Saturday, March 3, 2018

Master Blueprints # 9: “They Never Did Like Mama’s Homemade Dress, Papas Bankbook Wasn’t Big Enough”

(Personal reflections inspired by Bob Dylan songs)

Song: “Tangled Up in Blue”
Album: Blood on the Tracks
Release Date: January, 1975

It was precisely four years ago this upcoming week when I made my first and (to date) only foray to the frigid northern outpost town of International Falls, Minnesota for a work meeting.  You can’t go further north without crossing over the Rainy River into the equally far-reaching wilderness of western Ontario, Canada.  This is Lake of the Woods country, where timber wolves and woodland caribou roam.  It’s where I took one of my favorite wildlife photos, that being of a Great grey owl, a bird of the great north woods, and largest owl species on the planet, sitting on a branch by the railroad in the middle of nowhere and refusing to budge as I inched my way closer and closer for a near-perfect snapshot.   

The easiest way to get to International Falls is to fly into Duluth, on the western-most border of Lake Superior, and then drive due north for 3 hours.  The trek takes you through rugged back country and super-sized wetlands, particularly as you get close to the destination.  This is partly because International Falls abuts the vast watery world of Voyageurs National Park, much of which is inaccessible by car.  Yes, this U.S. border town is about as remote as you are going to get in the lower 48, and the feeling of isolation had me sucking in every minute of my visit.

With a small detour on that drive north, you can also check out a musical landmark of sorts:  Hibbing, Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s childhood home.  I did just that on that late winter 2014 work trip, in order to see for myself this, the initial source-locale of Dylan’s creative juices.  I liked Hibbing (even though I’m not sure Bob Dylan would say the same).  It had a classic American feel, including the primary retail street, E Howard, which easily reminds you of the downtown scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life.  I parked my rental car and strolled the icy sidewalks, popping into a few stores, taking in the old-townie feel.

The only sour note on that self-guided tour was when I came upon a restaurant I was looking forward to visiting called “Zimmy’s” which had to my dismay closed shop just days before; a makeshift sign on the front door alluded to a tax burden, making clear this unfortunate fact.  I took a peak through the windows.  There were all sorts of memorabilia visible on the interior walls from that vantage point alone. It looked like a Hard Rock Café, but dedicated solely to one musician.  Other than Zimmy’s however, which at that moment appeared to me more like a structural apparition than a restaurant, there was very little to give a Bob Dylan fan much of a pilgrimage feel.  Hibbing, a tough blue collar mining town in days gone by, presumably still has a ways to go to accept its place in American history as the childhood home of this iconic, Nobel Prize winner, who at the same time, remains an often-misunderstood figure.

As a longstanding employee of the US Geological Survey who works regularly with all things topographic, Hibbing also happens to connect with me in a significant geographical way as well:  The town sits at the junction of 3 major North American watersheds.  It’s a distinction Hibbing shares with just a few other locations on the continent.  Rain falling on the Southeastern side of town makes its way into small tributary streams that flow south to Lake Superior, then into the other Great Lakes, and eventually over Niagara Falls and up the St. Lawrence River to the North Atlantic Ocean.  On the Northern side of Hibbing, the flow heads north to the Rainy River, then west for a spell to Lake of the Woods, then to Lake Winnipeg and from there due north up the Churchill River to Hudson Bay and the Northwestern passage, which wind its way to the Arctic Ocean.  And finally, on the Southwestern side of town, raindrops will find their way south to the mighty Mississippi River, which in this headwater region of Minnesota, is a mere figment of itself:  Not much more than wetlands connected by rivulets. 

Pretty cool when you think about it:  A musician with such a reverberating effect on American culture, beginning his life’s journey at a geographical crossroads, including the source of the Mississippi, which along with Highway 61, makes its way downstream through such renowned Rock and Blues haunts as St Louis and Memphis and eventually into the deep south of the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans.  That journey down Ol’ Man River and Highway 61 is a story for another time though.  For now, I’d like keep my thoughts focused on the North Star State. 

There’s a specific reason why I bring all this up in this entry:  Next week I’ll be heading back to International Falls for a second - and likely final - work-related trip there.  I am sure to be stopping in Hibbing again on the way north from Duluth (which also has Dylan ties, being his birthplace and closest good-sized city during his upbringing).  This time, the side trek will be a bit different, however, because now I am of course actually writing about Robert ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman – as Bob Dylan was known in Hibbing before changing his name - and the effect that his music has on my memory and my psyche (four years ago my writing was being inspired by the music of Neil Young). 

