A Letter To Hibbing

by Paula Radice




The main body of this piece is a letter I wrote recently to a new friend who lives in Hibbing, a lady called Marilyn, with whom I was put in touch by B.J. Rolfzen, Dylanís High School English teacher, whom I met (together with his very gracious and kind wife, Leona) during my visit to Hibbing last summer. Marilyn is a retired teacher - colleague of B.J.ís, who was interested in the strange English women (my words, not hers!) who sheíd heard had dropped into Hibbing and she emailed me asking about teaching, Dylan and life in general in England. Although she isn't a Dylan fan herself - despite B.J.ís many attempts to convert her - she is very interested in what makes others rate him so highly, and her letters and emails to me, as well as chatting about her life in Hibbing, have frequently asked me about what got me "into" Dylan, what I think about "Chronicles", and what I thought about Hibbing as a town. She wondered, for example, whether I had "somewhat idealized" Hibbing after my visit. After pondering awhile, I sat down and wrote her a long letter trying to answer her questions. With a few alterations (for example, the footnotes), this is the letter: 

20th March 2005

Dear Marilyn 

Thanks for your lovely long letter. I am sorry it has taken me a little while to reply, but school has been very busy, and we're in the middle of a round of parent consultation evenings. Enough complaining! I know that you already know about the life of a teacher! 

You raised several interesting questions in your letter that have got me thinking. The reason I "got into" Dylan was, of course, the words/lyrics. He was playing a concert in Newcastle (up in the North of England) in 1984, at which time I was at University in Durham, which is about 10 miles from Newcastle. I didn't go to the show, but everyone was talking about it, so I went and bought an LP to see what they were talking about. I was astonished the first time I listened to it! I couldn't "hear" a single word! Dylan seemed to just be shouting the words (the album was "Hard Rain", a live LP from the Rolling Thunder period, 1975-6), and he wasn't even always even on key. But the intensity of both the music and performance drew me in, and I just couldn't stop listening to it. When I started being able to "hear" the lyrics, I was completely hooked (the first song to make a really dramatic impact on me was "Shelter From the Storm" on that album, with its screamed lyrics and wailing guitars, capturing exactly the disorientation and chaos of being in a violent storm: the "shelter" part of the title and refrain I took to be hugely ironic). The lyrics were so powerful and original, and sung with such feeling. When I first heard "Blonde and Blonde" and other albums from the sixties, some months later, I can remember laughing out loud when I listened to them for the first time -I just couldn't believe that someone could be so clever and precise and funny with language in songs. Ever since then, I have been a committed believer that Dylan is one of the best users of language ever born, and certainly the most intelligent and poetic observer of the twentieth (and now the twenty-first) century. 

Thatís why it meant so much to me to meet B.J. last summer. I think he must have had an important formative effect on Dylanís (or rather Robert Zimmermanís) understanding of language and poetry, or at the very least was instrumental in nurturing an already creative and lyrical mind. It was thrilling to be able to talk to him and find out about what "young Robert" (as B.J. always calls him) was like as a High School student, while his interpretation of the world was being formed. I loved his stories of living across the road from the Zimmermans, and his fond recollections of Dylan's parents, especially his mother Beatty, whom everyone seems to have held in high regard. B.J. called her a "wonderful, wonderful woman", and recalled how she had telephoned from her job at Feldmanís clothing store to tell Leona when a new delivery of coats had come in that she thought Leona would like; apparently that was typical of the care and consideration she had for others. B.J. and Leona raised their family at much the same time as the Zimmermans and David Zimmerman used to do their baby-sitting, so B.J. has been one of the few observers of Dylan's life from almost the very beginning to the present, and has witnessed his metamorphosing over time: it was great to hear how delighted he was to see Dylan again recently in Hibbing and be told by Dylan, "You taught me a /of1, after a whole adult lifetime of trying to inspire adolescents with poetry! B.J. told me last year how very aware of his own mortality he is now, after his stroke, and how it was one of his fondest wishes to talk to Dylan one more time. I'm so glad he had that chance. 

