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Duluth, Hibbing throwing weekend parties for birthday boy Bob Dylan

Starting Friday, the cities honor their Boy From the North Country.

The Northland is kicking off a weeklong celebration of Dylan’s 71st birthday on May 24.

In accepting the 1998 Record of the Year Grammy award for his coming-of-middle-age masterpiece “Time Out Of Mind,” Bob Dylan said:

I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him… and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.

What Dylan didn’t say is that the night after he played at the Duluth Armory (Jan. 31, 1959), Holly and the rest of the Winter Dance Party played the Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay, Wis., and then it was on to the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa (Feb. 2, 1959) and Holly’s tragic plane crash and death in an Iowa cornfield a few hours later.

Rock history has made too little of the communion that was made that night in Duluth, or the torch that was passed in from Holly to Dylan, a fact that will undoubtedly be in the air Friday night in Duluth, when a gang of Dylan admirers and collaborators perform at the Armory.

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“It’s all to celebrate the incredible songwriter Bob is. He’s the best there is. Nobody else even comes close,” says Minneapolitan Gene LaFond, who was part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue along with violinist Scarlet Rivera, whose gypsy improvisations tongued at the flames of Dylan’s 1975 album “Desire.”

Both musicians will appear at tonight’s “Desire In Duluth” benefit concert for the Armory, which starts at 7:30 with smart rockers Communist Daughter.

“It’s a protected building by the National Register of Historic Places, and now we want to get it up and running as a community event space and music venue,�� said “Desire In Duluth” promoter Nelson French, whose brother Greg owns Dylan’s boyhood home in Hibbing.

“It’s a beautiful space, right on [Lake Superior], and it has a rich history with military veterans and their service, as well as a Who’s Who of musicians who have played there. It should be used by future generations, and its historical significance needs to be fully understood, because it’s an extremely important place in music history.”

Tonight’s concert is the kick-off event for the Northland’s weeklong celebration of Dylan’s 71st birthday on May 24. The two-year-old Duluth Dylan Fest has joined forces with Hibbing’s Dylan Days and hopes to expand to Dinkytown in years to come (more Bob ’12: Dylanfest takes place May 24 in Northfield  at the Contented Cow).

“One of the funnest events we had is the Blood on the Tracks Express, where we rented the North Shore Scenic Railroad that goes up to Two Harbors and back,” said John Bushney, whose specialty radio show “Highway 61 Revisited: The Music of Bob Dylan” has been playing for 20 years on KUMD-FM in Duluth.

“This year we have electric bands in the back of the train and all acoustic acts in the front. This year the train ride happens Thursday on his birthday, in Duluth. Then Friday, people head up to Hibbing for the song contests, but now there’s multiple choices: They can either go to Hibbing Friday, or stay in Duluth and hear Erik Koskinen and Saturday night we have Paul Metsa, who’s from Virginia, Minnesota, coming up.

“It’s growing, it’s been really fun. We’re starting to see some of the same people, from all over the country and all the way from France, England and Australia.”

Dylan moved with the rest of his family from Duluth to Hibbing when he was 6. Here he is, talking about his home state and quoted at the outset of Metro magazine’s recent issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of his first album:

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“The earth [in Hibbing] is unusual, filled with ore. There is a magnetic attraction … maybe thousands and thousands of years ago some planet bumped into the land there. There is a great spiritual quality. That is where I grew up.”

Asked to comment on the mystical connection between Dylan’s music and the Northland’s woods, water, lakeshore and myriad nature getaways, Bushney said he didn’t know if anyone could answer that question, not even Dylan. Then again…

“In Duluth and Hibbing and these other smaller cities in Minnesota, we have these harsh winters,” he mused. “A snowstorm comes and you’re helping your neighbor, you don’t even think about it, and there’s still a lot of friendliness and people helping people and he came from that.

“He went off in a different direction, he had to go do what he was going to do because he couldn’t do it here, but his roots are definitely set here, and throughout his career he’s dedicated songs to the area. He definitely remembers where he’s from.”

Any chance the former Bobby Zimmerman will make it to his own birthday party this week?

“I believe he is aware of the celebrations, though I can’t say for sure,” said Bushney. “We’ve heard from pretty direct sources that Dylan has actually considered showing up for it, and that he’s been at his farm in Hanover at the same time the festival has been going on.

“I know he’s in L.A. now, but we’re kind of hoping he flies up. I doubt that he would ever want to come or have anything to do with it because he’s always shunned publicity of any kind.”