Excerpt from Song of the North Country

(Continuum Press, 2010)

The Iron Range economic history, but not the environmental degradation, is all encapsulated in Dylan’s song “North Country Blues,” a tale which begins in the days when the red iron ore pits ran plenty and ends with the whole town empty.  Remarkably for Dylan and the early 1960s, the story is told by a woman, a woman who worked herself, a woman who stayed behind as the males in her life died in mining disasters or departed: father, brother, husband, children.  The song may owe something to the experience of Dylan’s high school pal John Bucklen: when Bucklen’s father was injured in a mine accident, there was neither welfare nor insurance coverage, his mother went into business as a seamstress, and Dylan’s mother Beatty brought her work (Engel 88).  The song is the story of success turned failure, in its larger details of humming drag lines turned to old men on benches, in subtle details like the move during prosperous times from the wrong side of town (the south side, where the speaker was born, and where Echo lived) to the more up-scale north end of town (where the Zimmermans lived), and with its look toward a future of house empty of husband and family.  Little details are brilliant: “lunch bucket filled every season” suggests the miners’ modest aspirations; the heavy smell of drinking reflects Old Hibbing with its 60-plus saloons; the “silence of tongues” certainly reflects the brooding isolation of North Country males.  The phrase “with no reason” expresses the Iron Range detestation of callous management, which in the fifties cut work to half a day’s shift, which today cuts the forty-hour work week to whatever level allows them to avoid paying benefits.  When Number Eleven closes for good, it is just “a man” who makes the announcement; he is the always absent, anonymous “they” who make the decisions that sacrifice local communities to global economics.  Eastern mine owners, Dylan writes in Chronicles, were more hated in Hibbing than Russian communists (271). 

While localized in the specifics of Iron Range Minnesota, including language like “I was raised up” and “a man come to speak,” the song reaches upward and outward to half a dozen larger concerns.  One, of course, is the situation of women in American society.  In A Freewheelin’ Time, Suze Rotolo is critical of sixties males in general and Bob Dylan in particular, but in this song he is clearly sensitive to and supportive of the situation of a woman subject to the whims of men (who are themselves subject to capricious outside forces).  Part of this story is the male-female disconnect of no dialogue, no consultation, no joint planning, no long-term commitment, which Dylan understands perfectly.  Another larger context is the age-old plight of small-town Midwestern adolescents: the song’s closing line—“there ain’t nothing here now to hold them”—is Dylan’s own take on Hibbing, and the take of small-town Midwestern children today.  “North Country Blues” also embodies labor-management tensions everywhere, and the cardboard-filled windows (these days it’s plywood-covered windows) and stores folding one by one can be found in the work of any writer describing the demise of towns all over the Midwest. 

“Hollis Brown,” set in the state next door to Minnesota, tells another story of Midwest economic collapse, this one agricultural.  While influenced by Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the song is generally true to the Midwest rural reality of the early 1960s.  Dylan’s coyotes in the wilderness might sound western, but East River South Dakota (like western Minnesota) has its share of coyotes and wilderness as small farms fail and are assimilated into larger “farming operations” or turned into grasslands under the Conservation Reserve Program.

The demise of small farms is particularly noticeable in the Minnesota-South Dakota-Iowa region, possibly because of the settlement pattern there: under the Homestead Act of 1862, settlers received 160 acres free and clear if they lived on and cultivated it for a period of five years; they could claim an additional 160 acres as a “timber claim” if they planted 40 of them in timber.  The result was a grid pattern of one-mile roads, each enclosing four 160-acre tracts . . . with four (perhaps three) farmsteads per square mile, each with its own house, barn and grove of trees.  To buy produce (cheap) and to sell equipment and other necessities (dear) to farmers whose transportation was a horse-drawn wagon, railroad companies planted towns every seven miles or so along their tracks.  So each little railroad village served about fifty square miles of farms, and three or four seven-to-ten-member families per square mile, fifty square miles per town made a good population base for stores, schools, and churches.  For a shining moment around the turn of the century, before the invention of the tractor, the American pastoral idyll seemed realized: the villages and the farmers lived around them did very well, helped by high commodity prices during World War I.  Then came mechanization and consolidation: the tractor was as responsible as the Dust Bowl drought for kicking the Joads off of their farm in Grapes of Wrath.  (It now appears that by facilitating deep tillage of Great Plains soil that should not have been deep-illed, mechanization was responsible for the Dust Bowl as well.)  To make matters worse, commodity prices dropped when World War I ended, and for Midwest agriculture, the Great Depression began in the early 1920s.  With the crash of 1929, the Great Depression began in earnest.  When the market bottomed out in 1932, corn was selling for 10 cents a bushel, hogs were bringing 3 cents a pound, and cattle 5 cents a pound.  “Farmers burned corn for fuel and cattle sent to market did not even bring the cost of transportation,” writes David Nass (xi).  World War II brought a temporary recovery, but as technology developed and opportunities off the farm beckoned, Midwest agriculture went through a series of consolidations and depopulations which left barns, farm houses, and small towns abandoned.  These “adjustments” seem to occur every other decade: the ‘60s, the ‘80s, and the beginning of the present century.  Wendell Berry calls the process The Unsettling of America.

