Look for influences, not adoration, in Dylan’s hometown

Bob Zimmerman leads his band the Golden Chords at a 1958 concert at the Hibbing Memorial Building Little Theater in his Iron Range hometown.

Can’t Bob Dylan just answer a straight question? Why must his rare public utterances be so cryptic? Why can’t he sing the way they they teach at Hibbing High School? Gosh darn it, why did he say he was from New Mexico when he went on Ed Sullivan?

And why can’t Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota show unqualified pride in their hometown troubadour? After all, he literally cites his education and experiences in this town among his greatest influences? Who else from Hibbing has ever won a Nobel Prize or become a household name in every nation on Earth?

Well, perhaps instead of wondering “why” we should just acknowledge that the answers to these questions are related. This is all part of the same folk legend. Dylan is Dylan. Hibbing is Hibbing. Dylan is Hibbing without the chains. Hibbing is Dylan without the fame.

I know a little about this. For 13 years I helped organize Dylan Days, an annual arts and music event celebrating Dylan’s birthday week in Hibbing. We folded a few years ago, leaving a different group in Bob’s birthplace of Duluth to run a similar event. (Dylan’s family moved from Duluth to Hibbing, his mother’s birthplace, when he was 7).

The Hibbing Dylan Project formed soon after with the goal of honoring Dylan in a different way. Community efforts moved in that direction and that’s great.

But those years of evangelizing for Dylan in his hometown taught me a lot. Namely, that this town was probably incapable of embracing the Dylan the way other towns celebrate their famous offspring. And maybe that’s OK. Part of the reason why comes from the same promethean forces that influenced Dylan to become the musician and poet we now know.

The Hibbing of Dylan’s youth was bustling and prosperous, but doomed, at least according to many of that time. Before the commercial development of taconite there was a strong sense that the natural hematite iron ore would run out. A town that had spent its first 60 years fighting for survival wondered aloud if it would ever see it’s 100th birthday.

Meantime, a ghost town remained affixed to the city’s north side. Old North Hibbing still featured an ominous abandoned courthouse and scattered homes and buildings. It was a living reminder of the town’s impermanence and the fleeting nature of our human struggles.

This was Bob Dylan’s world. He wasn’t the only one to leave in the late 1950s, but he was the one who began turning those experiences into world-changing poetry just three years after leaving.

Critics tagged Dylan as a protest singer when he hit it big, and so did a lot of the folks back home in Hibbing. But protest was only a small part of what would become a Nobel prize-winning catalogue of music. Dylan’s lyrics describe people: their conflicts, loves and losses. His songs remain challenging because he requires the listener to apply their own perception to what he says. You’re part of the song, even if you don’t know it.

My friend Norma Schleppegrell, a longtime Hibbing community leader and wise woman, wrote a July 15, 2019 letter to the editor titled “Another Kind of Genius.” She supported the Hibbing Dylan Project’s efforts to build a permanent tribute to Dylan’s Nobel Prize career on the grounds of the high school.

An earlier Hibbing Daily Tribune story had described a school board hesitant to locate the public art and stage space on the chosen site. Schleppegrell knew the Zimmerman family when they lived in Hibbing and wasn’t having it.

She writes: “I’ve heard people here say “What did Bobby Dylan ever do for Hibbing?” He brought the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hibbing. How amazing is that! Hibbing should be proud of this incredible accomplishment by a high school alumnus.”

Schleppegrell argues that a town quick to honor its sports heroes should do the same for someone who used language to achieve greatness.

“Now we have an opportunity to recognize another kind of genius, to show our children that it’s possible to achieve in many ways,” writes Schleppegrell. “Bobby did it with his words, and the proposed monument honors his words and poetic contributions.”

That’s precisely what drew me to Dylan when I was a young man, decades after Bobby Zimmerman left town. It’s not that we all have to agree about Dylan’s music or lyrics. It’s that his career stands as a testament that this place matters, and so do the people in it.

We can’t all be Bob Dylan. And maybe that’s for the best. But you can’t have a Bob Dylan without a place like Hibbing. We’re not just any town, but a unique place forged in rich history. That’s the story you’ll find here and the one we should be telling.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Yes!

  2. I’m from far away but dabbled in Northern Minnesota for a few years in my youth. Here’s the truth of your article: “. . . you can’t have a Bob Dylan without a place like Hibbing. We’re not just any town, but a unique place forged in rich history. That’s the story you’ll find here and the one we should be telling.”

  3. Gerry Mantel says

    Do you recall Bobby’s reaction when they mentioned the Iron Range in the ‘No Direction Home’ series that was televised?

    Btw, I was on a ‘mining tour bus’ of sorts with Bob in 1984, and at that time he couldn’t seem to recall he was from Hibbing, even though Hibbing was our immediate destination.

  4. Gerry Mantel says

    Well ……
    We have a fella here that (1) conducts his own interviews, (2) writes his own music reviews and (3) creates his own biographies (“We’re English and we make own tea.” “We put onions on our cheeseburgers, just for the Vitamin C.”).
    On a brighter note, Mr. Flaming Basshole did like Father Perk’s Polka Band ….

    • In one word “Different”. He did not fit the mold as a Hibbite and was “Not From” Hibbing, even though his mother was. The man was basically eviscerated and, in leaving, made a wise choice. I speak from experience here of the non-welcoming aspect. Prior to moving to Hibbing, I had done a lot of business in the area for decades and knew many from that. We thought it would be a great move for our family…after all, my wife’s Great Grand Parents and Grand Parents were all from Hibbing. Aside from a few great neighbors and relatives, we were the outcasts. There seems to be a high regard for the status quo and the belief that “We never did it that way before” is a quote to live by. Just my $.02 from a real world experience.

  5. Gerry Mantel says

    Bobby, apparently, didn’t like himself too much, ca. 1967-2007 … backed with LOTS of evidence.

  6. Gerry Mantel says

    Yes …. “gosh, darn.”
    Here’s an idea (and, I might add, a “pretty good one”) —–
    That someone — OTHER THAN DOUGLAS BRINKLEY —– interview Uncle Bobby and ask him
    1) Just HOW long were you an alcoholic? (By my own experience with him, it was all of 45 years but could easily have been as much as 75).
    2) When you had JFK killed and then got us into Vietnam, just WHAT were you thinking, and how much did booze play into the decision?
    3) And why, then, in mid-1967 did you do a “180” and start promoting anti-war tunes, including your own (e.g., Arlo Guthrie, Jorma Kaukonen, David Peel etc.) ….. just wonderin’.

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