Dispatch August 2009

The Answer, My Friend ...

Our correspondent makes a pilgrimage to Bob Dylan's hometown in search of the source of his bizarre accent.
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In July, residents of Long Branch, New Jersey, called the cops to report an "eccentric-looking old man" snooping around their neighborhood. Neither the residents nor Kristie Buble, the 22-year-old responding officer, recognized him as Bob Dylan, out for a stroll before a concert with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. The police escorted Dylan to his hotel, where tour staff positively identified Dylan as the Voice of a Generation, though evidently not of Buble's.

If the Long Branch neighborhood watch thought Bob Dylan looked eccentric, they should have heard him talk. I have long wondered where that tortured wheeze comes from, and why – aside from Zoot, the blue-haired, bespectacled Muppet—Dylan is the only person who seems to have it. He was already singing with that distinctive accent on his self-titled debut album, which he released at 21, so he must have picked it up somewhere in his early youth. Many hate the Dylan voice—Joyce Carol Oates, in one of her less felicitous similes, said it was "as if sandpaper could sing"—but it is in the end inseparable from the glory of his best work. Nothing demonstrates this better than attempts by others to cover him.  Take the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" – please: it makes one of the finest entries in the Dylan songbook sound like it was written by the Monkees.

To find out more, I went to Hibbing, Minnesota (pop. 17,000), the mining town where Dylan grew up. If Dylan's accent has a source, it must be up here in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota. I drove in on back roads from Duluth, the nearest big city (pop. 82,000), with my ragtop down, and smelled deeply the alternating aromas of summer pine and roadkill. When I arrived, I drove past the suburban house where Dylan grew up, and then hit Howard Street, Hibbing's main drag, to find people who knew Dylan or his parents in the 1950s, or whose accents might have been cast in the same foundry as his.

At the Sportsmen's Club, I spoke with Jaqi the barmaid, who went to Hibbing High School a few classes behind Dylan, whom she and her brother would have known as Robert Zimmerman. "Is it true that people in Hibbing talk like Bob Dylan?" I asked. She narrowed her eyes and issued an abrupt correction.  "You mean, 'Is it true that Bob Dylan talks like people in Hibbing?'" Her accent was an even Midwestern plod, garnished with a snarl all her own.

Discussing Dylan brought out the worst in her. She said she hated him and thought Dylan's parents, "the nicest people you ever met," had an ungrateful, arrogant bastard for a son (a conclusion hard to dispute, if you've ever seen footage of Dylan on the road). The grand auditorium in Hibbing High School, an Art Deco edifice built with mining money in 1920, was the site of Dylan's first concerts, but his music never caught on there.  Jaqi said Hibbing rejected Dylan not because it failed to spot talent but because he was a creep who deserved to be rejected. "I knew a girl who went out with him once," she said. "Once was enough."

So far, from Jaqi and the regulars at the Sportsmen's, I had heard not even the faintest echo of what Philip Larkin called that "cawing, derisive voice," though I had heard plenty of derision. But accents are tricky, especially in diversely settled regions like northern Minnesota.  Hibbing was an iron town, and the mining jobs had attracted immigrants from at least fifty different known ethnic stocks.  Even today, one of Hibbing's main attractions is the Hull Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine, a vast scar on the earth where generations of miners extracted ore from taconite.  The pit extends more than a mile across, and from behind the chain-link fence at the lookout point on the northern fringe of town, it resembles a polluted northern twin of the Grand Canyon

Does the average of those miners' accents—Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Irish, Yiddish, Chippewa, and many more—sound like Dylan?  Not if the clientele at Checco's Tavern was any indication.  I arrived for the after-work crowd, and tried to hover around tables to listen for the caw. I could not do this subtly, since peanut shells covered the floor, and it was like trying to sneak up on someone across a lawn of dried autumn leaves.  Eventually, when I heard a steelworker named Ernie speak with a trace of telltale Dylan nasality, I asked him about his accent and discovered he grew up in Pittsburgh.

Ernie was drinking with a friend, though, who said that in his job caring for the elderly in Hibbing, he had worked with the mother of someone who sounded very much like Dylan. That man, he said, was Leroy Hoikkala – a contemporary, friend, and bandmate of Dylan's at Hibbing High School.  Leroy even co-signed on Dylan's first motorcycle purchase.

On my last morning I called up Hoikkala and told him about my project.  It was, in retrospect, an interview that would have gone well even if it had gone badly: all I wanted was to hear Hoikkala speak, and to find out where he got his accent.  Even if he refused to speak he would probably have to say a few words, ideally in a Dylanesque wheeze, to tell me off.

As it happens, he was polite and helpful—and yes, he sounded a little like Bob Dylan, or at least the early Dylan, before he started to sound like a bitter taunter in the 1970s, and a coy jokester in the last decade. Hoikkala said the Hibbing accents of that era were diverse and distinctive, and that they tracked closely the ethnicities of the immigrant communities in which they appeared.  Hoikkala's, then, would have been a Finnish-American one, and if his is taken as a historical trace of Dylan's, we might say the Maestro speaks like a Finno-Hebraic Minnesotan, by way of Greenwich Village—which perhaps goes some distance toward explaining why we have heard so little of it before Dylan.

Or at least that's an explanation that holds up most of the time. I drove back to Duluth on the same fragrant backroad I took in, and along the way, the CD-changer chose "Lay, Lady, Lay," a song I had heard perhaps hundreds of times before, but never with such tuned-in ears. As if to rebut my hypotheses, Dylan sings clearly, openly, with no hint of the Hibbing accent, nor for that matter any of the bitter taunting of the Sixties or the ironic wheeze of today. "Lay" has, strangely, a straightforward country sound that makes the bold sexual demand of the song's title feel remarkably direct, especially because one would normally phrase the command to lie across one's big brass bed with a bit more coyness.  It's a beautiful song, even if it confounds my theories of Dylan's linguistic origin by sounding not Hoikkala, not Hibbing, and not New York—but still, as I am sure Jaqi would point out, all arrogant bastard.

Graeme has been an Atlantic staff editor since 2006. His Atlantic blog, Prepared for the Worst, chronicles a journey through Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arabian peninsula, and the Horn of Africa.
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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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