Among the photos of a teenage Bob Dylan newly on display in his birth city, Bill Pagel’s favorite might be one he found in 1993 in the other Minnesota town that can claim the rock legend.
“It was part of a big display for the Hibbing centennial, and here was this tiny photo of Bob with a thumbtack right through his head,” said Pagel, a collector of Dylan artifacts. “That tells you something about how Hibbing still looked at Bob in 1993.”
Hibbing finally came around in a big way (for a small town) over the past two decades with Dylan Days, a festival held every year around Bob’s birthday. As the former Robert Zimmerman turns 75 on Tuesday, however, Duluth has taken charge of the North Country celebration — somewhat by default, as a sharp downturn in iron mining has hurt Hibbing’s economy.
Duluth is commemorating the birthday in a variety of ways, including an impressive exhibit of Pagel’s items, a tribute album and concert, and the unveiling of a plaque at Dylan’s childhood home. But 75 miles away in Hibbing, where he lived from ages 6 to 18, the only formal event will be a bus tour — from Duluth.
“Duluth and Hibbing were really starting to work together on this as kindred spirits,” said KUMD DJ John Bushey, co-organizer of the Duluth fest, “but then the bottom sort of fell out over there.”
The mining industry is at a 10-year low on the Iron Range, where more than 2,000 miners have been laid off since 2014. The hub of Hibbing’s Dylan activities, Zimmy’s Bar & Grill — dubbed “the Vatican of the church of Dylanology” because of its memorabilia — shut down two winters ago as the slump deepened and its owners fell behind on taxes.
“Zimmy’s was the place where people could just hang out and swap stories about Dylan or talk about his music, and there’s just nowhere to do that now,” said Joe Keyes, a principal organizer of Hibbing’s Dylan Days.
Keyes stopped short of painting his city as Desolation Row. “This town is holding strong and still a great place to come visit,” he said, pointing to a Dylan exhibit still up at the Hibbing Public Library.
But he admitted Duluth is the clearer destination of choice for Dylan fans this year. “We’re just happy to see northern Minnesota recognized as the home of Bob Dylan, whichever city is the focus,” Keyes said.
Foremost among the Duluth Dylan Fest events is “Bob Dylan: An Exhibition,” on display through the end of May at Karpeles Manuscript Library.
The museum — in an ornate church near St. Luke’s Hospital — is something of a hidden gem, and it was key in getting Pagel to finally show off some of his treasure trove.
“Most of this stuff is too valuable to hang up on the wall of a sports bar,” Pagel said, standing amid rows of display cases featuring everything from Dylan’s first New York Times profile to handwritten song lyrics to the aforementioned rare photos.
Pagel himself is emblematic of the pull between Dylan’s two hometowns.
A pharmacist by trade who also operates the well-known fan site BobLinks.com, he owns homes in both cities — including the house in Duluth where Dylan lived until age 6. Pagel bought it in 2001 for $82,000 via an eBay sale that made national news. He has been using old photos to restore the house to what it was like in the early 1940s (then a duplex).
On Tuesday, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Dylan fans from as far away as Europe are expected for the unveiling of a plaque at the two-story house, at 519 N. 3rd Av. Pagel is trying to get the home on the National Register of Historic Places. “It should get the same kind of treatment as John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes in Liverpool,” said Pagel, who hopes to make it into a museum.
Although Pagel and Bushey heard reports of Bob sightings in Hibbing this winter, Dylan has predictably never acknowledged the commemorations in his two hometowns.
In March, he confirmed he would sell his own giant stash of recordings and collectibles — some 6,000 items — to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation.
Still, Duluthians aren’t wavering in their commitment to honor their native son. They’re dropping “Bringing it All Back to Duluth Does Dylan,” the fourth in a series of tribute albums with musicians such as Charlie Parr, Mary Bue and Trampled by Turtles’ Dave Simonett.
There’s a release party for the record on Tuesday, then a tribute concert Saturday, May 28, at the Sacred Heart Music Center. There’s also an amateur film contest, songwriting and trivia competitions, lectures and a “Blood on the Tracks” train trek.
“Times really have changed, and most people around here are very proud to be a part of Bob’s legacy,” said Bushey, who hosts a weekly Dylan show on KUMD (5 p.m. Mondays). “Hopefully, both Duluth and Hibbing can share in that history in the future.”