ensuing decades since the prodigal son wandered off from “that little Minnesota town” to New York City, into cultural history.

  2. Carl Woideck permalink
    September 8, 2011 8:19 am

    A great posting and photos! Love the coat rack.

    “Flaccid,” indeed!

  3. September 8, 2011 10:09 am

    John – Thank you so much for sharing! Love hearing your take on it.

    Carl – I think you might be the site’s #1 fan and THAT makes me proud :) Thanks for the feedback!

    • John Pilecki permalink
      September 8, 2011 10:41 am

      I forgot one memorable detail about my 1975 visit – that bartender who remembered Bob’s bro David as being “twice the musician” also, with a snarl and wave of hand, dismissed Bob’s lyrics as ” … that stuff about sniffing drainpipes … ” Well, “Desolation Row” at least stuck in his mind … I understand that Zimmy’s restaurant is owned and managed by a woman from southern New Jersey who happened to marry a guy from Hibbing – telling in itself, I think.

  4. Linda Whiteside permalink
    September 10, 2011 12:30 pm

    I lilve in Hibbing and every time I dirve by Bob’s boyhood home I get a happy twinge.
    For years, I didn’t know which house he grew up in, so I don’t mind at all the artwork on the garage door. (Hopefully it helps out of towners find the place they are looking for.)
    I hope you can come back for the Singer Songwriting contest night during Dylan Days.
    Its always great fun and last year the joy in the room was palpable.

  5. John Pilecki permalink
    September 12, 2011 7:32 am

    Getting to Hibbing for a “Dylan Days” is on my bucket list; it would be interesting to see how the town as changed, particularly in relation to its attitude toward its native son, in the almost 40 years since my first visit to the North Country.

  6. John Pilecki permalink
    September 12, 2011 7:45 am

    meant ” … how the town HAS changed …. “

  7. Linda Whiteside permalink
    September 13, 2011 1:37 pm

    John,
    I think the town’s attitude is changing a lot towards Bob, but then, I’m not a native and don’t have a good grasp on the feeling in general. There were some humorous (well, northern small town humor) videos published by the tourism office in conjunction with Dylan Days last year asking “Come home Bob” I though local writer Aaron Brown was wryly hilarious.
    Even though I live here now, I try to take the Dylan bus tour every year if i can and always enjoy it. I like seeing Echo Helstrom’s childhood home and the swing Bob used to sit in when he would visit her. I really like LeRoy Hoikkala, (who was the drummer in one of Bob’s early bands and who is one of my favorite Finns) and love hearing his stories and his answers to questions. I love going into the high school and walking up on the stage where Bob played piano like Little Richard. I like having a snack on the lawn of the house he grew up in and listening to other people on the tour talk about where they are from and why they are there e.g. Paris, Liverpool, Australia, California, Alaska etc and it’s suprising how many are writing theses, doing research, or teaching classes on Dylan. Of course, some are young musicians there for the songwriter contest and many are just plain old fans like me. In addition to the bus tour, I like the Dylan themed artwork, the short story and poetry contest winners reading their entries, the Dylan related films screened (often is it a film debut), but most of all I enjoy the music. The music is such a treat and like I said, the joy in the air by the end of the night is awesome.
    I hope you can make it back to Hibbing for Bob’s birthday celebration soon.

  8. John Pilecki permalink
    September 14, 2011 11:46 am

    Linda,

    Thank you for fleshing out the magic that Dylan Days has obviously become. Continue the good work. I do hope to get out there again, at least by 2015, which would be 40 years after my initial visiit (egads!)

    John

  9. John Pilecki permalink
    September 14, 2011 12:51 pm

    BTW – Be sure to check out the photo chronicle that Laurie Giardino made of her journey to Hibbing :

    http://www.lauriegiardino.com/Hibbing.htm

    Some great pics of 1987 Hibbing you would appreciate, and she has a great take on talking to girls at Hibbing High who recount their mothers’ memories of Bob – basically, they all claimed to have been Echo Helstrom!

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