by Susan Clayton   June 5, 2006

Susan Clayton went to Dylan Days in Hibbing and found treasure.

There is a fascinating ambivalence among a significant number of Hibbingites toward singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who – say it with me, Minnesota – grew up as Bob Zimmerman in the Iron Range town.

Hibbing must be about the only place on the planet where folks really deny the relevance of Dylan’s poetry and the magnitude of his impact on the world. At times downright hostility arises among the locals when the subject of this native son comes up. Often, he is remembered as arrogant and ungrateful, a perception passed on to generations born long after Zimmerman departed. Many former Hibbingites have said that they didn’t realize what a big deal Dylan is until they left town.

Whatever one’s taste in music or openness to historical fact, it can’t be disputed that for decades Dylan has represented for art and the independent spirit. Even weird gambits over the years – like showing up for We Are the World and Victoria’s Secret – are performance art juxtapositions, prompting us to think about what belongs where in our culture.

Despite a lack of strong local support, the 16th annual Dylan Days Celebration took place in Hibbing over Memorial Day weekend, buoyed by the presence of enthusiastic Dylan aficionados from out of town. The event, held each May in honor of Dylan’s birthday on the 24th, has been steadily growing in programming and attendance over the years. Dylan pilgrims have been finding their way to town since the 1960s, but increasingly they are being joined by artists, writers and scholars who are, in various ways, looking at Dylan’s life and work.

Dylan Days is produced largely at the impetus of artists and entrepreneurs Bob and Linda Hocking. Dylan fans for sure, the Hockings are the proprietors of Zimmy’s & The Atrium Bar & Restaurant, well situated on the main drag of town. Zimmy’s is headquarters for the annual celebration that, for Bob, Linda and their collaborators, is about encouraging the practice of the arts. A literature contest and a singer-songwriter competition are centerpieces of the schedule. Zimmy’s offers exhibition space for the week to visual artists.

The figure of Bob Dylan provides a go-for-it icon. A painter and a photographer respectively, Bob and Linda’s idea is to draw artists and arts-friendly people to town, as visitors or as residents, increasing the vitality of the area. Not a bad idea – Hibbing could serve as the third point on an arts region triangle with Duluth and Grand Marais.

In fact, Hibbing’s Chamber of Commerce has acted in partnership with the Dylan Days committee for the last 4 years, indicating that there is some brewing local interest in the economic possibilities inherent in nurturing the arts.

Dylan Days boosters are building on a sensibility that is not new in Hibbing. Early in the 20th century, when the iron mines began to boom, education and culture were squarely on the agenda as the town spent plentiful revenues. The renowned Hibbing High School, built in 1920, included an elaborate auditorium to encourage local talent and attract visiting performers. A mainstay for decades, the Range Concert series imported artists from the international stage. The visual arts had a home at the Range Artists’ Association. Community theater flourished. In the 1950s, for example, a homegrown musical, Growin’ Pains, detailed the early years of Hibbing history, attracting patrons such as Rudy & Lola Perpich and Dylan’s parents, Abe & Beatty Zimmerman. Funding and energy for arts programs floundered with the mining industry toward the end of the twentieth century. Dylan Days represents a resurgence.

The 2006 celebration, held May 24-27, was notable for an influx of energy from a mix of visitors to town. Among those drawn to Dylan Days this year were filmmaker Mary Feidt and writer’s writer Natalie Goldberg, who opened the festivities with a screening of their new film. Tangled Up in Bob documents an attempt to understand the Dylan phenomenon by visiting his former haunts in Hibbing and in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown. “A seed dropped where it didn’t belong,” marvels Goldberg, “but was able to flourish.”

Present in these places, Feidt and Goldberg discover the importance, among other things, of a great teacher in Bob Zimmerman’s life. English instructor B. J. Rolfzen, who still resides in town, provides remarkable insight in the film. For Dylan, for Goldberg, and for everyone, it is speculated, if once blessed with a great teacher we tend to find others along the way.

Local residents turned out for Tangled Up in Bob curious about interviews and clips featuring several Hibbingites. There was crowding as well at Saturday’s book signing featuring rock writer Greil Marcus, in town on holiday with his family. Marcus signed copies of his book The Old, Weird America, formerly published as Invisible Republic and endorsed by Dylan himself: “Greil Marcus has done it again,” reads the cover. The local independent bookstore was happily busy, peddling an array of materials including the DVD of the recent and evocative movie North Country. Although winners of the literature contest were from locations as far-flung as New York and Florida, several local honorees– their work published in zine form as Talkin’ Blues – were on hand. B. J. Rofzen, able to motor up the street on his 3-wheeled scooter, attended for a time, lending authenticity and warmly greeting all comers.

The singer-songwriter competition, held at Zimmy’s on Friday, yielded the opening act for the grand finale concert at the Hibbing High School Auditorium Saturday night. The affable boy in a bowler did the requisite Dylan tune followed by a skippy original composition about “the road” before heading off to another gig. He was expertly followed by a native of nearby Virginia, Paul Metsa.

Definitely at home on the Range, Metsa’s song picks and banter were spot on in addressing local politics, landmarks and legends. Headlining were members of the Minneapolis studio band from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, who, for many reasons, were never credited upon its release in 1975. Band member Kevin Odegaard, who documented the story in his book A Simple Twist of Fate, was joined by Bill Berg, Greg Inhofer, Peter Ostroushko, Billy Peterson, Chris Weber and guest artist Stanley Kipper. Despite some painful technical difficulties at the start, the ensemble provided rocking recreations of Dylan tunes with especially strong turns from Ostroushko and Kipper. The house was packed with an appreciative, if shy, local crowd.

Well done! to the Hockings and the Dylan Days committee. Entries to the literature and singer-songwriter competitions were solid. Events were well attended. This years’ blend of programming and personalities made for moments of magic. Also on view was evidence that local attitudes toward the Dylan legacy might be a-changin’. Dylan’s boyhood home, for years an unmarked private residence, now sits on the recently renamed Dylan Drive, decked out by its new owners in hard-to-miss banners.

At the end of Tangled Up in Bob,Natalie Goldberg concluded that “you won’t find Bob Dylan in Hibbing, but you may find something you need.” Linda Hocking adds “Dylan Days is a celebration of music, art and writing in northern Minnesota. By honoring Bob, we honor the place where he came from and the spirit that flows through everyone who creates something in this world.” Aesthetics, politics and hometown bias aside, Dylan Days pays tribute to a kid who followed his muse and invites others to do the same.