We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s arrival in New York City with videos, artist tributes, and old Voice stories. Already we’ve seen a stage-crashing, fruit-throwing Mods vs. Rockers brawl at one of Dylan’s early electric shows and a glowing review of the kinder, gentler Blonde on Blonde; today, we revisit Toby Thompson’s March 27, 1969 report from Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, whose residents greet his passionate Dylan inquiries with . . . profound nonchalance.
Positively Main Street: 2. Join the Elvis Rebellion
By Toby Thompson
Oh, yes, the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce will tell you, there have been times in Hibbing’s relatively short history when the future was less than bright. The lumberjack days for instance. Everyone thought Hibbing would die out with the timber like a hundred other Minnesota mining camps. But Frank Hibbing changed all that the day he stuck his head out of a tent on a 40-below-zero January morning in 1893 and roared, “I believe there is iron under me. My bones feel rusty and chilly.” Frank Hibbing and his miners took over land the loggers were leaving and “the largest red iron ore open pit mine in the world” felt the bite of its first spade.
It was rough and tumble from there on in; Bret Harte and Emile Zola out front–but “progress” and “culture” in the wings. Before long the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce got around to the village’s more cultivated claims to national fame:
Bobby Die-lan? No, not exactly…
In 1919, Hibbing gave birth to the Bookmobile! It was a 30 horse-power White truck, remodeled into the first library bus–to serve the mining camps up and down the Mesabi Range.
The Greyhound Bus System started in Hibbing with a 1913 Hupmobile bought as a taxi by “Bus Andy” Anderson for the 15-cent jaunt between Alice and Hibbing. If you ask the folks at the Hibbing Village Chamber of Commerce who Hibbing’s most famous citizen is, they’ll tell you “Bus Andy” Anderson every time.
After World War I mining Hibbing began to have its first serious problems. The town was still prospering. There were handsome public buildings in late Victorian Greco-Roman, fine homes for the villagers, streetcar lines, shady lanes and well-paved streets, sidewalks in front of family businesses, a healthy school system, and, as Dylan would say, “the lunch-bucket filled every season.” But prosperity threatened to devour its own, and yes “money doesn’t talk it swears,” for . . .
The Oliver Mining Company had somehow obtained mineral rights to the land under the village, and was making an offer of $2.5 million to property owners for the surface rights. Part of the deal was that 80 acres of company-owned land would be provided for development in “New” Hibbing — actually, the old mining camp Alice, one and a half miles south of “Old” Hibbing. Merchants would be allowed to choose sites in New Hibbing, three business blocks would be built by the company and sold to the merchants, and the company would move 185 dwellings, 12 frame business buildings, and eight brick business buildings on huge iron wheels, the mile and a half from Old Hibbing’s shady lanes and concrete sidewalks to Alice–an empty field sectioned off by a sewer pipe still above ground.
Took four years to complete the moving. And in another six years the Depression had hit and New-Old Hibbing faced a different kind of potential annihilation: Mining came to a near standstill.
But the village survived, and World War II came along. That didn’t help much, but at least the mines were working again. Though day by day they were becoming too expensive to operate, ore was no longer plentiful, the few men left in the mines before the war were being drafted, women took over in the pits, and the profit was next to nil. After the war, taconite changed all that. Geologists say there is sufficient taconite on the Mesabi Range to last for more than 100 years. Resurrection! Taconite, it seems, was virtually worthless as a raw material for the steel industry until recently when research . . . But the times they’ve a changed, both mines and plants operate around the clock, Hibbing’s prosperity once again blossoms with Kahler Inn Towne Motels and junior colleges, two Sno-Mobiles in every garage . . .
Walk up Howard Street, the village’s main drag, from the Androy Motor Inn, past the Jolly Rodger and Sportsman Cafes to Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward’s in search of a little of Hibbing’s newfound prosperity for Bob . . . Nary a Famous Face or Personality Poster applauds the worldwide notoriety of our hometown hero, and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits is the only album in stock — if you’re lucky. Smiling salesladies offer you sticky-stringed renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” by the Muzak Strains of Jehovah Seventeen . . . But — to Crippa’s, Howard Street’s only music store, and surefire dealer for . . . two of Bob’s records? John Wesley Harding and the Greatest Hits. None of the fine old stuff on the early albums about Hibbing and the North Country? Neither of the folk-rock albums, Bringin’ It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited? The two that crucified popular music . . .
