Minnesota enigma leaves world hanging, but has powerful message
Wednesday, December 21, 2016 11:01 AM
The rest of the world is finding out what Minnesota has known for decades — if you want to honor Bob Dylan, don’t expect him to cooperate, at least not in the way you would expect.
The global drama unfolded recently when Dylan received a Nobel Prize in literature. At first it was uncertain whether Dylan would acknowledge his award, or even accept it, as there was a lengthy silence that stretched into days, then weeks, after the announcement.
However, in the end, he finally did express appreciation, it was just on his terms as is always the case for the enigma who Minnesota claims as its own.
Minnesota can label Dylan as a native son even if he doesn’t spend much time here or celebrate his roots like we celebrate his roots. Born in Duluth in 1941, Dylan went to school in Hibbing and attended the University of Minnesota for a while before heading to New York City to visit idol Woody Guthrie and perform.
He gained prominence while in New York, but didn’t stay there either. Today, his main residence is in Malibu, California, but he still maintains a home and 100-acre farm near the Twin Cities.
Several of his songs reference Minnesota, even nearby Red Wing. The highway in the title of his album, “Highway 61 Revisited,” defines the east edge of Bluff Country, a road Dylan said in his memoir he felt a kinship with. However, his connection to it is the spiritual journey deep into Delta country of the South that was home to the blues, not necessarily the view we have of a scenic ride along the Mississippi River.
Dylan has never expressed contempt for Minnesota, just a reluctance to embrace his roots. When asked why he left Minnesota in an early interview, he replied, “Well, there comes a time for all things to pass.”
In other interviews, he would say the past matters less than where he is going. On his debut album in 1962, he fabricated a story that he was an orphan from New Mexico who never knew his parents and hopped a boxcar to New York City.
As the spotlight shone on him more frequently, he became more reclusive, seldom speaking in public, letting the words in his songs speak for him.
Those words are what prompted the Swedish Academy to award the Nobel Prize in literature to Dylan.
It was a controversial choice to name a singer, but Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, called Dylan in a speech at the ceremony Dec. 10, “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.” He added that some in the literary world may question the pick, but “one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and sing.”
Immediately after naming Dylan the recipient of the prize, the academy discovered the singer’s extreme elusiveness. He waited two weeks before even acknowledging the award. He didn’t attend the ceremony, citing pre-existing commitments that were never revealed, and failed to take part in other functions that are customary for a Nobel winner.
His actions prompted a debate in Stockholm about whether he was being rude. Some felt his actions were an embarrassment to the academy.
However, his behavior was true to his pattern in the past. He often doesn’t show up for openings of his own art shows. He rarely shows up for awards, although he did accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, who lavished extensive praise on him. After Obama draped the medal around his neck, Dylan shook his hand and walked off without saying a word.
For the Nobel Prize ceremony, he did pull off a gracious acceptance, just not in person. His prepared written remarks extended warmest greetings and explained that he was out on the road when he received “this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it.”
His words expressed his feeling about the magnitude of the award and his appreciation for it. He noted that being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature “is something I never could have imagined or seen coming.”
Soon after he received the news, he said he began to think about William Shakespeare, who probably thought of himself as a dramatist, not a great literary figure since his words were written for the stage. His creative vision was no doubt in the forefront of his mind, wrote Dylan, but there were also more mundane matters about financing, seating and props he needed to consider.
Like Shakespeare, he is often occupied with the pursuit of his creative endeavors while also dealing with mundane matters, such as the best musicians for his songs, proper studios for recording and the right keys.
“Not once have I ever had time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’” he wrote.
His written statement concluded with thanks to the Swedish Academy, “both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”
While his remarks were read at the Dec. 10 Stockholm, ceremony, which included Patti Smith performing his song, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” residents of his hometown in Hibbing held a reception to raise funds for arts programming for Hibbing-area students. The committee that put the celebration together had considered a statue, but family representatives, not Dylan himself, said they would prefer the focus to be on arts education.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton got in the act as well, declaring Dec. 10 “Bob Dylan Day” in Minnesota. The day was to recognize Dylan as a “true son of the Iron Range in his independence, his talent, and his ability to triumph over adversity,” said the governor.
Of course, unlike the Nobel Prize committee, no officials in Minnesota were expecting Dylan to show up, or even acknowledge the local recognitions.
If you want to understand Dylan, you must study his lyrics, which can be cryptic themselves and have multiple interpretations. Still, there is no denying the force of those lyrics, which have now won him one of the highest honors in the world.
This Minnesotan, if we can still call him that, seems to have an influence that is everywhere, even if the man himself always seems to be nowhere.