Of course the more expensive the technology, the larger the mortgage, and the more colossal the failure during a lean cycle.    The 1980s were especially rough: a summary of 20,000 responses to the 1985 Minnesota Farm Financial Survey, released by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on February 3, 1986, reported a one-year net equity decrease of 31.3%, with 23% of respondents “highly leveraged,” 17% “very high leveraged,” and 13% “technically insolvent.”  Over half of the respondents under the age of thirty-five were, like Hollis Brown, either highly leveraged or technically insolvent.   It was to these farmers that Dylan alluded in his remark at Live Aid on July 13, 1985, after performing ”Hollis Brown”: “I’d just like to say I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it—maybe one or two million maybe—and use it, say, to pay the mortgages on some of the farms.”  However, the farmers of 1985 received about as much sympathy as Andy Gill gives Hollis Brown: “though the South Dakota farmer may have had a run of bad luck, it’s ultimately hard to feel that much sympathy for someone reckless enough to have five children—one, we learn, a baby—which he clearly cannot support” (43).

Hollis Brown is caught in one of these cycles—not necessarily the 1930s, as Stephen Scobie has it (Judas 9, 53)—squeezed by technology, economics, nature, and bad luck.  Published in Broadside magazine for February 1963, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” carried a subtitle: “A True Story.”  Well—true in the general sense.  Brown is no homesteader, and he has probably seen better, maybe even flush times that would have supported five kids.  For example, in the North Country the word “cabin” does not necessarily refer to pioneer’s log structure, especially in the eastern Dakotas, where trees were scarce.  Nor is it synonymous with the “one-room country shack” Dylan mentions in “Dirt Road Blues.”  A cabin “may be a very simple structure without indoor plumbing, or it may be a five-bedroom, three-bath house,” notes David Lanegran (Minnesota 88); “No matter; it is still ‘the cabin’.”  The Cabins of Minnesota, a photo-text book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2007, shows upscale modern structures and older buildings like the “Greek Revival house (circa 1890)” on Bay Lake, Crow Wing County (67), where Dylan later bought property.  A balloon-frame farmhouse with lathe-and-plaster walls and normal glass windows, erected in the twentieth century (perhaps a kit bought from Sears), would qualify as “a cabin” . . . like the cabin in “On a Night Like This.”  These buildings are civilized, if Spartan, usually two rooms down and one long bedroom upstairs, with an additional room and indoor plumbing added in the late forties, early 1950s.  Next time you’re in Granite Falls, stop by and I’ll point out the ghost of just such a “cabin” where, friends assure me, not half a century ago, a farmer lived with his wife and “five or six kids.”  This is Brown’s “cabin”—not the shack most people would imagine.  Nor is it any sign of indigence that even in the fifties Brown relied on well water (my own rural Minnesota home still uses well water), and had a horse (but I have no horse).  It is quite probable that he—and his wife—sought employment in town, and it is not unthinkable that a farmer facing difficulties should consider shotgun shells.  Poet Leo Dangel, raised on a farm in East River South Dakota, writes about just such a farmer in a poem titled “What Milo Saw”: “After the hail pounded his corn crop / into the ground, Milo said / he would shoot himself. . . .  Milo’s wife hid the shotgun in the cellar / on a shelf, behind the pickle jars.”  Dangel also mentions Milo’s “six runny-nosed kids.”  

So Dylan’s song spins toward its inevitable conclusion, from one detail to another and from one feature of rural Midwestern life to another: natural disaster, social disaster, economic disaster.  Hollis Brown exhibits the same North Country male introversion we just saw in “North Country Blues”: a refusal to communicate with wife or family, a withdrawal into the self as he contemplates diminishing options, a growing anger, possibly some alcohol . . . and finally, after long silence, violence.  The song’s final lines offer only the terrible promise of continuing cycles: Great Plains fecundity (seven more children being born) promising little more than another disaster in the next swing of an apparently unbreakable cycle which will bring Dylan in 2006 to the farmer in “Workingman’s Blues #2”: “The place I love best is a sweet memory” because “They burned my barn, they stole my horse.”  They being, as always, the class of people who never worked a day in their life and don’t even know what work means. 