The saleslady at Crippa’s explains that Bob doesn’t sell well in Hibbing. People don’t like his voice. Some of the other groups that do his songs — the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez — they sell a whole lot better. But Saleslady likes Bob. She sold him his first harmonica. And harmonica rack. Had to order that special. Bob was in Crippa’s a lot. From the time he was just a little boy. Always fascinated by music. Would spend hours in the store listening to records. All kinds. Liked classical music at first. But, sometime during his junior high school years, he got interested in popular music. Blues, country, rock and roll, everything. Chet Crippa remembers ordering all of Hank Williams’ records for Bob, at one fell swoop. Chet outfitted Bob’s rock band too. With amplifiers, mikes, guitars, right down to picks and guitar strings. Chet remembers that in those days Bob carried his guitar with him wherever he went. An old beat-up Sears and Roebuck job, with a leather strap. Slung it over his shoulder and down his back, through snowstorms and everything.
The Hibbing Daily Tribune doesn’t have much on Bob. Just one picture, a four or five year old publicity shot, and no real write-ups. Everybody asks “What’s Bobby doing these days?” The Hibbing Public Library has the Daniel Kramer picture book. But one of Bob’s records or lyrics, not even a file of clippings.
On up Howard Street checking for signs of the wicked messenger at every crossroad. And cafe. Into Mr. Jack’s, the L.B., Ewardsons’, and Sammy’s Pizza Palace. Straight to the jukebox. But not a Wurlitzer in town with a Dylan tune. Beatles, Bee Gees, and Bobby Goldsboro — but no Bobby Die-lan. And these are jukeboxes in places where kids hang out. Sammy’s Pizza Palace, for instance. A classic malt shop. No beer with your pizza here. Just soda pop and coffee. No tables either, but wooden booths, like in an Archie comic book. Stuffed deer heads and poorly wall-eyed pike for decor. But good coffee. The kids drink a lot of it, four or five cups for their 15 cents. The kids look like kids most places, except for their dress. The Girls are fairly up to date department-store tweed. No boutique fashions or hippie garb, to be sure. But rather stylish, nonetheless. The boys are the very opposite. Big pompadours with gobs of Brylcreem, gabardine sport shirts tucked into black slacks cinched up by skinny silver belts, white socks, and black loafers with horseshoe taps. Join the Elvis Rebellion. Circa 1956.
There are no hippies in Hibbing. The kids tell a story that last time Bob was in town, not for his father’s funeral, but before that, he came into Sammy’s for a pizza. Hardly anyone recognized him at first. He just walked over by the counter to wait in line for his pizza. But then some stupid girl sort of screamed, and everybody started giggling and making remarks. Bob got out of there pretty fast. But the funny thing was, not that there was Bobby Die-lan right here in Sammy’s Pizza Palace, but the way he looked. The hair, and those clothes. It was spooky the way everyone spaced right out over this weird little man. Who came on so funny, and just happened to be Bobby Die-lan.
The kids don’t have much to say about Bob. They’d rather talk about four-barrel carburetors or fuel injection. The hot rod thing, another later 1950s, early 1960s vogue. Popular music seems harder to come by in Minnesota than in most places. WMFG, Hibbing’s radio station, plays polkas and Andy Williams muzak. But no Bob. Keith Knox, their program director, did assure me, however, that they have a Montovani album somewhere with Bob’s music on it. (Good-time Evelyn over at the Androy Motor Inn piano bar says sure, she likes that song “Blowin’ in the Wind” — but try to get her to play it.) The only top-40 station you can pick up during daylight hours in WEBC from Duluth. And that’s not really top-40 but golden-oldie. The big Midwestern stations with solid top-40 formats all tune in at night — but fairly late and somehow sounding very far away.
Consequently, one wonders. About Bob, in the middle ’50s, when rock music was still struggling for play on big stations back East. And what it must have been like musically in Minnesota then.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 27, 2011