Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth and then raised in
the remote northern Minnesota town of Hibbing seventy-five
years ago. He has now won the 2016 Nobel Prize for
literature. Along with the prize medal, he will receive more
than a million dollars. He doesn’t need it; he’ll probably give
it to charity.
He doesn’t need the money because he’s made a fortune over
the years, and he doesn’t need the recognition of the prize
because he’s one of the most famous persons in the world
where he is known as Bob Dylan, folksinger and songwriter.
I suppose the award will be a bit controversial since Dylan is
not formally a poet, a fiction writer or a dramatist --- the usual
categories for the recipients of the prize. The Nobel committee
has given him the prize for his lifetime of songwriting and lyrics,
a music form of poetry. Since the origins of poetry are generally
believed to have arisen from early music and song, I don’t think
even “purists” about what is literature, and what is not, have a
case against this laureate. Considering his enduring body of
work, which he has refined over half a century, and the impact
of it on American and world culture, I don’t think there is a
reasonable argument that he should not be so honored.
I share a few things with Robert Zimmerman, including
perhaps most strikingly, the same birthday (although he is older
than I am). We also share a similar background, and for many
decades I have lived in the Twin Cities where he made his early
foray into a musical life. Years ago, I dated a young woman whose
mother had been Zimmerman’s religious school teacher in
Hibbing, and she told me a few stories about when he came over
to their house. Decades after that, I settled in Minneapolis to
publish a newspaper in the neighborhoods of the West Bank and
East Bank where young Bob had come in the late 1950a as a
scraggly teenager with a guitar. One of my advertisers, now
deceased, was a West Bank bar owner who had operated an East
Bank coffeehouse a few years before, and he related to me his
first-hand account of young Zimmerman coming into his Ten
O’Clock Scholar one Friday afternoon, looking to play and
sing. My bar owner friend told Zimmerman that he could
perform that evening --- which he did. At some point in the
evening, while the Hibbing teenager was playing, the bar
owner’s wife came in and asked who was playing. After he told
her the name, she reportedly said, “He’s terrible. Fire him!’
And so ended, Bob Dylan’s first professional singing gig, as it
was told to me. (He had earlier played the piano for two nights
for Bobby V’s band). The bar owner also told me he ran into
Dylan years later in Manhattan, and Dylan had remembered
him and treated him graciously. Local folks have also reported
to me seeing young Zimmerman sitting on the sidewalk in that
East Bank neighborhood called Dinkytown, and performing
for passers-by, something which folksingers still do there
today. The area was, in fact, a place where many well-known
folksingers and musicians got started, including “Spider John”
Koerner, Dave Ray, Tony Glover, John Beach, Peter Ostroushko,
Butch Thompson, Willie and the Bees, and performers from the
legendary West Bank School of Music.
I published my newspaper for fourteen years in those
neighborhoods, and lived there for many years more. From
time to time, I would hear stories about Bob Dylan coming
back to the West Bank and the Twin Cities anonymously to
see family members and to hear some of his old musician
friends perform. I did not ever see him myself, nor have I ever
met him. I probably won’t either.
Although I make a living as a journalist and writer about
history, I am first an American poet. I attended the Iowa
Writers Workshop, got a degree there, and my work has
appeared in some of the leading U.S. literary magazines.
Books of my poetry and short fiction have been published.
I guess that makes me more formally a person of “literature.”
Some of my fellow writers and others, as I mentioned earlier,
might object to Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for
literature. In fact, the Nobel committee has been quite erratic
in the recent past, awarding the prize on occasion more for
political “correctness” than for true merit, in my opinion.
On the other hand, a few years ago, the prize went to the
Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer who, in spite of being
almost unknown outside a few literary circles, was perhaps
then the greatest living poet in any language. That was an
inspired choice to be Nobel literary laureate that year --- just
as I think it was an appropriate choice to give the prize in
2016 to a Jewish kid from northern Minnesota who grew up
to sing to, and to inspire, so many around the world.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.