It's harder for me to answer your question about Chronicles in any detail. Although I write very frequently for the Dylan magazines over here, and most often my writing is in the form of book reviews, I have so far steered well away from putting my thoughts about the book into print. I feel that my understanding of it is so far only scratching the surface of what the book is about - which is, I believe, about the pressures of creativity and maintaining the integrity of oneís own identity in the face of both internal and external forces. It is undoubtedly beautifully written (even I, with my confirmed faith in Dylan's abilities, was completely amazed by the wonderfulness of the writing! His use of metaphor is incredibly powerful) and an amazingly generous and "giving" book. I'm convinced that it is not all true - in the literal sense of the word "true" - but it is all true to the spirit and understanding of what it is to be Bob Dylan, I think we will only appreciate how lucky we are to have had this open-heartedness from Dylan in many years to come. For someone who has guarded his own and his family's privacy so carefully, it is a very charitable glimpse into his thoughts and influences. It's now being nominated for lots of prizes, which I really hope it wins, and I would dearly love for Dylan to get the Nobel Prize for Literature: heís been nominated for the last four or five years, and perhaps Chronicles will now tip the balance in his favour. 

Are those answers any good?! I enjoyed writing them! One of your other questions is much easier to answer: the castle on the postcard that I sent is Bodiam Castle, which is about 5 miles from Hastings. We are very well endowed with castles around here, as I kept telling Bob Hocking1 last year (when I was encouraging him and Linda to pay us a visit: he is very keen to see some real castles). Because the counties of East Sussex and Kent were the site of the Norman invasion in 1066, and because the South Coast of England was always the most vulnerable to French/Spanish attacks throughout the centuries (most days you can see the French coast from the beach in Hastings), the area had to be well defended. There's lots of history around here. Hastings has been a fishing community for over two thousand years of recorded history - and probably a lot longer before that again. 

You said in your letter that you think I may have idealized Hibbing! I expect that's true - places are always very different to live in than they are to visit, arenít they? Hastings probably sounds very picturesque from my description above, and it does have its very beautiful and attractive aspects, and I like living here very much indeed, because of my job (which I love) and my neighbours and my friends - but it also has more than its fair share of 21st century problems like drugs and single parent families (and a very high rate of teenage pregnancies), poor housing on ugly post-war housing estates, high rates of mental health problems and alcoholism. It's one of the most economically deprived places in the south-east of England, which is generally much more affluent than the "industrial" areas of the north of the country. There are, however, some very beautiful old buildings, and many lovely villages in the surrounding green and rolling countryside of the chalky South Downs, and of course the sea to enjoy. 

I think the reason that Hibbing made such an impact on us last year was that to some extent the niceness of the place was very unexpected. I have a friend who has a brother in Minnesota, who blithely informed us that we would find the whole state "really boring". Monica and I tried to cheer ourselves up, before we left England, by saying that at least we would be going to understand more fully the reasons why Dylan left Hibbing: we weren't expecting to find much to enjoy. Even in Minneapolis, someone we got talking to said, "Why on earth would anyone want to go to Hibbing? there's nothing there! You won't need three days to see it!" 

We were then astonished by the beauty of the landscape, driving up from Minneapolis (and especially later driving back from Hibbing through Ely, through all the forests and past so many beautiful lakes, and down Highway 61 to Duluth along the side of Lake Superior). And in Hibbing, even the industrial heritage is beautiful! You know straightaway, don't you, when you arrive on the Mesabi, because of the dark redness of the soil and the soft round red spoil heaps? The Rust-Hull-Mahoning mine completely took my breath away. I really hadn't taken in, when I'd merely read about it, just how vast a hole in the ground it really is, and it's very surprising that such a huge mining enterprise has actually left a thing of such very great beauty, because of the different reds, oranges and purples of the oxidised iron ore and the milky aquamarine of the man-made lakes that have developed at its base. In the quiet vastness of the site now, there's little sense of the frenetic activity, and dirty and dangerous working conditions that existed there. Passing through the deserted site of the original town of Hibbing, with its lampposts still standing and the concrete foundations of the houses that were moved down the hill to the new town in the 1920s, after seeing the mine, is like stepping directly back into the past.2 We could imagine what it must have been like for Dylan's mother growing up in one of the houses there. 

