‘When the red iron pits ran a-plenty’: Northland celebrates Bob Dylan’s 80th | Essay

By: - May 19, 2021 6:00 am

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C. Photo by Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers.

If you want to find something new, look for destruction.

Over a few billion years on Earth, planetary disasters created new forms of life. A meteor here. Volcanic eruptions there. Each time new plants and critters emerged until, one day, we put on pants.

Look at what happens after a northern Minnesota forest fire. New growth takes over quickly. Whole new ecosystems evolve. Some species like the jack pine even thrive after such desolation.

Where I live along the Mesabi Iron Range, old mines beget new landscapes. Savagely tilled extraction fields become unexpected laboratories of natural rehabilitation, mountain bikes and assorted teenage debauchery. 

And look at those kids. How many of them are some version of their parents, destined to produce children rather similar to themselves? Let’s be conservative and say most. Change will not come from them, but rather from the broken ones, the misfits and outcasts, the ones with ideas that come from a place they can’t describe, or at least not yet. 

They see the proud men laid low by layoffs and whiskey, the proud women imprisoned by unwritten rules. They hear the shouts of joy, sorrow and anger forming some strange new chord. The sun warms even a January day and spring musk always rises from the cold white snow.

That brings us to Robert Zimmerman, a weird kid from the Iron Range town of Hibbing who went on to be known as Bob Dylan. 

On Monday, Bob Dylan turns 80. This Saturday, the people of his hometown, Hibbing, will break ground on a monument to honor the music and lyrics of the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In fact, now begins the “Year of Dylan,” officially ordained by St. Louis County. Events scheduled in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth and in Hibbing, where he grew up, will mark Dylan’s impact on the world. 

I spent much of my 20s and 30s organizing Dylan-themed music and cultural events in my birthplace (also Hibbing) during the folk-rock troubadour’s birthday week. There is no greater dissonance than the gap between the experiences tourists had learning about Dylan’s hometown and the attitudes of those who live here full time. The Dylan fans loved Hibbing. The locals, though, never warmed to the crowd, nor did they really seem to enjoy where they lived except in memory. It’s nice to see that change, at least a little, but it was no easy progression. 

“Bob Dylan hates Hibbing,” we heard. Not sometimes, but every time we posted about Bob Dylan’s Hibbing story. 

Bob Dylan doesn’t hate Hibbing. He speaks highly of it, or at least of how the place shaped his sensibilities. He didn’t stick around and work in the mines, though. They’ve got him there. 

Dylan grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s. Post-WWII Hibbing was an amazing place that seemed to be living on borrowed time. A big beautiful school still recruited the best teachers in the state to profess the arts, humanities, and elite technical skills. And yet, as wartime production scaled down, mines closed and consolidated. The economic fortunes of downtown Hibbing wilted like September leaves. Many thought it was all over. It wasn’t, but some people never stopped thinking that.

In fact, Hibbing of that era was actively burying a past few today truly understand. The town had mostly moved in the 1920s to allow U.S. Steel to mine ore beneath the old village. But even during the 1950s vestiges of old North Hibbing remained in use. 

Dylan grew up as the old town sat rusting away, crumbling to earth. The images he saw can be found not only in songs like “Girl From the North Country” or “North Country Blues,” but throughout his catalogue. Dylan’s liner notes from “The Times They Are a’ Changin’” literally describe his feelings about North Hibbing.

A twisted set of circumstances molded Bob Dylan from the hard rocks and red clay of northern Minnesota. It was, quite frankly, an accident. But then that’s true of many of us, and of most people who change anything at all.

I don’t know how long Dylan’s words will carry the impact they’ve had over the past 60 years. Sometimes I wonder if Dylan is like a Shakespeare, his words still kicking 500 years after rigor mortis. Other times I think that he, too, will fade away with the rest of us schlubs, including all the normal kids from his old high school. 

Perhaps by then some new voice will feel the same north winds that Bobby Zimmerman did, and find purpose in telling an updated version of life’s old story.

If you want to find something new, look for destruction. That’s where it is, like it or not.


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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.