“The Walls of Red Wing,” while set squarely in the picturesque Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minnesota, is more ideology than reality, but it is an ideology more marketable in early sixties America than a displaced farmer or even an out-of-work miner: the misunderstood juvenile delinquent.  Although Dylan backed off this song early on, Joan Baez, perhaps unaware of the poetic license Dylan had taken with his material, recorded it on Any Day Now (1968) her two-record collection of songs by Bob Dylan.  Clinton Heylin reports that Larry Haugen claimed he and Dylan spent time in Red Wing in the summer of 1958, a story Heylin dismisses as unlikely (Revolution 131).  Heylin himself suggests that the “strict regime” of “Walls of Red Wing” reflects Dylan’s brief stay at Deveraux, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, to which young Bob Zimmerman was sent by his parents in 1958 or 1959 to straighten him out (Stolen Moments 7).  Probably the song owes more to films like Rebel Without a Cause than to Dylan’s personal experiences.  Of course it is no more necessary for Dylan to have spent time in Red Wing than it is for the singer of any ballad to actually be the first-person narrator of his song; the problem here is that Dylan’s song invents not only the speaker’s experience—something we rather expect and accept from writers—but details of the setting.  The inaccuracies—a good indication Dylan had never seen the place, and probably the result of Red Wing being a good 150 miles from Hibbing and nearly 50 from Minneapolis—have troubled Dylan fans and commentators for some time. 

The Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing was founded in 1867 as a House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents.  Located at what is now Concordia College in St. Paul, it became the Minnesota State Reform School in 1879, and in 1890 moved to its present site in Red Wing.  Early on, the facility housed girls as well as boys, orphans as well as young criminals: fastforwarding to Dylan songs to the far end of his career, it would have been a good orphanage from which to recruit “some tough songs of bitches.”  “Inmates” have always been housed in cottages, which might reasonably be called “bunk-houses,” but the word “dungeons” strains the imagination and early photos show no crossbars on the windows.  Today’s barbed wire fence “with the ’lectricity sting” was added only in the 1990s.  Corporal punishment was outlawed in 1947, and by the time Dylan wrote his song, a progressive program of “Guided Group Action” had been initiated.  There are no dungeons, no boardwalk, no screen, and no cast iron gates.  In a 2003 article on “The Walls of Red Wing” for CityPages.com, Brad Zeller quotes Eddie Sharkey, who did two stints at Red Wing in the 1950s:   

“In those days we weren't stabbing and shooting each other like they are today,” Sharkey recalls. “I was just a dumb kid and a general screw-off, but compared with some of the other guys I guess I was a pretty rough character. They had kids from small towns who were in there for skipping school.”

Sharkey sounds almost sheepish when he admits that he enjoyed his time in Red Wing. “People see that big old evil-looking place up there and get all sorts of ideas in their heads,” he says. “But it was like a military school more than anything else. I mean, hell yes, it was a rough-and-tumble place, and they worked the shit out of you. You were always doing something. But it was a pretty good education, the best I ever got anywhere, and I made a lot of good friends down there, guys I still keep in touch with.”

Dylan’s song does not really want Red Wing to educate juvenile delinquents; it sees Red Wing as producing future inmates of St. Cloud Prison and other evil characters, including lawyers.  The notion that there is not much difference between the criminals inside and the lawyers outside of Red Wing and St. Cloud Prison will be developed more fully in the judges of “Hattie Carroll,” “Percy’s Song,” and “Hurricane,” and in an oft-quoted line in another song: “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”  “The Walls of Red Wing” closes with the point toward which Dylan has shaped his material: “some of us’ll stand up / To meet you on your crossroads.”  Dylan does not go so far as to make the outlaw a hero, and the sheriff the crook—he’ll do this in later songs—but he humanizes the inmates by exaggerating the harshness of his Red Wing environment and softening the persona with innocuous concerns like home-town memories and songs in the night.   

