Like most who grew up on the Iron Range, Bob Dylan reminisces about hunting and fishing. He also insists there’s a profound difference between Northern and Southern Minnesota.
Dylan, born in Duluth and raised in Hibbing, doesn’t give many interviews. When he does, they become their own art form. His answers, rarely direct, ebb and flow around some ambiguous concept, whatever he’s thinking about at that time. On Wednesday, Dylan released a Q&A conducted by Bill Flanagan on his own website, BobDylan.com. The talk does not disappoint.
The interview mostly centered on Dylan’s recent work with American standards, the classic songs sung by crooners like Frank Sinatra. That endeavor has perplexed some Dylan fans (a group accustomed to being perplexed). It almost seems like he’s trying to explain his reasoning for yet another change of direction in his storied musical career.
But in the process, he explores some memories of his upbringing in Minnesota, where he first heard these songs.
On his memories of WWII:
Not much. I was born in Duluth – industrial town, ship yards, ore docks, grain elevators, mainline train yards, switching yards. It’s on the banks of Lake Superior, built on granite rock. Lot of fog horns, sailors, loggers, storms, blizzards. My mom says there were food shortages, food rationing, hardly any gas, electricity cutting off – everything metal in your house you gave to the war effort. It was a dark place, even in the light of day – curfews, gloomy, lonely, all that sort of stuff – we lived there till I was about five, till the end of the war.
On the time he walked off the Ed Sullivan show and what he thought family and friends back in Minnesota would think:
I doubt it, they wouldn’t have known me by name anyway. I don’t even think they would have known my face. If they saw my name in the TV listings, they wouldn’t know it was me. Wouldn’t know it was the boy who used to live there.
That’s an interesting take. While so many back home were disappointed Dylan didn’t acknowledge his Minnesota roots, he assumed they weren’t paying any attention to him at all. That fits with something he said later about how he sees himself during that time now:
I see Nat King Cole, Nature Boy – a very strange enchanted boy, a terribly sophisticated performer, got a cross section of music in him, already postmodern. That’s a different person than who I am now.
Dylan offered interesting thoughts on whether Minnesota is different than other places he’s been, or whether the people there are different:
Not necessarily. Minnesota has its own Mason Dixon line. I come from the north and that’s different from southern Minnesota; if you’re there you could be in Iowa or Georgia. Up north the weather is more extreme – frostbite in the winter, mosquito-ridden in the summer, no air conditioning when I grew up, steam heat in the winter and you had to wear a lot of clothes when you went outdoors. Your blood gets thick. It’s the land of 10,000 lakes – lot of hunting and fishing. Indian country, Ojibwe, Chippewa, Lakota, birch trees, open pit mines, bears and wolves – the air is raw. Southern Minnesota is farming country, wheat fields and hay stacks, lots of corn fields, horses and milk cows. In the north it’s more hardscrabble. It’s a rugged environment – people lead simple lives, but they lead simple lives in other parts of the country too. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. There is good and bad in most people, doesn’t matter what state you live in. Some people are more self-sufficient than other places – some more secure, some less secure – some people mind their own business, some don’t.
That’s almost exactly why I’ve stayed in Northern Minnesota rather than moving to the city. It’s different here on almost a metaphysical level. The people are people like anywhere else, but we’re all shaped by our environment.
Dylan then answered a run of questions from Flanagan about Northern Minnesota culture:
Were you into hunting or fishing?
I went into the woods with my uncle, my mother’s brother – he was an expert hunter and tried to teach me. But it wasn’t for me, I hated it.
How about fishing?
Oh sure, everybody did that, bass, sturgeon, flatheads, lake trout, we caught and cleaned them too.
Were you into guns?
Single shot revolvers, nothing automatic. Shooting pellet guns through 2x4s, that was fun. A pellet gun is as lethal as a .22.
Hubert Humphrey was a big figure in Minnesota when you were growing up. Did you ever see him in person or meet him?
I never did, never saw him.
When you first fell in love with rock and roll, did you have a pal who shared your enthusiasm? Anyone you tried to write songs with as a teenager?
Only my girlfriend. I strummed my guitar and we’d make up new lyrics to other songs. I was playing in rock and roll bands around town too, but somewhere along the way I had had an epiphany. I had heard Lead Belly and Josh White and that changed everything.
Dylan shared some interesting thoughts about the Minneapolis and St. Paul music scenes after he left Hibbing. He said they were great rock ‘n’ roll towns, among the best in the nation, but that he felt pulled toward the folk scene, where New York was the capitol.
Finally, one of my favorite passages from the interview was this comment on nostalgia — its benefits and its limitations:
From 1970 till now there’s been about 50 years, seems more like 50 million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity. Musical influences too – they get swallowed up, get absorbed into newer things or they fall by the wayside. I don’t think you need to feel bummed out though, or that it’s out of your clutches – you can still find what you’re looking for if you follow the trail back. It could be right there where you left it – anything is possible. Trouble is, you can’t bring it back with you, you have to stay right there with it. I think that is what nostalgia is all about.
Dylan gets into even more fascinating details, but you’ll have to check that out for yourself. Read the whole interview at BobDylan.com.