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Dylan Symposium - Dave Marsh

Dave Marsh and the notes he didn't use


The Dylan symposium held late last month in Minneapolis could have been called "The Geography of Bob Dylan."

Organizer Colleen Sheehy told me that her original idea had been to stage a Minnesota-focused symposium on Dylan, to bring it all back home. But as things developed and grew, it was clear that the geography had to be extended south down Highway 61, and east to Greenwich Village, and across the globe. Nearly everything I saw in the four days of the symposium was focused on location, location, location.

Not long into the first day of the symposium, music writer Dave Marsh realized he needed to rethink the presentation he was scheduled to give the next day. He had planned to argue, as he'd been doing for much of the last 30 years, that Bob Dylan didn't just happen to come from the Midwest — he HAD to come from here. The Midwest matters if you want to understand Dylan's art.

But now, after seeing the first couple hours of the symposium, it had sunk in that he no longer needed to make this argument. The geography of the symposium was already centered squarely on Minnesota. Knocked off the mark he'd long ago grown used to occupying, Marsh seemed forced to reach into fresher, less familiar material. Throughout his presentation, his emotions seemed raw and his voice wobbly.

Here's what my notes and memory can recover of one of the symposium's most moving moments.

Marsh went back to his initial response to Dylan's music, back when Marsh was a kid growing up in Michigan. He associates the very first line of With God on Our Side with the largely invisible experience of growing up in what is now known as "flyover country."

My name it is nothing
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
There's an emptiness to America's imagination with respect to the Midwest — it's blank in a way The West isn't blank, in a way The South isn't blank. Marsh invested his hopes in Dylan, in the possibility that Dylan could help fill in that blank.

It wasn't just the place, it was the times. Growing up in the Midwest in the mid-sixties, there were huge slabs of the imagination that were forbidden zones, very many impermissible thoughts. Dylan, Marsh said, was a giant act of permission.

Bruce Springsteen famously said that Dylan freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. Marsh says Dylan provided a way for a Midwesterner to imagine freedom. The syntax of freedom, he said, is especially hard to hear when you haven't ever been particularly oppressed. Dylan provided Marsh with a way to imagine his own liberation from confines that Marsh himself had had trouble identifying. Marsh wouldn't have known the route out of town if Dylan hadn't taken it first.

Finally (maybe in the Q&A session), Marsh talked about seeing in Dylan's demeanor — his way of occupying his own mind and body — a familiarity that might be unseen to somebody who didn't grow up in the here. I've long felt this too.

In the old footage of Dylan's 1960's press conferences, and in his later interviews, Marsh and I recognize the Midwestern sense that there are simply some things that are none of your f---ing business. When all the reporters snicker, Marsh and I often think he's not being ironic. It isn't funny. People said Dylan had given up singing protest songs, but we wonder what they were talking about. Bob Dylan's 115th Dream protests absolutely everything that ever happened on this continent in the last 500 years. Are they hearing a different song, or are they just coming from a different place?

I'm anxious to see how Marsh's extemporaneous talk will appear in the book based on this symposium. It was one of the high points ... certainly, Marsh has a very deep reservoir of history with Dylan's music, and decided to use his spot for a heart-to-heart, turning over fresh soil along the entire row.


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 try to do justice to the conference or the papers delivered there. I'll just try to explain the most interesting stuff that wound up in my notepad.


Hollis Brown Revisited



Editor's Note: The following is a "guest entry" by Lyle Lofgren, written in response to my "Hollis Brown's South Dakota." Lyle is a member of the legendary Minneapolis stringband The Brandy Snifters (whose members also include Jon Pankake) and he's a frequent contributor to Inside Bluegrass. Thanks, Lyle!



I'm convinced that "Hollis Brown," like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," is based on a real incident that Dylan read about in a newspaper. Hollis Brown might not have been his real name and it might not have happened in South Dakota, but the isolation there provides a perfect poetic landscape. A major difference between the two songs is that the Hattie Carroll story, which happened at a time of national racial conflict, was widely reported. A Hollis Brown story would have been only of local interest because it's so common. Horrifying murder-suicides happen all the time.

When I was only a few weeks old, in 1936, my small community of Harris, Minnesota, was startled when the Albin Johnson farmhouse burned down in the middle of the night. Inside were the bodies of Mrs. Johnson and her seven children. Their heads were missing, later found buried in a field. Albin himself was never found, although there were reports from Montana and Canada of someone who looked like him. I haven't bothered to check the newspaper accounts, but I'll bet it was not front-page news in the metro newspapers, even though locals were still talking about it when I was old enough to understand what they were saying.

