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Dylan Symposium - Hibbing High School

Relief in Hibbing High School Library
(a bas relief in the Hibbing High School library
— all photos by The Celestial Monochord)

 

See also Part Two

 

During 19 years in Minneapolis, I had never been to Hibbing. My first trip was on Saturday, the day before the start of the Bob Dylan symposium, the day 60 symposium participants took a tour bus to Bob Dylan's home town.

During my life in the Twin Cities, I'd always figured that I've already been to — and through — hundreds of small towns across the Upper Midwest. I knew it would be false to say that all small towns are the same, but one does start to "get the idea" after the first 200 or so. I figured Bob Dylan came from one of those places.

But I was wrong. I was not prepared for Hibbing, and immediately regretted not having visited the place during the previous two decades. It is a startling place in its own right — the most singular small town I've ever been to, even outside of its connection to Bob Dylan.

Consider Hibbing High School, the public school that Dylan attended. I don't know if there's a more spectacularly opulent or elegant high school — public or private — anywhere in the world. There might be. It seemed perfectly reasonable when Greil Marcus said, in his keynote address the next day, "It is the most impressive public building outside of Washington DC that I have ever seen." Marcus is often said to write opaque prose, but he kept that sentence simple.

Fallout shelter sign at Hibbing High School
(a fallout shelter sign at Hibbing High School)

Hibbing High School was built in 1920-1922 for just under $4 million. This figure is not adjusted for inflation — in 1920 dollars, it cost about four million dollars. There is a grand marble staircase inside its front entry, flanked on either side by imposing brass hand railings and hand-painted murals depicting the histories of Minnesota and the United States.

The walls of the school library are decorated with about eight hand-carved bas reliefs depicting children joyously singing and playing musical instruments. The most striking artwork in the library is an enormous hand-painted mural depicting the process of iron mining, with workers representing all the ethnic groups living in northern Minnesota at the time. On either side of the mural are lines of poetry.

chandelier in Hibbing High auditorium
(a chandelier in Hibbing High auditorium)

Adjacent to the library is an 1800-seat auditorium at least as opulent, stately, and big as any of the dazzling old theaters in the Twin Cities — the State, the Orpheum, the Fitzgerald. Its exit signs are made of hand-cut stained glass. Its seven-foot diameter chandeliers were imported from Austria and cost $4,000 each in 1920 dollars. The factory that made them was destroyed in WWII — they are irreplaceable.

view from the stage of the Hibbing High School auditorium
(a view from the stage of the Hibbing High School auditorium)

This is the auditorium where young Bob Zimmerman pounded out a Little Richard song, and the audience greeted him with such loud boo's that the principal closed the curtains on this performance. Or so the story goes.

Neither this school nor the rest of Hibbing (which will be the subject of my next entry) provided any simple keys to how Zimmerman became the Dylan we know. I found no easy way to map the town's coordinates directly onto Dylan's later art — it's not as if Zimmerman lived at the corner of Subterranean Homesick Boulevard and Tears of Rage Street. Well ... not literally.

What was plain to everybody on that bus tour was that Bob Dylan DID NOT come from an ordinary place, some anonymous little nowhere. Hibbing is, in a number of ways, a jaw-dropping place that has to be seen up close if it — or Bob Dylan — are to be understood.

Greil Marcus, March 25, 2007
(Greil Marcus, March 25, 2007)

Standing in the auditorium, I wondered if I would ever find attention span, intelligence, and room-of-my-own enough to sort out what this astounding experience might mean. Luckily, the very next morning, on the first day of the Bob Dylan symposium in Minneapolis, Greil Marcus delivered a keynote address that felt like some kind of deja vu in advance — its title was Hibbing High School and "The Mystery of Democracy." Marcus had already been there, with his formitable concentration and intelligence very much in attendance.

When that address appears in print, I urge you to read it with all the attention you can give it. Even more emphatically, I urge you to GO TO HIBBING. It will take you back to the beginning — back to Dylan's and back to square one in your thinking about him.

 

See also Part Two

 

Editor's Note: This is part of a series of entries about the Bob Dylan symposium held in Minneapolis from March 25 to 27, 2007. An authoritative book based on the conference is planned for early 2008, so I won't even try to do much justice to the conference or the papers delivered there.

Instead, I'll try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad, with little of The Celestial Monochord's customary contemplative ruminations. The writing on the symposium will be a little more like "covering" an event, citizen-journalist style.