Moreover, in Britain, small towns are not always very welcoming to strangers (because of the notorious British reserve, which is really shyness but must often seem to foreigners to be coldness), whereas in Hibbing everyone we met was without exception courteous and gracious, and made us feel very welcome. Bob and Linda Hocking went out of their way to introduce us to friends, and to make sure we saw everything there was to see, and Leona and B. J were the same, opening their home to us after only the briefest of meetings, and making us feel really special. We spent a fantastic evening with them, eating Leona's delicious rhubarb and strawberry pie, and the next morning B.J. rang us up at the hotel to thank us for coming! Unfortunately, Britain these days is a rather selfish place, with lots of bad language and discourteous behaviour - we have huge problems with public drunkenness, for example. Hibbing seemed like a really polite, and rather "old-fashioned" (in the good senses of the word) place in comparison. After visiting the Lybba Delicatessen (to see the site of Dylan's grandfather's theatre, named after Dylan's grandmother) we went to see Dylan's boyhood home, only to be met at the door by the lady who lives there now saying "You must be the two English gals everyone's talking about! My sister just rang from the Lybba!Ē She then gave us each an original bathroom tile from the house! Later that day, Larry Ryan3 came to meet us and take photos of us outside the house with the floor tiles, and he made sure we had copies of the photos before we left town, by dropping them at our hotel for us. We were constantly taken aback by people's kindness and good manners in Hibbing. (I sent an email, when we returned to England, to Hibbing's Chamber of Commerce, to tell them so). 

Of course, just being visitors, we probably didn't see the other side of the coin. I know that Hibbing has its economic problems, for example, although we were amazed by how well-kept and tidy all the houses and streets were. In Britain it is relatively rare to own a "detached" house, i.e. one with no shared walls with another property -I myself live in a very typical "terrace" of small Victorian houses, all in a row with walls adjoining both neighbours - but in Hibbing, all of the roads are wide and tree-lined, because of it being a completely "planned" town, and all of the houses stand in their own space. The wooden houses look very pretty, and when I read in Chronicles that Dylan as a young family man had dreamed of picket fences and roses in the yard, I knew exactly what he meant, because I'd seen that that was what he had grown up with. I was particularly impressed with the houses that look over the small "green" where the statue of Frank Hibbing is -I spent some time there trying to pick which house I would live in if I had the choice! 

It was fascinating to be able to get a feel of what it must have been like for Dylan to grow up in the town. He certainly had important social and educational advantages, living in what was then a relatively very prosperous place (because of the mining revenues), with a strong sense of community, and by all accounts excellent public facilities. The public buildings like the Memorial Building, the Town Hall and above all of course the hugely impressive High School, are very grand in comparison to what similarly-sized towns in England would have. Everyone we met in Hibbing wanted to make sure that we had seen the High School: there is still obviously (and rightly) a great deal of pride in the building. We know the Dylan also had a large extended family, fully involved in the community and tied to it economically, with all the love and support that that entails, and neighbours who valued his parents' acquaintance and social contribution. 