I grew up on a dairy farm where we had little cash, though we didn't need much because my grandfather had already paid for the farm. The truly poor people in the neighborhood were those with mortgages, because cash flow is a serious problem on a farm. People who lived in the country but worked in town were in even worse shape, because a downturn in the farm economy amplifies small-town unemployment. The government had no safety net for small farmers, small-town merchants, or the rural poor -- until the late 1950s, they couldn't even get social security, assuming they lived until age 65.

This left only two support avenues: family and church. But in a rural community, you couldn't ask for help from either: everyone knows you and your history, so, paradoxically, failing is an unforgivable sin. If you have any pride, you can't ask, and if you don't have any pride, they won't help. Besides, the churches at that time were obsessed with sending missionaries to convert the world, and so couldn't be bothered with local poverty.

Perhaps the strongest message society sent to the individual was that the basic definition of a man's worth (a woman's place was in the home) was his ability to provide for his family. If you failed at that, you failed the test of life. Some failed men pulled up stakes and took their families west for a new start. Others moved west without taking their families, although most did not follow Albin Johnson's example of killing them first. Others, such as my cousin (twice removed), killed only themselves, leaving the families to survive somehow. None of those options made the newspapers at all -- only the Hollis Brown solution could rate a sidebar on an inside page.

I regard "Hollis Brown" as one of Dylan's best early compositions. I wish more people would sing it, as it should enter the body of traditional ballads alongside its tune-mate "Pretty Polly." I would argue, though, that the stories are completely different. "Pretty Polly" is a standard pregnancy ballad of a callous murder, but the story, although first person narration, never gets inside the murderer's brain. You're correct in identifying the song's empathy. Dylan's song expresses a sense of doom and desperation that's not like any other composition I've heard.

It might be interesting to compare an analogous song, "The Murder of the Lawson Family," by the Carolina Buddies (Columbia 15537-D, recorded in March 1930). The song is based on a true story: on Christmas Day, 1929, Charlie Lawson murdered his wife and 8 (not 6) children near Lawsonville in Stokes County, NC. The waltz tune is close to that used for "Fatal Flower Garden" in the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music.

1. It was on last Christmas evening,
    a snow was on the ground,
    near his home in North Carolina
    where this murderer, he was found.

2. His name was Charlie Lawson,
    and he had a loving wife,
    but we'll never know what caused him
    to take his family's life.

3. They say he killed his wife at first,
    and the little ones did cry,
    "Please, Papa, won't you spare our lives,
    for it is so hard to die."

4. But the ragin' man could not be stopped,
    he would not heed their call
    and kept on firing fatal shots
    until he killed them all.

5. And when the sad, sad news was heard,
    It was a great surprise.
    He killed six children and his wife,
    and then he closed their eyes.

6. "And now farewell, kind friends and home.
    I'll see you all no more.
    Into my heart I'll fire one shot,
    then my troubles will by o'er."

7. They did not carry him to jail,
    No lawyers did he pay.
    He will have his trial in another world
    on the final judgement day.

8. They all were buried in a crowded grave.
    While the angels watched above.
    "Come home, come home, my little ones,
    to the land of peace and love."
This is almost the epitome of a conventional topical song with 19th century themes. Insanity is implied, but, in spite of the imagined dialogue, the composer never gets close to understanding what happened. It even has a happy ending in heaven. When I sing this song, it doesn't disturb me. I'm quite sure that, at the time he composed "Hollis Brown," Dylan had not heard the Carolina Buddies song (tape dubs of it didn't circulate much until late in the 1960s), but even if he had, there's no relation between the two.

In "Hollis Brown," Dylan's choice of subject matter, and his diction, owe a lot to Woody Guthrie, but the artistic stance is Dylan's own (I regard Dylan's "Song to Woody" as being, on one level, a declaration of independence). If Woody had written the song, he would have emphasized the class and economic conditions that led to Brown's plight, such as the rapacious bankers or the railroad tycoons. Dylan's version has no social or political commentary, but instead shows you alienation and depression from the inside. It's a second-person ballad that sounds like first person.

The last verse,

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm (2)
Somewhere in the distance there's seven new people born
is probably the coldest piece of poetry I've ever heard, and it goes far beyond the "limits of empathy." It implies that, not only was Hollis Brown a failed breadwinner, he was a failed evolutionary experiment. Intentionally wiping out everyone in your progeny is a special kind of failure. Woody's socio-political explanations could never encompass such an idea.

