As I write this, the Swedish Academy is waiting for a call from Bob Dylan about his Nobel Prize for Literature. The award was announced days ago, comparing Dylan’s lyrics to the work of long-ago Greek poets.
The singer-songwriter is known for his reclusiveness. Much more accessible are Joe and Mary Keyes, whom the London-based Reuters news service tracked down within a couple of hours of the big news.
If Mary ever met Bob Dylan, she knows what she’d tell him: Because of you, I have met some of the nicest people in the world.
The Keyes are historians who help tell the iconic star’s life story in Hibbing, Minn. That is where Dylan, as a little boy known as Robert Zimmerman, lived with his family until high school graduation.
Dylan fans from Israel, Japan, Australia and other countries find their way to Hibbing, population 16,000 and 75 miles northwest of Duluth. It’s been that way for many years. The trip to this part of Minnesota, the rugged Iron Range, is not a casual pilgrimage.
By appointment, for $20 per hour (tips appreciated), the Keyes conduct history tours of one to three hours. They board buses, lead car caravans and walk the streets of Hibbing, whatever makes most sense. Once in a while, LeRoy Hoikkala comes along. He was the drummer for Dylan’s band during high school. Class of 1959.
“We are glad to do this for even one person, like the guy from Winnipeg who came here on his motorcycle,” says Mary, a Hibbing native and former English teacher. Tours are a two-person job because wandering guests are “like kittens in a wheelbarrow.”
Work at open-pit Hull Rust Mahoning Mine, among the world’s largest, started in 1895 and continues 24/7. That’s another Hibbing attraction. Mary refers to it as “a manmade Grand Canyon,” and “the influence this land had on the music” is a recurrent Dylan tour theme.
Iron ore mining made Hibbing a wealthy community at the end of the 19th century. Hibbing High School, called a “castle in the wilderness” when it opened in the 1920s, still has chandeliers, mosaic floors, marble staircases, pillars and artwork that includes a 60-foot-long oil painting, all about mining.
Downtown isn’t as vibrant anymore, Mary says, and businesses popular during Dylan’s teen years have closed. Even Zimmy’s, a Dylan-themed bar-restaurant, closed in 2014, and then the annual Dylan Days ended. It all started in the 1990s with a cake and round of “Happy Birthday” singing, then grew from there.
Now Duluth hosts the annual Dylan Fest during the week of the musician’s birthday, which is May 24. Why Duluth? Dylan was born there, and a marker at his first home was installed during a 75th birthday party for him this year.
“Dylanologist” John Bushey this month celebrated 25 years of airing his “Highway 61 Revisited” show on KUMD, a public radio station in Duluth. The party doubled as an impromptu Nobel Prize celebration, without Dylan, of course.
The 1.8-mile Bob Dylan Way marks artsy points of significance in downtown Duluth, between the railroad depot and shuttered armory. Look for a modest Dylan exhibit at Fitger’s, a historic hotel/dining/shopping complex.
Dylan Fest happens “to celebrate the genius of Bob Dylan and to lift up art, music and poetry in the northland” of Minnesota, says Zane Bail, an event organizer. A highlight is the singer-songwriter contest; entrants perform one of Dylan’s songs and one piece of original music.
The Nobel Prize recognizes Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions with the great American song tradition.” Poetry is a big part of Dylan Fest too, Bail says, and she predicts it will get bigger. The 2017 event is May 21-28 in Duluth.
“Given the recent Nobel Prize for Literature award announcement, we certainly anticipate an increased interest level – both national and international” in Bob Dylan’s connections to Duluth, says Bob Gustafson of the city’s tourism office.
That will happen with or, more likely, without the native son presence.
To arrange a Bob Dylan or other history tour in Hibbing, contact Joe and Mary Keyes at 218-262-5574. To explore on your own, pick up a walking tour brochure from the city library, chamber of commerce or Iron Range Tourism Bureau. ironrange.org, 800-777-8497
For a Dylan tour in Duluth, check out bobdylanway.com or contact Visit Duluth, the city’s tourism office. “There are informal ambassadors who can conduct tours,” says Zane Bail. visitduluth.com, 800-438-5884
For updates on Bob Dylan’s tour schedule and how many times he has sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1,389, and counting), go to bobdylan.com.