Another early song which certainly suggests the North Country is “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”  Robert Shelton locates the song in Minnesota: “Dylan reflects during a return to Minnesota, how simple the answers seemed during adolescence.  John Bucklen believed the song directly related to the times he and Bob spent in Hibbing with Echo and John’s sister.  It could as easily refer to days at Minneapolis with Tony Glover or Bonny” (156).  The song has the generally ramshackle feel which fills Upper Midwest writing of the late twentieth century.  Howard Sounes suggests that the setting was the apartment of Wavy Gravy, where Dylan hung out “over the Gaslight, sitting around an old wood-burning stove” (93); in Chronicles, Dylan mentions that Izzy Young “had a back room with a potbellied wood-burning stove” (19).  I was not there, of course, but a functioning wood-burning stove in lower Manhattan, 1961, sounds more than a little far-fetched, and the song itself sounds more Hibbing than New York.  But even if the wood stove is in Manhattan, Dylan is interested in it because it recalls Minnesota.  Andy Gill (31) writes, “Dylan’s several return journeys to Minnesota, both before and after the release of his first album, undoubtedly helped crystallize the theme of the song, as he realized the disparate paths taken by himself and his old friends from Hibbing and the Dinkytown campus neighborhood of Minneapolis.”  His theory is that—chided by Minneapolis friends like Tony Glover, Spider John Koerner, and Jim Pankake for his politically active protest songs—“Dylan clearly felt his Minnesota friends were being left behind” (32), which is what’s happened in this song.  Talking to Studs Terkel on WFMT radio in May, 1963, Dylan drifted onto the subject of his old friends: “I can tell you about people I growed up with, that I knowed since I been four and five. . . .  Little small-town people.  This was in Hibbing. . . .  These people were my friends . . . and you know, either me or them has changed. . . .  I’m not putting them down.  It’s just my road and theirs, it’s different.  . . .  They’re not thinking about the same things I’m thinking about” (Cott 8, 9).  

“Bob Dylan’s Dream” samples “Lord Franklin,” a nineteenth-century British ballad about the disappearance of captain and crew in a failed attempt to discover the Northwest Passage, but the borrowings—“I dreamed a dream,” and “ten thousand guineas I would freely give”—have nothing to do with place, and Dylan’s song is about memory tied to place—the memory of good, simple times lost in the complexities of postmodern adult life.  Honest poverty is worth more than money—more than ten thousand dollars.6  The song is romantic in the extreme, and slightly posturing for a singer who in 1963 had neither age nor wealth.  In fact, the entire song is contrived, but the manner of its contrivance suggests that even early in his New York period Dylan was romantically nostalgic about his Minnesota roots.  In the song he is on a train “goin’ west” toward Indianapolis, Minneapolis, or Denverapolis—he is not specific—so the dream itself, though not specifically located west of Hudson, absorbs North Country mystique by association.  That mystique is enhanced by the old stove (a wood-burning stove, we hope, not the “wooden stove” Dylan mentions), the hats (we imagine not cowboy hats or seed corn caps, but woolen sock caps or hunter’s caps, with ear flaps), and a (snow?) storm raging outside.  Like so many of Dylan’s storms, this one is metaphor for everything outside of the room: age, complexity, time, disagreement.  The song draws a simple dichotomy: inside the North Country cabin are youth, humor, joy, harmony, unity, true friendship, a certain naiveté, and more than anything else, satisfaction.  Outside of the room?  Nothing but trouble.  What is most disconcerting: the unpredictability of gambles, the disappearance of friends, the passage of time, or the loss of certainty which comes with knowing that almost nothing in life is black and white?  The song is a way for Dylan to sell his roots to an audience that was as predisposed in the turbulent sixties to romanticize “The Simple Life” as were twenty-first-century viewers of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s TV show.  

“Motorpsycho Nightmare,” a talkin’ blues in the Guthrie tradition, opens with a twisted version of the ubiquitous traveling salesman joke which Leo Dangel incorporates into “Old Man Brunner and the Traveling Salesman”:

One stormy night a traveling salesman’s car breaks down right by Old Man Brunner’s driveway.  The traveling salesman knocks on his door and asks for a place to sleep.  Old Man Brunner is surprised and happy to find himself in a joke that he has told many times.  “You’re welcome to stay the night,” he says, “but we’re short on beds—you’ll have to sleep with my daughter.”

The traveling salesman hesitates.  He is actually thinking it over.  Finally he says, “Oh, I can sleep in the car.”

“Don’t you want to see what she looks like?”

“I’ll sleep in the car.”

“It’s all right,” says Old Man Brunner.  “She’s out in the barn finishing chores.”

He takes the arm of the traveling salesman and guides him to the barn.  Old Man Brunner opens the door and switches on the light.  “There she is,” he says, pointing to a heifer in a pen.

In Dylan’s song the farmer stipulates “don’t touch my daughter, / And in the morning, milk the cow,” but come midnight daughter Rita is inviting Dylan to a shower right out of Psycho.  Dylan’s farmer is less Old Man Brunner than a stereotypical gun-totin’, commie-hating, Reader’s Digest-reading, North Country conservative, but both Dangel and Dylan end with the visitors avoiding trouble by hitting the road—young Dylan pursued by Echo Helstrom’s dad.