Being in Hibbing last year really brought home to me how solid a start Robert Zimmerman had to life, even if he looked beyond his hometown and yearned for brighter lights and the excitements of artistic creativity. I was surprised that Dylan, in writing Chronicles, was so open about the gulf that existed between his view of the world and his father's (which Dylan clearly thought was typical of most Hibbingitesí), but it was also very touching how much he wanted to let the reader know that he admired and respected his father: and after all, it was his father's and his generation's hard work that created a post-world war world in which the youngsters of the sixties had the freedom and economic stability to rebel and explore. And it was from his family background, and the influence of Hibbing in general, that Dylan surely must have got his commitment to the idea of "family" and "fatherhood", which has been a consistent theme throughout his adult life. 

Reading B.J.'s book about his early years4 (which you so kindly sent me), and reading other books about what life was like in the first third of the twentieth century - for example, for the iron miners on the Mesabi range - puts into context for me the newness and dynamism of places like Hibbing and the energy and hard work that it took to create economically viable, stable communities in relatively very short periods of time. After all, Hibbing had only been in its current location for twenty years by the time Robert Alien Zimmerman was born, and had replaced a town at least partly comprising minersí wooden shanty shacks - and only sixty years before he was born the place was just wooded wilderness! - an impossibly short span of time for an English mentality used to living in places where settlement can be traced back to before the Romans! It may have seemed dull and conservative to the young Robert Zimmerman, but to the outside and European eye, Hibbing must have been a town where a huge amount of change happened in an explosively short span of time, and in a way much more planned and directed way than the incremental, organic way in which towns over here have grown over much longer periods of time. 

Iíve got a bit carried away in this letter! I did want to answer your questions, though. I hope that you're well and happy, and that the end of winter is at least within sight (I know it comes very late in the year in northern Minnesota). We have had a few weeks of wintry weather - nothing like yours, but with a little snow, which is now unusual, I suppose because of global warming. 

Do say "Hello" for me to B.J. and Leona when you see them. I know B.J. has spent some of the winter reading a very long book on Dylan that I sent him, by Professor Christopher Ricks, and he says he has enjoyed it, about which I am very pleased! B.J. and I had a wonderful evening in his basement study talking about poetry (which has sent me back since to English poetry, and I've bought the Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by the same Professor Ricks!) and his passion for it showed me very clearly what an exciting and enthusiastic teacher he must have been -another thing for which Robert Zimmerman did well to be thankful. 

With my very best wishes, 



Freewheelin Postscript: 

I've had some exciting recent news about connections in Hibbing and the upcoming John Green Day5, which Keith and John S. are well aware of, and everyone else will know about shortly! I really hope we will have a great weekend in July - there seem to have been quite a few Feewheelers for whom the last twelve months have been a difficult time personally, and it will be lovely to touch base and see as many people as possible. I know I'm still a (relatively) new Freewheeler, but everyone - and especially John S., of course, - has been so kind and encouraging over the last few years, and I'd like to record my gratitude here, in the light of his recent decision. Thanks for everything, John, and roll on JGDayS.

Footnotes to article:

1. Part-owner and manager, with his wife Linda, of Zimmyís Bar and Restaurant on Howard Street. 

2. Some really interesting books to read on these subjects are: DeMillo, L: The Moving of North Nibbing (1976); DeMillo, L.: A Photo-Essay of an Iron Mining Community: Hibbing, Minnesota;  Finsand, M.J.: The Town that Moved (1983); Landis, P.H.: Three Iron Mining Towns: A Study in Cultural Change (1998); Guello, S J.: Hibbing, The Man and the Village (1983 edn.). Particularly moving, and fulll of detail about Hibbing in its first incarnation is the fictionalized diary account of a young immigrant's experiences in Hibbing's iron mines at the very start of the twentieth century: Durbin, W.: My Name is America: The Journal of Otto Peltonen, A Finnish Immigrant, Hibbing, Minnesota 1905 (2000). 

3. Larry is - as well as being a really nice guy - a local newspaper photographer for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, and designer of the annual Hibbing Dylan Days posters and postcards. 

4. Rolfzen, B.J. The Springtime of My Life.

  The Bob that B.J. knew
The Bob that B.J. knew.