I can't imagine how Dylan got the inspiration to suddenly shift from a view inside a doomed man's brain to God's view: it's over for them, but life renews itself, and there's always a new throw of the dice. The denouement reminds me of James Joyce's description of the artist's role after the work is done:

"The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
But as a listener, I can't be that indifferent, particularly given the coincidence of my birth with the Albin Johnson family deaths, with the implication that maybe I was one of the new people to take their places. You can imagine how impressed I was by Dylan's last verse.


Dylan Symposium - Hibbing Visit Revisited

C. P. Lee
(author C. P. Lee contemplates the world's largest man-made hole
— all photos by The Celestial Monochord)


See also Part One


The Minneapolis leg of the exhibit "Bob Dylan's American Journey" — and only that leg, if I understand right — begins with plenty of vivid stories and poignant artifacts about Dylan's early life in Hibbing and Minneapolis.

But even after studying that material at the Weisman Art Museum for a couple of hours, I still somehow didn't "get" Dylan's home town of Hibbing. I had to travel there physically to understand that it's a stunning place that really MATTERS if you're to understand Bob Dylan. It was not the anonymous little speed-zone I had imagined — if you grew up in Hibbing, you grew up in an absolutely singular place of brutal extremes and mind-bending ironies. You grew up in Dylan Country.

Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine
(the pit of the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Iron Mine)

Consider the world's largest man-made hole. This open pit, the result of iron strip-mining, is not an attraction near Hibbing so much as it is a boundary at the ever-shifting town limits. It's part of Hibbing. Nearly four miles long, two miles wide, and 180 yards deep, it supplied a quarter of the iron mined in the 1940's for WWII.

Every Wednesday at 11 a.m., the mine conducts dynamite blasting — colossal explosions that bow the windows along the town's main street and rattle Abraham Lincoln's photo hanging on the wall in the high school classrooms. When Dylan was living here, the blasts were a much more frequent than that — it's reasonable to imagine Dylan's first reading of Walt Whitman interrupted by a bone-rattling dynamite explosion that was literally an act of war.

North Hibbing  North Hibbing
(North Country Blues: streets going nowhere, doorsteps without doors)

Before Dylan was born, the pit grew so big that the whole town had to be lifted off its foundations and physically moved a couple miles down the road to a brand-new Hibbing. The Hibbing that Bob's mother knew was known to Bob as a wasteland — a grid of streets that went nowhere, front porch stairs that led to no porch and no home, foundations with no buildings on top of them. The place looked like Yucca Flats after the blast.

(on a glass table, the mine's main product — taconite pellets)

Understandably, the politics and culture that led to these events — and to possibly the most spectacular public school in the United States (the subject of my previous entry) — were themselves singular and extreme. They're unlikely to be central to any tour you'll receive if you visit Hibbing, but be sure to ask about the political culture of the region.

If there is a more leftist rural population anywhere in the United States, I would like to know about it. When Greil Marcus was told, a few years ago, that there are communists and socialists in the working-class bars along Hibbing's main street having arguments that've gone on for 100 years, he immediately planned his first trip to the Iron Range. It is no more a coincidence that the region produced Bob Dylan than Gus Hall, or that it was the epicenter of support for Paul Wellstone.

(the main drag of Hibbing, Minnesota)

Besides the iron mine and Hibbing's high school — both jaw-dropping sights — there's plenty more in Hibbing for a Dylan fan to see. There's the home of Echo Helstrom, who Dylan says brought out the poetry in him. There's the auditorium where Dylan played his first paying gig. There's the Moose Lodge where Dylan used to practice on their piano. There's the hotel where Dylan had his bar mitzvah. There's the synagogue he attended. And, of course, there's his boyhood home. After all this, you'll want to drink and think. The natural place would be Zimmy's, a Bob Dylan-themed bar and restaurant.

I'm embarrassed to say that I lived in Minneapolis for 19 years without very much questioning the prevailing impression that Dylan grew up in some forgettable little town — it hardly mattered which. (In fact, I'm embarrassed by thinking ANYBODY grew up in such a place.) I'm thankful to the organizers of the Dylan Symposium (particularly Colleen Sheehy) for providing the incentive to go to Hibbing personally. In my experience, that's the only way its importance can "sink in."

Until you can get there, look for a great article by Greil Marcus about Hibbing High School to appear soon (I think in the spring issue of Daedalus).


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.