Legacy visions in Bob Dylan’s hometown

Ondara will perform a concert at the Hibbing High School Auditorium on April 23, 2022.

Just after World War II, Abram and Beatty Zimmerman moved their family from Duluth back to Beatty’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota.

But not really. 

Beatty’s real hometown had been destroyed. The houses were ripped away; brick buildings scrapped. In 24-hour shifts, machines stripped away the earth below like flesh from the bone. Men dynamited solid rock into dark powder that looks and tastes like blood. 

That’s its Latin name: hematite. Bloodstone. Iron ore.

At night, these men hid blasting caps in an ammunition box under their bunks. The men had to pay for these dangerous explosives out of their own wages, so where else could they put them? They also stowed carbide head lamps next to the union pamphlets they could be fired for reading. On their pillows they prayed and cursed in all the languages of Babel before returning to the iron mines the next day. In this fashion they consumed the old town as winter birds pick clean the skeletons under the snow.

But, the Zimmermans, with their young sons, David and Robert, moved to a new Hibbing, a patchwork community of merchants and miners that had moved two miles south. Hibbing had the same name and some of the same people, but it was a cenotaph: a memorial to the old town that was cremated in a blast furnace out east. 

The most elaborate shrine was built to be as large and immovable as humanly possible. From the untamed mud on what was once the town’s edge rose Hibbing High School, a vast brick castle with a Broadway theater tucked inside. Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan on the stage of this auditorium. He emerged transformed from these ranks of all-American teenagers whose parents spoke foreign tongues. This communal palace sought to raise people up, to believe in a dream that was denied many in the old town. For some, the dream came true. For others, it was just a happy story that glued together the broken parts.

Despite its ambition, Hibbing’s transition failed to expel its ghosts. The wind blew hard, but the past still lingered.

Looking at the history of Hibbing, most of it housed in the long arc of the 20th Century, Bob Dylan’s childhood must have been like hearing the last verse of a great song on the radio just before the commercial break. You wonder how it started. You want more.

“The town I grew up in is the one that has left with my legacy visions,” wrote Dylan in the liner notes for “The Times They Are a’ Changin.’”

Like all the other kids, Dylan would ride up to the old town, where the mine pit met the ruins. He said Hibbing wasn’t rich or poor, it was just dying. He wrote, “A train line cuts the ground showin’ where the fathers an’ mothers of me an’ my friends had picked up an’ moved from north Hibbing t’ south Hibbing.

“South Hibbing is where everybody came t’ start their town again. But the winds of the north came followin’ an’ grew fiercer an’ the years went by, but I was young an’ so I ran an’ kept runnin.’”

The Greyhound Bus Company also started in Hibbing. The town seemed designed to send its best away. Iron ore. People. Ideas. And so went Dylan, another ore car trundling toward the port. The rest of us pressed on through bad times and good. Hibbing is still here, but it’s not making any promises. What place can? 

An unfulfilled dream makes people sad and angry, like something was taken. But just because something moved doesn’t mean it’s gone. Sometimes what you send away goes all the way around the world on its way back where it started. 

For half a century every kid that picked up a guitar thought about Bob Dylan. Today, even kids who never heard of Dylan hear the echo of North Hibbing on the radio, not knowing its name. The name was never all that important. The song is older than the words we learned as children.

Eight thousand miles from Hibbing sits Nairobi, Kenya, a metropolis perched on the equator where all winds blow hot. A young man named JS Ondara wrote poems and lyrics for songs he wouldn’t get to play until he could afford a guitar. He loved many kinds of music, but his lyrics were inspired by the man whose inspiration flowed out of a ghost town along an iron canyon. When he could, Ondara came to the place where his favorite songs came from: Minnesota. The home of Bob Dylan. Now he performs songs about the immigrant experience in America, immigrants like the grandparents of old Hibbing. His work was nominated for a Grammy, but his career is only getting started.

Now, Ondara’s path brings him to the same Hibbing High School stage where Robert Zimmerman and his band played more than 64 years ago. Sometimes people wonder if Dylan will ever come back to play a show. Maybe not, but the spirit that drives him has now circumnavigated the globe. 

The Ondara show begins at 7:30 on Saturday, April 23 at the Hibbing High School auditorium. Tickets are free; you can reserve them at KAXE.org.

It only proves that in a fateful moment what was lost can be replaced by something unexpected, new, and yet — if you listen closely — familiar.

Today the wind blows hard on Hibbing’s borderline, but the past lingers yet. The stories carve grooves on the trees and etch the concrete gravestones in old North Hibbing. This eternal electricity transmits the songs of traveling troubadours, some dead, some alive, and more to come. Yes, it passes through Hibbing. It passes through you now.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 17 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Joe musich says

    Well this piece had me crying and pounding my fist on my computer table at the same time. All the noise was immediately sucked into the acoustics of the present with hardly a reflection. If the blasting cap returned at the tips of the hands of the spinning clock no sound and only destruction would have resulted. But slipping from that point in the artifice of multiverse to the visitor coming to the Grauman’s Theater of the Northland makes me hope it will be recorded for those who will not be there.
    Once again your word assembling is deeply inspirational. Thank you.

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