Bob Dylan, born in Duluth and raised in the Mesabi Iron Range mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, has won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Though Dylan made several short lists for the prize in recent years, few thought the most prestigious writing award in the world would go to an artist whose primary medium was songwriting. This year, the Swedish Academy — the entity which awards Nobel Prizes for science and humanities — cited Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
And, yes, Dylan becomes the first Iron Ranger to win a Nobel Prize.
Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth in 1941. His family moved to Hibbing when he was a young boy. He graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959. A member of several garage bands in Hibbing during his teen years, few contemporaries thought the strange lad obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll would amount to much.
There were some in Hibbing who saw something special in Dylan. His friends and bandmates spoke of a young man driven to make something of himself. His late high school English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen, a gentle man who taught the power of poetry to two generations of miners’ sons and daughters, remembered him as a thoughtful student.
As it turned out, Dylan — adopting a new name and becoming famous when he moved to New York just two years later — ended up the icon of a new folk scene. In decades to follow, Dylan innovated rock ‘n’ roll before leading loyal fans into Americana music and even Christian rock.
For more than a decade, Dylan has lived on the road in his world-wide “Never-Ending Tour,” playing from his sprawling catalogue of favorites along with new, more contemplative songs.
The Dylan Days festival took place in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing for 13 years. I was one of the organizers, until retirements and other commitments forced our committee to disband. New organizers started Dylan Fest, now held in Duluth every year around Dylan’s May 24 birthday.
Growing up east of Hibbing, long after the baby boomers were in their prime, I was always amazed at the simple fact that someone as influential and artistic as Dylan could come from Hibbing. It’s one of the things that drew me not only to Dylan’s music, but to the history and culture of the Iron Range.
I would certainly hope that the region, Hibbing in particular, would celebrate this award for the tremendous accomplishment it is. As I wrote this Thursday morning, Good Morning America broke into programming to announce the news. The BBC did a live evening show about it last night.
Dylan’s connection with the Iron Range seems complicated to some. But his relationship to the region is similar to that of thousands of young people who left in the 1950s and ’60s — and again in the ’80s and ’90s. Shaped by the forge of a powerful culture, Dylan took the education and experience of living on the industrial frontier into a hungry world. His work happened to be in the high profile field of entertainment, but his work ethic is Iron Range to its core.
In recent years, Dylan has spoken more often of his Northern Minnesota roots. In talking about his recent ironworking art, he said “I’ve been around iron all my life.” In his book “Chronicles” Dylan wrote fondly of the unique political and cultural blend present in 1950s Hibbing.
Dylan will accept the award at a Dec. 10 ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. Nobel, an industrial titan and munitions manufacturer, dedicated his fortune to encouraging peace and human development late in life after contemplating his mixed legacy.
Dylan continues to shape his own legacy, too. Now he can add “Nobel Laureate” to the list.