Hibbing native Echo Helstrom Casey, Bob Dylan's first serious girlfriend and widely viewed as the inspiration for his 1963 song "Girl From the North Country," died this month in California. She was 75.

Born in Duluth in 1942, Casey grew up in a small house in the woods 3 miles southwest of Hibbing, the youngest of three children of Martha and Matt Helstrom, a mechanic and welder. She met and started dating Dylan, then Robert Zimmerman, in 1957. The pair attended the Hibbing High School junior prom before breaking up in 1958.

In her yearbook, Dylan wrote: "Let me tell you that your beauty is second to none. Love to the most beautiful girl in school." In Dylan's 2004 memoir, "Chronicles Vol. 1," he refers to Echo as his "Becky Thatcher" — the small-town sweetheart in Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" — and writes that "Everybody said she looked like Brigitte Bardot, and she did."

Apart from her movie star looks, what drew Dylan to her was their shared love of music. The two teens spent their nights listening to the rhythm-and-blues coming through the radio from high-watt stations in Chicago, Little Rock and Shreveport, La. At the Helstrom house, Dylan immersed himself in the family's collection of country records by artists such as Jimmie Rodgers.

At one of his first public performances in the Hibbing High School auditorium, Dylan plunked away on the piano and sang, "I got a girl and her name is Echo."

Her relationship with and influence on Dylan weren't reported until a writer just out of college, Toby Thompson, traveled to Hibbing in 1968 to explore Dylan's roots. His interviews with Echo became the centerpiece of the 1971 book "Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota."

"She was an important figure in his life, there's no question about that," said Thompson, now a professor at Penn State. "I don't know what he would have done if he didn't find someone like himself. She had that spirit, that electricity that was comparable to his.

"She was wild in a way that he wanted to be wild. She would go off with her girlfriends in the summer and hitchhike all over the place, have adventures. She was kind of an outsider and from the wrong side of the tracks, and [Dylan] was certainly attracted to that. … In Hibbing, she was as bohemian as anybody in Greenwich Village."

She eventually found her way to Minneapolis, where she worked as a booker at National General Pictures. She married briefly and gave birth to her only daughter, Danae, before moving to Los Angeles in the early '70s.

Eventually a parade of Dylan books pulled her name into the spotlight and fueled speculation among fans about the identity of the "Girl From the North Country" he sang about in his breakthrough album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan."

"She had to have an unlisted number because people were just hysterical about seeking her out," Thompson said. "It became kind of a burden for her. Now there's even a rock group called Echo Helstrom."

In Los Angeles, she remarried and continued working as a secretary on movie sets. She enjoyed spending time with her daughter, her grandson and her neighbors in the artist building where she lived.

"She used to have lunch on the porch of 'The Waltons' set," recalled her friend Linda Stroback-Hocking. "She loved art and she loved culture. She was not an artist, but she loved being around people who were creative."

Stroback-Hocking and her husband, Bob Hocking, owned and operated the Dylan-themed restaurant Zimmy's in Hibbing until it closed in 2014. When they bought a new marquee for the front of the building 12 years ago, they put Echo's picture on it along with Dylan's.

"She loved it," Thompson said. "For her it was like sticking it in the eye of all the people in Hibbing who criticized them and were mean to them when they were kids."

Despite her youth spent as an outsider, Echo retained a fondness for the North Country. She once told Stroback-Hocking: "You know how people make pilgrimages looking for something spiritual? When I come here to Hibbing, it's like a religious experience for me. It hits me in my spirit and my soul."

While there's always been speculation about the subject of "Girl From the North Country" — some say it's his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, or Bonnie Beecher, whom he dated during his short-lived college days in Minneapolis — Thompson said Echo believed the song was about her.

"What she said was: 'Who else could it be?' Dylan may have put some feelings he was having for Suze into the song, but really there's nobody else it could be. 'Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline' — for a Minnesotan like Dylan it would have to be someone that lived up in the North Country."

Well, if you're travelin' in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm

When the rivers freeze and summer ends

Please see if she's wearing a coat so warm

To keep her from the howlin' winds

Please see for me if her hair hangs long

If it rolls and flows all down her breast

Please see for me if her hair hangs long

That's the way I remember her best

I'm a-wonderin' if she remembers me at all

Many times I've often prayed

In the darkness of my night

In the brightness of my day

So if you're travelin' in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine

(Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music)

Matt Steichen is a Twin Cities writer and photographer.