When not actually working, I’ll be looking for local inspiration for my next blog entry on this coming week’s journey, from the minute I step off the plane to the minute I settle back into the familiar confines of my Pepperell, Massachusetts home.  I’m very much looking forward to it.  Oh, and I’ll be including International Falls in that quest for inspiration too.  After all, from a geographer’s point of view, I can’t think of any place more fitting near Hibbing that fits the Bob Dylan lyric “if you’re travelling in the north country fair, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline” from his early beloved song “Girl From the North Country” (I reserve the right not to commit to that song as next week’s Master Blueprint just yet).

Bob Dylan, not known for his strong ties to his home state, did head back there on at least one fairly well documented visit in late 1974 to re-record 5 songs for what was to become one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Blood on the Tracks.  The story goes that his brother, David, heard the original recordings and convinced big bro Bob to rework a handful of the songs with a local Minneapolis band.  We all get to hear some of those original recordings now on Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, and although they are good, it’s pretty clear that brother Dave was on to something.  Side note: Hardly known in Dylan circles as an RFK to his brother’s JFK, Dave Dylan is a nice additionally-unique piece of storyline on the history of Blood on the Tracks.

After quite a lengthy period since Bob Dylan had last released a truly classic beginning-to-ending album (I personally would go back to 67’s John Wesley Harding), how and why did Blood on the Tracks work out so well? Sure, there’s something to be said for the spontaneity of enlisting a solid, no-frills local band to back him for those Minnesota re-recordings.  And of course Dylan’s then rocky marriage contributed to his emotional edge too.  However, my thinking is that Bob Dylan was at least equally inspired with his surroundings after being summoned back to his home state.  Similar to the ’67 Basement Tapes ‘Big Pink’ recordings with The Band in the Catskills of New York (I’ll be getting to that one in the weeks ahead), I believe the location of those final 5 cuts for Blood on the Tracks had quite a bit to do with taking what was a solid product already, and turning it into an all-time rock and roll gem. 

I’d like to think we all have a childhood hometown somewhere out there, be it literal or figurative; a place where we can reflect, and hopefully get inspiration from on a return visit.  Like any source of inspiration, one can’t tap into that well too frequently or they’ll lose it.  But there’s a time and place for everything, and seizing the moment with an occasional revisit to the home of your formative years certainly ranks right up there.  It’s all about finding that right mood.  And however that mood was drawn out of Bob Dylan for Blood on the Tracks, be it connecting with old friends and family, walking through intimate woods or neighborhoods, visiting where he may have “worked as a cook for a spell”, or strolling  along a set of familiar train tracks (be they bloody or otherwise), we get to hear the mood that was meant to be for Blood on the Tracks, an album which captures the essence of a deep thinking man in his mid-30’s, baring his soul, which was at the time in a state of turmoil.

Of the 5 tracks that Bob Dylan re-recorded in Minneapolis, one was to prove to be among his greatest songs, “Tangled Up in Blue” ( ).  Even those who do not have an ear for Dylan have shown an affinity for this masterwork.  “Tangled Up in Blue” is a song with a universally emotional appeal.  You can hear that appeal in the lyrics, in the vocals, and in the music itself.   The song is all over the place in terms of reflections, but that’s part of what makes it so captivating.  It’s as if the flood gates of bittersweet memory opened wide in Bob Dylan’s mind, overflowing in this song.  We the listeners can only hang on tight as the images fly on past.  When I listen it has me thinking, how did he do that?  And yet, even more uncannily, it’s the mood heard on the record that I believe had to be even more difficult to capture than the barrage of lyrical memory and imagery. 

Perhaps I’m overdue for my own reconnect to some of the intricacies that made my upbringing in my hometown of Franklin, Massachusetts so vibrant and alive (which I believe now more than ever).  Yes, maybe it’s time to take a stroll down my own magical set of train tracks, to see if I can recapture some lost parts of me, while at the same time, reach out when those images go flying by, to capture that elusive mood, and then hold on tight.

And so it goes, Duluth, Hibbing, and International Falls for now, and Franklin not far behind.



  1. Hibbing will be so lucky to have you visit

  2. Tangled up in Blue.....was my true introduction to Dylan, and took place while living on Lake Street. Thanks forever for making that introduction.
    The song hits me to this day. Where once I was the young man denied approval, I now look at my girl's relationship from the other side of the coin. While my blessings never come easy, thanks in part to Dylan, I have a balanced view. And its all good.


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