Review: Bob Dylan in Minnesota

Disclosure: I received a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

I’ve reviewed multiple books about Bob Dylan on the blog. This is the third book in this series that explores Bob Dylan and his relationship to various places he’s spent extended periods of time in. I reviewed the first book in the series about Bob Dylan in London back in 2021 – KG Miles co-wrote it with Jackie Lees. At the end of 2021, I reviewed Bob Dylan in the Big Apple – no doubt New York is the first place you think of when you think of Bob Dylan. I also reviewed The Two Dylans, a book KG Miles wrote with Jeff Towns. And this year KG Miles in collaboration with Minnesotan Bob Dylan fans Paul Metsa, Ed Newman, Marc Percansky, and Matt Steichen are bringing it all back home to Bob Dylan’s birthplace of Minnesota with the release of Bob Dylan in Minnesota: Troubadour Tales From Duluth, Hibbing, and Dinkytown. But wait there’s more! There’s also a chapter written by Toby Thompson, a journalist and Penn State professor who travelled to Hibbing to follow Bob Dylan’s footsteps and interview the people who were close to him when he was growing up there. While some Minnesotans wouldn’t really think of Bob Dylan as a Minnesotan, there’s no doubt that the place that you’re born and raised is a big part of your story.

Even the meaning of the name of his birthplace is very Bob Dylan as the dedication reads. “The word ‘Minnesota’ is derived from the Dakota language Mni Sota Makoce. It means the ‘land where the water reflects the clouds’ – a line that would surely grace any song by its most famous son, Bob Dylan.” In total there are 42 chapters and while that sounds like a lot, each of the chapters are short.

In the first few chapters, we get a look at Bob Dylan’s roots and his birthplace. As you may already know, his grandfather Zigman Zisel Zimmerman (gotta love the alliteration) was born in Odessa, Ukraine (spelled in Ukrainian as Odesa) and came to Duluth, Minnesota for its familiar climate. Where he was from, the weather was cold for most of the year, bar a short, warm summer before it goes back to being cold again. Both sides of Bob Dylan’s family were entrepreneurial. His father’s family owned a shoe store and his mother’s family owned the local cinema, The Lybba Theater. It’s easy to see why Bob Dylan is an entrepreneur in his own way, writing his own songs and making his own music, and that he’s a film buff. Runs in the family. Duluth also was an influence on his songwriting, with his famous song “Desolation Row” being about the lynching of three black circus workers in Duluth: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie.

The family left the yellow duplex in Duluth for Hibbing after Bob’s father Abe was struck with polio. Still, Duluth remained important to a young Bob Dylan because that’s where he saw Buddy Holly at the Duluth Armory days before he died. As he recalled in his Grammy acceptance speech in 1998, he was only three feet away from him and Holly looked at him. Bob Dylan would later meet and befriend Dion who opened for Buddy Holly on the Winter Dance Party tour. The Winter Dance Party Tour connections don’t end there. A young Bob Dylan also played with Bobby Vee, who joined the tour after the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. He played piano in Bobby Vee’s band under the name Elston Gunn. Forty years later, Bob Dylan played the Bayfront Festival Park in Minnesota with fellow 60s folk rocker Paul Simon. Like a lot of Jewish American kids, he went to a Jewish summer camp where he befriended campers Louie Kemp and Larry Kegan, both of whom he stayed in touch with even decades later. He even went to that Buddy Holly concert in Duluth with Louie Kemp.

After graduating from secondary school, a young Bobby Zimmerman briefly attended the University of Minnesota, where he lived in a Jewish frat house where he was a misfit because he eschewed the formal dress and instead took a rebellious, more bohemian path and that’s what led him to Dinkytown and that’s where the transformation into Bob Dylan began, with him choosing his new last name as a tribute to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. That’s where he met Spider John Koerner and slowly but surely the folkies in the Dinkytown scene made their way to Greenwich Village. One day Bob Dylan just left for Greenwich Village, no fanfare or anything. He wanted bigger and better things and to meet his idol Woody Guthrie. As you can expect from the hip, cool neighbourhoods of the 60s, Dinkytown has since been gentrified and places he’d frequent like the the beat coffeeshop the Ten O’Clock Scholar and The Purple Onion (closed in October 2020) are no longer around and have been replaced by chain shops and restaurants. However, you can still visit Al’s Breakfast, apparently the narrowest restaurant in Minneapolis. The Dinkytown connections didn’t end there. Bob Dylan’s famous Blood on the Tracks was partially recorded at Sound 80 in Minneapolis with some local musicians recruited by his brother David. Prince, Cat Stevens, and Leo Kottke also recorded there and the one-hit wonder “Funkytown” was recorded there too. In the book you can find stories from a local musician who was there, Kevin Odegard, who described the sessions as being more like being in a garage band, no celebrity vibes to be found. Nowadays there are festivals and tributes to Bob Dylan in Minnesota including streets named after him, plaques outside places important to him, manhole covers that have his name on them, and groups are trying to preserve Bob Dylan history in Minnesota. Like the other books in this series, there is a map with all the landmarks marked on them.

I love how this book has information about what happened to the various buildings and homes in Bob Dylan’s life story in Minnesota: what’s still around and what sadly isn’t. I also appreciate how the book goes into his connections with other people from his home state. I love the subreddit Barbara Walters 4 Scale, which has a bunch of timeline comparisons, some of which in relation to famous broadcaster Barbara Walters, but others that are mindblowing – one of my personal favourite ones is as of writing this review, President Tyler (born 1790) has a grandson who is still alive. Here’s one from the book: Bob Dylan’s neighbour, Albert Woolson, the last living Civil War veteran, was born on February 11, 1850 and lived until August 2, 1956 – so this man was alive when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published and when Elvis Presley released his version of “Hound Dog”. As you can expect with anything Bob Dylan there’s mystery and plot twists and the story isn’t always so straightforward and that’s what makes his life so interesting. This book is packed full of interesting tidbits about Bob Dylan’s life in Minnesota, and it didn’t end when he left for New York in 1961. Admittedly, I was one of those who thought that Bob Dylan was ashamed of being from Minnesota and as soon as he left for New York he never came back, but this book dispelled that myth and taught me something new about Bob Dylan.

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