Thursday, October 13, 2016

Congratulations! #BobDylan and Minnesota's North Country

For the past several years, I've been struggling with the question(s) of form(s) in poetry and genre in literature. I've been doing this while those that create poetry and literature have been busy transcending boundaries of form(s) and genre(s). That was made clear this morning when the 2016 Nobel prize for literature was awarded to northern Minnesota's own Robert Allen Zimmerman, known to the rest of the world as Bob Dylan. That makes Mr. Dylan the second Minnesotan to be honored as a Nobel literature laureate, Sinclair Lewis being the first.  Minnesota, Sauk Center and Hibbing should start promoting whatever it is in our air, or water, or both, that contributes to such creativity. There's something happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones. ("Ballad of a Thin Man" lyrics).

Bob Dylan Way, Duluth
Bob Dylan Way, Duluth
Photo by J. Harrington

Actually, another Minnesotan, this one an immigrant from New York, has spent years studying, teaching and writing about what it is that's happening here, when it comes to Bob Dylan and other Midwestern writers. David Pichaske has written Song of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan and Rooted: Seven Midwest Writers of Place. Unfortunately, the latter does not include Mr. Lewis, focusing on Bill Holm as the Minnesota representative. Pichaske's two books, plus some of his other works, seem to offer helpful insights into the role place, particularly Midwestern rural place, can play in the creative development of writers.

Iron Range mining tailings
Iron Range mining tailings
Photo by J. Harrington

Dylan is Dylan. As the Nobel committee noted the award was bestowed for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Dylan has been a large part of the soundtrack of my life for more than two generations. I caused a minor stir in a Loft poetry class some years back when I asserted that, as far as I was concerned, Dylan was as much a poet as a singer-songwriter. As rural Minnesota looks to create a sustainable life and economy for the twenty-first and subsequent centuries, it might be helpful to spend more time thinking about what we've done successfully to create more Nobel laureates in literature, and what seems like a disproportionate number of creative, talented writers and visual artists. Creativity isn't an extractive or polluting industry. Two of Dylan's songs provide a helpful contrast, I believe. One is the North Country Blues, the other, Girl from the North Country.

North Country Blues


Bob Dylan


Come gather 'round friends and I'll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron pits ran a-plenty
But the cardboard-filled windows and old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty

In the north end of town my own children are grown
But I was raised on the other
In the wee hours of youth my mother took sick
And I was brought up by my brother

The iron ore poured as the years passed the door
The drag lines an' the shovels they was a-humming
'Till one day my brother failed to come home
The same as my father before him

Well, a long winter's wait from the window I watched
My friends they couldn't have been kinder
And my schooling was cut as I quit in the spring
To marry John Thomas, a miner

Oh, the years passed again, and the giving was good
With the lunch bucket filled every season
What with three babies born, the work was cut down
To a half a day's shift with no reason

Then the shaft was soon shut, and more work was cut
And the fire in the air, it felt frozen
'Till a man come to speak, and he said in one week
That number eleven was closing

They complained in the East, they are paying too high
They say that your ore ain't worth digging
That it's much cheaper down in the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing

So the mining gates locked, and the red iron rotted
And the room smelled heavy from drinking
Where the sad, silent song made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking

I lived by the window as he talked to himself
This silence of tongues it was building
'Till one morning's wake, the bed it was bare
And I was left alone with three children

The summer is gone, the ground's turning cold
The stores one by one they're all folding
My children will go as soon as they grow
Well, there ain't nothing here now to hold them

Songwriters: Bob Dylan

North Country Blues lyrics © Bob Dylan Music Co.


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