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.