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Now, as for today’s bonus, holiday article . . .
We didn’t plan our trip to the north as a Bob Dylan pilgrimage. It started with an invitation to spend a few days outside Madison, Wisconsin, expanded into a longer trip, and then, well, I couldn’t be that close to the Land of Dylan, without stopping in on a couple of sites. We spent only a total of less than a day on the adventure, but it turned out to be a much greater adventure than we’d expected (and no, spoiler alert: We did not meet Bob.)
For those who may not know, Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota. His family left Duluth when he was a small child and moved to Hibbing, Minnesota where he remained until he graduated from High School. His first stop after leaving Hibbing was Minneapolis, where he hung out mostly around the University, never bothering to attend many classes. He left there for New York City with the intention of meeting Woody Guthrie and the rest is history.
The state of Minnesota provides a helpful guide to visiting Dylan-related sites in the state. Included are three in Duluth, ten in Hibbing, and ten more in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. There are more that have been documented elsewhere. The site suggests three days of meandering about. Since I was traveling with a very kind, patient, but decidedly non-Dylan fan (Urban Woman), I narrowed my ambitions to two sites in Duluth, two sites in Hibbing, and one site in Minneapolis. My intention will be to make it back for a more detailed tour with someone of like passion.
For those of you who have read my accounts of our travels to cities of the Midwest, and travels to small towns and countryside in the Midwest, you’ll recall that we stayed in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It was there we saw our first sign that “something is happening,” when we entered a small, colorful shop named “Tangled Up in Hue.”
We drove north toward Duluth the next day and saw our first signs referencing the North Country. We put on the Bob Dylan playlist and the second song up was “Girl From the North Country.”
If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline Remember me to one who lives there Oh she once was a true love of mine
When I saw Conor McPherson’s Emmy Award winning play of the same name on Broadway earlier this summer with Urban Daughter, I had no idea that I’d be traveling to the setting of the production just a couple of months later. We listened to Dylan while the GPS ticked off the miles to 519 North 3rd Ave. East, Duluth, Minnesota, where little Bob was brought home from the hospital and lived about the first seven years of his life.
The home is a simple duplex and the Zimmermans lived on the right side as you face it. I associate wealth with having water views and the Zimmermans were not rich, but they had a fair view of Lake Superior. The home is currently leased and is owned by Bill Pagel who operates the incredible website Bob Links, which provides links to virtually every Dylan concert with set lists and reviews if they’ve happened and ticket links if not.
After photos there, we went to the Duluth Armory, with is a beautiful old building and plays significantly, in my mind, into the Bob Dylan story. It was there that seventeen-year-old Bob saw Buddy Holly and the Winter Dance Party on January 31, 1959. Four days later Buddy Holly would be pronounced dead. Less than two years later Bob would arrive in New York City to begin his revolution. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob said:
If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.
He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.
After photos of the armory, we set the GPS for 2425 7th Ave. East, Hibbing, Minnesota, and where Dylan lived for about eleven years. Roughly seventy-five miles from Duluth, it is here that Dylan formed his first band, gave his first performances, and dated Echo Helstrom, the assumed subject of the song and the original girl from the North Country.
We easily found the address on the street that has been re-labeled “Bob Dylan Drive.” The house sits on the corner, and I popped out to get a few photos and then, presumably, do a drive-by at the High School before heading back to Duluth for the night. But I noticed a sign in the yard . . . “Bob Dylan House Tours Today, Call Bill . . . ” I was a bit stunned when he answered the phone and said he was next door and would be right over.
Bill, in this case, was none other than Bill Pagel, mentioned above. As of two years ago he owns both the home in Duluth and the one in Hibbing. The homes are the crown jewels of his extensive Bob Dylan collection. He told me he bought Dylan’s first album when it came out, which made him one of a very few. He joked that he flipped a coin as to whether to collect Wayne Newton memorabilia or Bob Dylan memorabilia and he got lucky.
He’s collected ever since and now shares some of his collection with the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is an associate archivist. He asked that I not take photographs inside, which I respected, and he showed us through the front door.
