He's an artist, he don't look backby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
From a celebrated autobiography and PBS biopic to a satellite radio show and chart-topping CD, Bob Dylan is once again capturing America's imagination. A touring exhibition that's about to open at the Weisman Art Museum explores Dylan's ability to transform himself artistically by focusing on a pivotal period in his career, a period that includes his Minnesota years.
Minneapolis — Bob Dylan was 18 when he laid down a tune called "When I Got Troubles" on a Hibbing High School friend's tape recorder. The sound wavers, but you can hear an artist discovering his voice.
Dylan has been quoted as saying an artist should always be in a state of becoming. The Weisman show covers the period when Dylan evolved from a clean-cut teen with an electric guitar to a somber folk singer with a Martin acoustic to a wild-haired 20-something provocateur, again strapped with a Stratocaster.
The exhibition is called "Bob Dylan's American Journey: 1956-1966." The sections that delve into Dylan's Minnesota years might have been named "Bringing it all Back Home," after his 1965 record album. Curator Colleen Sheehy predicts that even somewhat knowledgeable Dylan fans might be surprised by how his time here molded him as an artist.
"The exhibition is an opportunity for us all just to admit flat out that a genius came from Minnesota and has affected, really, the whole world," she says.
The bulk of the show was put together by Experience Music Project, an interactive museum in Seattle. It contains some 200 Dylan artifacts, including playbills, posters, manuscripts, clothes, instruments and photos. There are listening and video booths and a complete audio tour. Sheehy added the Hibbing and Dinkytown exhibits to elevate Dylan's original identity as Robert Zimmerman in the telling of his story.
"One of the things we wanted to do with the materials we added was to really show Bobby Zimmerman as a human being, as a teenager growing up, kind of making it up as he goes along, becoming enthralled with rock 'n' roll and having relationships with all these people," she says. "He wasn't an isolated young man."
Sheehy traveled to Northern Minnesota and looked up old friends and acquaintances of the Zimmerman family. She gathered photos and other items to reconstruct the Hibbing of Dylan's youth. The Hibbing Library and Zimmy's Restaurant in downtown Hibbing, which has its own collection of Dylan memorabilia, also contributed. Sheehy obtained her favorite exhibit in the entire show from Dylan's former high school English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen. It's an essay Dylan wrote on John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."
"When I first saw this I just thought, 'Oh, that is like the Rosetta Stone.' It explains him."
Sheehy finds unmistakable similarities between protagonist Tom Joad's uprooted life, and the nomadic existence of folk singer Woody Guthrie, who would later become Dylan's hero.
"So it was like it all came together and it explained how he could move on, come down to Minneapolis, be told about Woody Guthrie and then just be completely fixated on Woody Guthrie, because he had this background in American literature," she says.
When Dylan did come down to Minneapolis as a student at the U and newcomer to the blossoming folk scene in Dinkytown, he met up with several musicians who would later become legends in their own right. Spider John Koerner and Tony Glover who, along with the late Dave Ray, formed the now revered folk/blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover. They have their own exhibit in the Dinkytown section of the show.
The three befriended Dylan right at the beginning of his musical ascension. They shared booze, smokes, songs and, apparently, instruments.
"This guitar here," Koerner laughs, "it looks like my old guitar."
Despite what John Koerner remembers, the sign on the plexiglass case says the Martin acoustic belonged to Dylan in his Dinkytown days.
"I Was Young When I Left Home" is a song Tony Glover helped Dylan record in Minneapolis in late 1961. Both Koerner and Glover say when they met Dylan, there was nothing remarkable about the future icon.
"He was like one of 10, 20 people that were pretty much doing the same thing, and he was OK," Glover says. "Nothing special. When I first met him he was just one of the guys."
"All kinds of things were happening," Koerner says. "A lot of partying, a lot of developing the music and all that kind of stuff. We didn't know what Dylan was going to become at that time and I'm sure he didn't either, really."
"He had a chip on his shoulder," says Glover. "He was kind of arrogant. He had short hair and I didn't do too well with that at the time 'cause I had long hair and I didn't trust people with short hair."
"I got along just fine with him," Koerner says. "But I know there were people that liked him and people that didn't like him. Like Tony said, he has a little edge to him, but I didn't have any problem with it."
"After we got to know each other a little better we got along fine," Glover says. "There was no problem. It was just the initial impression was this arrogant 'I'm a hotshot' kind of attitude."
"My understanding was there was kind of two factions," says Glover. "There was people that liked Dave Ray, and people that liked Dylan. And if you liked the one, you didn't like the other."
Turning to Koerner, Glover asks, "Is that true, John? Do you remember that?"
"No I don't," says Koerner, "But it might be true anyway. To me, it was quite apparent that he had the knack. In songwriting and performing he had an attitude and a knack and I think he stuck out that way."
Koerner and Glover's recollections reinforce Sheehy's understanding of the early '60s Minneapolis folk scene. She says it was one not only of sharing and camaraderie, but of artists jostling for position and attention.
"It was a very competitive environment that prepared Dylan to go to New York. And he could hold his own with the people out in the Village, because he had gone through kind of a baptism in Hibbing and in Dinkytown."
Historically, there's been a tension in the relationship between Dylan and his native state. When he first arrived in New York in the early '60s, Dylan disavowed his Minnesota roots. He said he was an orphan, raised in carnivals.
In his own aloof way he appears to be warming up to Minnesota again, while Minnesotans have always been almost overly eager to embrace him. Spider John Koerner, Tony Glover and Colleen Sheehy all agree that Dylan's hesitancy to show Minnesota pride fits his personality.
It doesn't surprise me that he tried to separate himself from the state," Koerner says. "He tried to separate himself from anything he felt like, to make his own deal."
"He's from Minnesota, he's from New York, he's from California, he's from New Mexico," Glover says. "He's been to a lot of places and they're all part of what he does, who he is."
In some of those he left behind, Sheehy has noticed ambivalence: "'Oh, he moved away. He doesn't shout out to us when he's here in concert. Screw him, we don't like him either.'"
But Sheehy herself feels none of that: "I don't care if he ever sets foot in Minnesota again," she says. "I am fine with the fact that he has released 44 albums. I can live with those for the rest of my life. That's enough for me. I don't feel like we need to have that acknowledgment."
For Sheehy, there's one thing people will have to acknowledge when they visit the Weisman. It's that Bob Dylan of Hibbing, Minnesota is an artist of major significance, worthy of a museum exhibition.
"He has been the subject of conversation, argument and controversy for 45 years."
Sheehy says she can't think of another artist in any field, who's generated as much discussion.
- Morning Edition, 02/02/2007, 7:50 a.m.