Exploring the American journey of Bob Dylan
Following his graduation from Hibbing High School in 1959, Zimmerman enrolled at the U of M, adopted a new moniker, became a staple on the Dinkytown folk music scene, dropped out of the U of M, and then headed for New York City in 1961.
Now age 70 and better known as Bob Dylan, the gravelly voiced singer/songwriter's works still bear the hallmarks of his "North Country" heritage.
"The North Country influences on Bob Dylan are evident in his work. There's an abiding respect for the working class, especially the mining folk, and you can hear it throughout his career," says Dylan historian and U of M music professor, Alex Lubet. Lubet, who will be teaching a fall short course on Bob Dylan, has been a fan--and later a scholar--of Bob Dylan ever since he first heard the artist's Freewheelin' in the 1960s.
"Yes, Dylan left Minnesota for New York. But he spent his most formative years here, on the Iron Range and in Minneapolis. Minnesota, and those two places in particular, are much more culturally diverse than people give them credit for. When Dylan was growing up in Hibbing, there were strong cultural identities--a thriving Jewish culture (of which Dylan's family was a part of), the American Indians, the Finns. And Minneapolis, Dinkytown, was very prominent on the folk music scene. It's a combination of urban and rural--and he came of age in both."
"(Dylan) came to folk music from rock and roll.".
"He came to folk music from rock and roll," continues Lubet. "Many people don't realize that, because they try to look at his career in a linear fashion, following just his albums. But there's a lot you miss out on that way. Things that didn't make the cut from the recording session, work he did with bands starting with the very first album that were ultimately not included on the recordings. Dylan started out in rock and roll in his teens, turned to folk music in Minneapolis...and then returned to the electric sound while never abandoning acoustic. You miss that perspective if you solely study what's on his albums."
Continues Lubet, "Part of what makes Dylan stand out, is his unique ability to fuse genres. In listening to some of his latest works, you can hear blues, folk, rock, classic pop, jazz, 19th century ballads...even a little bit of old-time Hawaiian popular music. This is why some critics credit him as the inventor of the recent 'Americana genre.' The man just has music coursing through his veins."
Despite his long career and tremendous influence on popular culture, Bob Dylan has been occasionally labeled as inscrutable and impossible to truly know. Critics point out that he has, in the past, fabricated stories about his background and life as "Robert Zimmerman," and that he isn't an open, accessible celebrity. "He's definitely no Brittney Spears or Madonna, that's for certain," says Lubet.
"In truth, though, I think a lot of those impressions come about because Dylan is just an intensely private, shy person. He tries to keep his work and his family and home life completely separate. To him, I believe, the 'Bob Dylan' on stage is not the same 'Bob Dylan' at home. Especially in the early years--when he was younger it was almost like a stage persona. Like he was inventing this character that he only played when he was performing. In a way, he reminds me of Greta Garbo. In her case, it probably ended her career prematurely. In Dylan's, well, he's had a remarkably normal family and home life. His kids have led normal lives. And his career is still going strong."
"As Minnesotans," says Lubet, "I think we want to own a tiny piece of him, claim him as 'one of us.'" And although he only spent a year studying in Minneapolis, the University is also proud to claim the singer as one of its own, as well. Dylan left a lasting impression on the Minnesota music scene--and of course, on American culture in general. His name is on the U's Wall of Discovery, sharing space with such notables as former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Robert Cray (inventor of the world's first supercomputer), Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, and author Saul Bellow.
"His work is really almost like a multi-faceted gem--every which way you turn it, every different angle you glimpse it at, you see something new.".
In the past, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum hosted the touring exhibit "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-1966," and the University also sponsored a major symposium: "Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World, Bob Dylan Symposium."
Lubet, who has taught several University classes about Bob Dylan, will again share his knowledge and insights with LearningLife beginning October 27. With an emphasis on Dylan's music, Bob Dylan: The First 70 Years will consider the artist as a composer of songs whose musical intuitions are a full partner with his lyric gifts. Using archival audio and video recordings, including rarities and surprises from the instructor's vast private collection, participants will explore Dylan's enduring artistic legacy within the social and political context of his times.
Concludes Lubet, "Dylan's career isn't like that of other artists, say Elvis or the Beatles. It isn't linear, and it isn't a clear progression from day one to the end. His work is really almost like a multi-faceted gem--every which way you turn it, every different angle you glimpse it at, you see something new. This course, it will help people see that."