Hills of Rust, Highway 169
The road to Hibbing is a revelation of vast immeasurable skies and rusty man made hills of iron ore slag, spotted with birches trying to make a living in the red iron soil the miners left behind. A side trip to the US Steel town on Keewatin – broken itself now, with lawn signs that declare, “Mining supports us/We support mining” – tells a little of the story of boom and bust in the Mesabi Range.
A sign on the side of Engine 304 belonging to the Hanna Electrical Company, now off the rails and a museum piece, tells me this machine operated at the Mississippi Group from 1928 to 1966, hauling 30 cubic yards in each dump. Forty million tons of ore were removed from the mine in those years – to be railed to Pittsburgh and the other steel towns to make modern America, right out of this ground.
It is out of this ground – in Hibbing – that Bob Dylan sprang, like some imp off the page of a William Blake poem, innocence and experience cocooned in rural Minnesota far from the cities of the plains and the coasts.
It is a kind of urban sneer to ask as many have, “how the hell did a guy like that come out of a place like Hibbing?”, the same kind of sneer the pharisees levelled at Jesus – “can a prophet arise in Galilee?” That’s John 7:52 if you want to step into one of the many local evangelical churches of every stripe. Religion is everywhere here.
Greil Marcus tells a story about giving a reading in Berkeley in 2005, when this question came up, of “how did Dylan come out of place like Hibbing, a worn out mining town in the middle of nowhere?” I guess they had driven to the meeting in their cars, many made of Mesabi iron ore, across iron bridges from offices held together by good Pittsburgh steel.
A young woman stood up and rebuked them. Had they been to Hibbing? No. “If you had”, she said, “you’d know why he came from there. There’s poetry on the walls”. Voices, she meant, in bars where Trotskyites, Communists and IWW members argued with each other in ideological wars dating back a hundred years. Hard mining men, yes, but self-taught socialists with brains, despite their lack of schooling. Just like the men of Blackball, the West Coast coal mining town in New Zealand where I grew up.
And they built themselves the great local high school Dylan would go to, an amazing fortress of brick, dedicated to giving their children and grandchildren the education these men and women prized. It’s a quite incredible structure – in the middle of nowhere, of course.
Such Californian intellectual arrogance and ignorance is pretty much reflexive amongst many urban liberals. If you didn’t come from the city, well where? Not way out there, surely? It fuels an anger I too can recognize, in the people so put down: hicks, rubes, hill-billys – or where I come from, “ferals”.
Yes, Dylan did come from here, and it was these bleak landscapes and a fine education that coalesced in him somehow – none of which explains the mystery of genius however, hammered out and annealed, from promise and talent into something rich and strange.
Here in Hibbing, I start to get some messages. Writers are writers, some get the breaks, some don’t – but I think I can get the sense of the cocoon that little Bobby was wrapped in while he secretly developed into the kind of winged creature even he did not know he could become. There is music here, old and ancient sounds of the earth and those who work it.
There is some kind of mysterious power in the landscape that acted upon his little soul. I’m calling it plenitude. That’s where and why I am where I am, this weekend – on the trail of what creates genius, what spurs creativity in the soul of the child and the butterfly the adult will become.
I have traveled the road he drove on, stood outside the house that sheltered him; inhaled those great mysterious external forces and studied the walls of his home and his hearth.
In all this, I may well be none the wiser but I’m glad I came. The skies and the hills of rust remind me of somewhere I grew up; the small compass of his Hibbing world is like my hometown. It only takes an hour or so to walk to significant sites: the family synagogue, the play school, the home and Hibbing High. His house is five minutes walk from there.
Anyone who cannot go but cares, should get hold of Natalie Goldberg’s excellent pilgrimage DVD, Tangled up in Bob (2007); she even gets to talk to his old (and very proud) English teacher. She travels with old guy on his scooter up to see the hole in world that is the Mesabi Iron Range mine today. Magic.
I guess I’m left with two things: he had buckets of raw material (the people and the land) and a deep, elastic imagination that had to get out of there as soon as the time was ripe. He had to tell the same stories of sin, death, love and the open road that he’s telling today, in his 70s. That’s prophecy: not foretelling, but telling forth.
I call this stuff hill-billy Gothic and you have to go underground to get it. You get something else in Berkeley and The Village, but you don’t get the kind of genes that had to run from Odessa and Lithuania,the genes that know too how to listen to men who’ve worked in the pits of hell. This is the cry of a Judaism watered in its deepest roots by the rivers that feed the Ozarks.
Sometimes you just have to start small and hidden, go Beat, surreal, symbolist and holy roller – then back to mines and the Mississippi again. Yes, that river is near here too, it runs right through Grand Rapids to the south.
The best bit for me was discovering that when Dylan went to grade school, he ran straight home when he heard the first recess bell, just like I did in Auckland in 1952. “It takes a few extra trips to figure out how very long the school day is”, writes David Engel in Just Like Bob Zimmerman Blues (p56). Amen to that.
Bob Dylan’s childhood home, 2425 7th Avenue E., now Bob Dylan Avenue.