Song: “Girl from the North Country”
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Release Date: May, 1963
We all have circles of support in our lives: Family, friends and acquaintances who have your back through the good times and the bad. These are the folks you never have to worry about, be they near or far, in conversation with you or with others. Your strengths are emphasized by them. Your weaknesses are understood, massaged, maybe even prayed for by them, but never are you at risk of being forsaken. And if necessary, your privacy is secure with them.
For a genuine person who has strong character, those circle are typically abundant with human satellites, be they near and dear inner orbits, loosely connected outer orbits, or anywhere in between. Most of us know a genuine soul when we meet one. Naturally we gravitate to such individuals. And if we are lucky enough, or have that gravitational pull ourselves, a bond of some sort is formed. In these circumstances, keeping that bond alive then becomes a priority. A trust soon settles in, often remaining unspoken. After all, those with strong character are very likely to have an equally strong sense of trust, so stating as such is unnecessary.
As someone makes a name for himself, be it in work circles or more out there in the public eye, and does so with integrity, that circle of support can actually expand to include faces who may remain little known, maybe even unknown and unseen. Word of mouth gets around related to your deeds and accomplishments. I’ve personally witnessed this with a handful of well-respected colleagues. Brilliance, selflessness and a willingness to help others has a domino effect for these individuals: Their reputation frequently precedes them. That’s how the outermost satellites form in their realm of influence: The Pluto’s of their personal solar system.
Anyone who tunes into Bob Dylan even just a bit can pretty quickly surmise a deep admiration for him from those within his circles. This admiration comes from all his satellites near and far: The Mercury’s the Jupiter’s, the Pluto’s and beyond. And what becomes more evident and more impressive as you read up on Dylan is just how much these circles have his back (which I’m sure is strongly correlated to the fact that he has theirs). He’s the one famous person who I have rarely if ever heard any dirt on, which I find wonderfully extraordinary. Perhaps there is none. But if there is, no one’s sayin’.
I had the tremendous opportunity this week to meet someone who is well entrenched in Bob Dylan’s personal solar system, with a related history all her own. Her name is Linda Stroback, and she lives in Dylan’s original hometown of Hibbing Minnesota (for background on this great-north-woods region of the country, please see my last blog entry). For 30 years, Linda and her husband Bob Hocking were the owners of a classy one-of-a-kind restaurant in Hibbing called Zimmy’s, which was THE most important place to visit for anyone making a pilgrimage to the town of Bob Dylan’s upbringing. They were also principle figures in organizing “Dylan Days”, a yearly hootenanny of sorts that is currently in a suspended state of animation/flux as events potentially dovetail with those in Dylan’s birth town of Duluth.
Knowing I’d be heading through Hibbing this week on a journey to a work meeting in the far northern Canadian-border town of International Falls, Minnesota (a 3 hour drive north from my airline arrival point in Duluth), I reached out to Linda after connecting a few dots via the internet, one of which was a 2016 Minnesota Public Radio article “Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing struggles with how to honor its most famous son”, which included an interview with Linda. She was most gracious to follow up soon thereafter and after several back and forth messages, which included my pointing Linda to this blog series and she inviting me for a visit on my way through town, we got on the phone.
Our nearly one hour long discussion on that call was chalk full of anecdotes and of course our common love for the music of Bob Dylan. I could sense from Linda a deep respect for the man, but this was a respect that came from a position of strength. There was zero sense of kowtowing here. I was talking to someone who had made her own mark on the world. On the flip side, there was no hardness emanating through that phone line either. Despite having been through quite a bit the previous few years with the closing of Zimmy’s and the shifting sands related to Dylan Days and how to celebrate Bob Dylan in the region, all I got from talking with Linda was a sense of tenderness and compassion that focused on the good.
I was now getting very excited about my visit to Hibbing.
What lead me to reaching out to Linda in the first place was that the town itself does not currently have much to offer the Bob Dylan enthusiast. Go figure! This will change one day I am certain, but for now, there is nothing but a few bread crumbs coming out of Hibbing’s Chamber of Commerce. After thinking more about this, however, it does make some sense; this lack of embracing. Bob Dylan has diverted people from his hometown all his life. When reporters would ask him where he was from in his early days of success, he would either fabricate a location (Missouri and Colorado come to mind) or say he was brought up in a travelling circus, or something else equally outrageous. This was primarily done to protect his loved ones from the searing eyes of the outside world as his popularity grew and grew, which goes back to my earlier point on Dylan having their backs.
