Bob Dylan has meant a lot of different things to many people in his time. A 60s troubadour, a protest folk-singer gone electric, a poet, a prophet, even a messiah. The Rolling Stone Album Guide calls him the “most significant American rocker since Elvis, a 60s revolutionary, transforming the world not only musically, but politically and spiritually.” Popular music had produced nothing like him before.
Growing up, music was the unofficial religion of my household, and that made Bob Dylan almost God, or at the very least one of the Twelve Apostles. My parents frequently fought at the dinner table over which song in Dylan’s impressive catalogue was most meaningful. Their tastes were often in opposition, but there was complete agreement over Dylan’s place in the music hierarchy. I attended my first concert at the age of 3 months old, and though I’m unsure of how this affected my growing brain, one thing is for certain, I too caught the Bob-loving-bug.
A teenager in the 90s, being a crazy Bob Dylan fan was hardly cool. Whilst my friends went gaga over Nirvana, and grieved the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, I curled up in my bedroom and listened to mix tapes of Dylan made years before by my Bob-worshipping mum. I have kids of my own now, and I realized how deeply entrenched this familial devotion to the word-of-Bob had become when my five-year-old son came home from his first day of school, looked up at me with accusing eyes and said – “You told me Bob Dylan was famous,” as though his whole life had been a lie. Clearly, he had asked around, and no-one under 6 had even heard of him.
Recently, a friend gave me a map of Bob Dylan’s America. All the places of significance to the Bob connoisseur, including every place he had ever mentioned in a song. To someone else this might have been mildly interesting, but to me it seemed somehow sacred. It got me thinking of a Bob inspired pilgrimage through the USA, of all the places that I’d known in songs but never seen. There are hundreds of references to place within Dylan’s songs. American towns with exotic sounding names like Tularosa, Ashtabula, El Paso, and Delacroix. I’d never known their locations, never thought to check them on the map. These places had existed for me in a kind of imagined, dream-like space. Though it hurt me to do so, I narrowed my fantasy pilgrimage down to 5 places of major significance.
‘Girl From North Country’ – Minnesota
The state of Minnesota is home to the birthplace of Bob Dylan – Duluth, and the nearby mining town he spent his youth in, Hibbing. Minnesota is the northernmost state in the US apart from Alaska, and is known mostly for being intensely cold. Dylan himself said – ‘I grew up in a place so foreign, you had to go there to picture it. In the winter everything was still, nothing moved. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but look out your window. There is a great spiritual quality throughout the Midwest, very subtle, very strong, and that’s where I grew up.’ Minnesota has produced an eclectic bunch of entertainers over the years including Prince, Judy Garland, Winona Ryder, and the Cohen Brothers. Maybe there’s something in the freezing cold air?
‘Highway 61 Revisited’
This staggering American highway had one end in the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, and the other in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The great south-north route, it was the road jazz and blues first travelled up, and is often referred to as `The Blues Highway`. It ran right through Bob Dylan’s hometown of Duluth. All the culture the young Dylan soaked up came pouring at him along that highway, and in turn it offered him escape out of his cold parochial surroundings. The mother of all road trips, it’s probably not for the faint-hearted.
‘Hard Times In New YorkTown’ – Greenwich Village.
When Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, Greenwich Village was full of folk clubs, bars and coffee houses. It was known as the Bohemian capital, and the birthplace of the Beat movement. In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan says – ‘New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world. The city was like some uncarved block without any name or shape and it showed no favouritism. Everything was always new, always changing. It was never the same crowd upon the streets.’ Though Greenwich Village is no longer the heart of the NY bohemian scene, some of the original venues Dylan played in still operate today. Cafe Wha? on MacDougal Street, would surely be worth a look!
‘It`s All Over Now Baby Blue’ – Newport Folk Festival
Dylan played the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964 and was the crowd’s young hero, cheered for his protest songs. In 1965, however, he famously plugged in and shocked the traditional folkies with electric versions of ‘Maggie’s farm’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The crowd allegedly booed, but ‘folk-rock’ was born, and the face of popular music changed forever.
‘Oh Mercy’ – New Orleans
New Orleans gets a mention in several Dylan songs, and was also where he recorded his 1989 Album ‘Oh Mercy’. Widely rated as the best US city for live music, despite the effects of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was also the birth place of jazz. In Chronicles Dylan writes – “Around any corner, there’s the promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better…No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.” Straight from the man himself!
In 2007 J. Hoberman wrote – “Elvis might never have been born, but someone else would surely have brought the world rock ‘n’ roll. No such logic accounts for Bob Dylan. No iron law of history demanded that a would-be Elvis from Hibbing, Minnesota, would swerve through the Greenwich Village folk revival to become the world’s first and greatest rock ‘n’ roll beatnik bard and then—having achieved fame and adoration beyond reckoning—vanish into a folk tradition of his own making.”
Chasing Dylan’s elusive shadow across a road map of America reminds me of what I most love about the man and his music. It’s that unknown quality, the thing you can’t hold in your hands, or put into words. In Chronicles Dylan says – ‘A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter…You open a door to a dark room and you think you know what’s there, where everything is arranged, but you don’t really know until you step inside.’ I think a pilgrimage through Bob Dylan’s America would be just like that. Stepping into the unknown. You think you know what you’ll find, but you really don’t until you take that first step.
First published in get lost magazine, December 2009.