The home has had two owners between the time the Zimmermans lived there and Bill’s 2020 acquisition. This low turnover rate, no doubt, helped some of the original touches remain. The door opens into the living room which has a candy dish on the mantel, which little Bob broke and Beatty, his mother, glued back together. A chair in the room is original. A piano owned by his cousin and played by Bob as a teenager is placed where the original Zimmerman piano sat.
The vinyl flooring in the foyer is original, allowing Bill to as closely as possible replicate it in a back hallway and kitchen where it would have been. The modern stove has been replaced with one from the correct era. It is likely, Bill said, that the current stove was purchased in Bob’s father Abram’s shop, Zimmerman’s Furniture and Electric. The more recent wallpaper in the hallway was peeled away carefully to reveal the wallpaper decorating the walls when Bob lived there. Some was damaged and will be replaced with a replicated pattern.
I was also able to see Bob’s childhood bedroom, which Bill later did allow me to photograph with the understanding I would not publish it here. As best I remember from the tour, the bed is similar to the one Dylan would have had, but the table beside it is original. The curtains, shockingly, had been stuffed away somewhere in the house, and so the original curtains once more hang in the room. Additionally, the light fixture Bob would have seen above him when lying in bed, with a cute little-boy’s captain’s wheel around it, has remained all these years.
The bathroom had, of course, been modernized and Bill is working to return it to the look it would have had. He was able to track down the original bathtub, and it was available at auction. Unfortunately, Bill was beaten out by a professor in Boston who now has the bathtub in his office, according to Bill. The next time I’m accused of being obsessed with Dylan, I’m going to point out that somewhere in Boston, there is this guy . . .
Then Bill showed us to the basement.
There resided a collection, displayed inside and on top of cases that would make most collectors cry. He said he keeps the “good stuff” elsewhere. I wish I could remember every item but included were 45 RPM records that were co-owned by Dylan and his bandmates. Bill got those from one of the bandmates with whom he is now friends. We listened to the records, played on a vintage record player, as we looked around.
He had Dylan’s childhood wallet, the tag off his bike (Minnesota required registration for bicycles at the time), and dozens of original photos from Bob’s childhood, many of which I don’t believe have ever been published. There were hand-written lyrics, including one set inside a New York City public library book. The book was secured from Izzy Young who operated the Folklore Center at 110 McDougal Street from 1957 – 1973. It was there Dylan crashed, met Dave Van Ronk, and probably lifted a few records he needed to hear.
There were also acetates in the collection which featured hand-written names of songs recorded and then later celebrated by different names. A yearbook from Dylan’s high school with an inscription from him, and much more filled the basement.
Dylan has visited the home a couple of times since living there, but none as recent as Bill’s ownership. On one of his previous visits, he had pointed out to the owner where he’d carved his initials “RZ” in the wall. Bill showed us several spots where young Bob had done just that.
Bill was gracious enough to pose for a photo in front of the home and then we drove a few blocks to get a look at the high school. This would have been one of the first spots Bob played in public, banging on an upright piano and doing his best Little Richard imitation. We left town feeling very lucky that we happened to arrive when Bill felt like putting the sign out. I’ve never had a better Dylan experience outside a concert with the man himself.
Bill said people travel much further than the 1,089 miles from my door to the childhood home. He’s had visitors from all over the world, including Japan and other Asian countries. Most of them, 99% he estimated, take a look and a photo or two and drive away, either arriving when he isn’t in the mood to put the sign out, or simply not noticing it. I feel lucky to be among the 1%.
We drove a bit on highway 61 that day and revisited it over the next couple of days. After a night in Duluth, we drove to Minneapolis where I didn’t have the heart to take Urban Woman trapsing around to look for obscure sites there (I will be back!), but I did have one goal in mind: To see the brilliant 2015 mural at the corner of Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue downtown. “Times They Are A-Changin'” depicts Dylan at three stages of his life and was painted by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra.
Photos secured there, my pilgrimage goals had been met — and exceeded, thanks to one Bill Pagel. And to the ever-enduring Urban Woman who had no idea what she was getting into when we first were married, living in a trailer in Mobile, Alabama, and listening to the brand new “Slow Train Coming” on repeat for weeks.