Linda Stroback is 20 years Bob Dylan’s junior, and so obviously was not around for his upbringing. But she had gained trust with Dylan’s local circles over the years, including his original band mates, the “Golden Chords”, his Mom, and his first “true love”, Echo Helstrom. Linda did this by honoring that orbital Dylan code of conduct, which appears to have come natural to her, and which I sensed the moment I took a peak into one of “Zimmy’s” windows several weeks after it closed its doors back in 2014 (my only other time through this region….again, see my last entry). Living in Bob Dylan’s shadows, Linda saw and seized an opportunity while at the same time tapping into a special balancing gift she has of honoring the man in a classy way, while maintaining a respectful distance (I could even say by maintaining a respectful distance, because that’s really what it takes to do such a thing).
After welcoming me into her home, Linda Stroback introduced me to a close friend of hers, Linda Whiteside, who turned out to be a bird of a feather, having amazingly similar interests in Bob Dylan’s music and other aspects of his resume, however obscure, including:
- Our common fascination in his Theme Time Radio Hour series
- A handful of deep cuts in his discography
- A passage in Dylan’s memoir Chronicles: Volume One regarding a conversation he had with an elderly caretaker in an old hotel he had lodged for the night south of New Orleans (while recording Oh Mercy) (note: my reflection here was a bit off when I re-read the passage later, which was about a day trip visit to a store, not an overnight at a hotel)
- Dylan’s comment a number of years ago in Rolling Stone related to a ‘transfiguration’ event
- How and why Dylan sat on all the great 1969-70 material finally released 3 years ago as Another Self Portrait (the original 1970 Self Portrait was panned for its poor content)
The three of us talked over coffee for a good two hours on many other Bob Dylan related topics as well, which could have continued for God knows how long if not for all of us running up against other commitments. Before parting however, Linda S took us for a brief tour of Hibbing, showing me Echo’s former modest home on the outskirts of town (now in a state of disrepair), and then the home of Bob Dylan’s upbringing (interesting his Jewish family home being across the street from a Catholic church), and finally a train crossing where it’s been told by one of his Golden Chord band mates how Dylan was nearly killed by a locomotive on his motorcycle around the age of 16 (this being the first, lesser known such occurrence than his well-documented motorcycle accident in ’66 near Woodstock New York), possibly resulting in a transfiguring “blood on the tracks” life-jarring moment (to be contemplated more deeply at another time).
Perhaps there really is no permanent way that Hibbing can honor Bob Dylan. Tulsa, Oklahoma has a corner on his archives now. A Bob Dylan Graceland is not in the cards for Hibbing either. I think what it will continue to take is for someone else to one day see what Linda and her husband did and run with it again. I believe that’s the only real angle you can come at his legacy from in Hibbing: A living, breathing, classy establishment with good people, good music, good food, and good conversation, constantly morphing and evolving…. just the way Bob Dylan would want it.
Prior to leaving her home that amazing afternoon, Linda handed me some memorabilia from a few of the Dylan Days of years gone by, including a postcard with the image of Echo Helstrom on it, most likely Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”, who passed away earlier this year. Linda also mentioned that she had the remnants to the Zimmy’s welcome sign in her shed, which included a large image of Echo. I asked if there was a potential for a photo op and she was right on it. We walked out back and into the shed and when I saw the sign, my first thought was “ahh, so that’s where I’ve seen that face before”, based on the recollection of my visit to Hibbing four years ago.
My second thought was a bit more poignant though. I needed a photo of that sign with Linda alone in front of it. I asked and she obliged (photo below). The reason? Well here’s the thing. “Girl from the North Country” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR2FyMVTNvs ) is a song about Bob Dylan’s love and respect for a woman who held up her end of the bargain all those years ago in Northern Minnesota. Loosely applied, I believe that mantle was passed years ago to one Ms. Linda Stroback. She carried the North Country Girl torch as well as anyone could in the public eye for as long as she could.
Linda Stroback's torch-carrying may not be so public anymore, but I believe she’s still doing so. There were so many ways how this became evident, capped off with that coffee conversation. To me Linda is as much a part of the Bob Dylan story as the Golden Chords, or Marvis Staples, or Echo Helstrom. Maybe even more so. This, more than anything, was what I got out of my mystical second visit to Hibbing, Minnesota this past week.