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.

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

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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