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Boys from the North Country: Exploring Bob Dylan’s time in Minnesota

Two new books explore Bob Dylan’s roots in Hibbing and Duluth, with fellow Iron Range songwriter Paul Metsa at the heart of both.

Paul Metsa on the steps of Bob Dylan’s boyhood home in Duluth, where the songwriter/author/radio host served as tenant and tour guide in 2021.
Paul Metsa on the steps of Bob Dylan’s boyhood home in Duluth, where the songwriter/author/radio host served as tenant and tour guide in 2021.
Photo by Donald Jay Olson

Five years after he heard Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” on WEBC-AM out of Duluth, 14-year-old Paul Metsa hitchhiked the 20 miles from his hometown in Virginia, Minnesota to Hibbing, where Dylan’s family once lived at 2425 Seventh Ave. E. 

“I stood in front of that house and told myself, ‘The young man who lived here went out into the world and now is in New York and Boston, changing American culture. You can get there from here,’” said Metsa, 67, by phone from his home in Duluth last week. “And that started a lifelong fascination with the man.”

Two years ago, and many years after that first pilgrimage, Metsa found himself living in the Duluth house (519 N. Third Avenue E.) where Dylan’s family lived until 1948, when they and six-year-old Bob moved to Hibbing. During that one-year residency, Metsa functioned as the landmark’s tenant and tour guide, and finished writing three books: His “Alphabet Jazz” collection; “Bob Dylan in Minnesota: Troubadour tales from Duluth, Hibbing and Dinkytown” (with co-authors KG Miles, Marc Percansky and Matt Steichen); and “Blood in the Tracks” (with co-author Rick Shefchik).  

“I got into Bob Dylan the way some guys get into baseball,” cracked Metsa by phone from his new home in Duluth. “It’s just a real passionate hobby of mine.” 

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He’s not alone. To be sure, a couple months out from the Minneapolis debut of the Dylan-inspired musical “Girl From The North Country, the fascination with Dylan and his Minnesota roots remains strong. 

“I lived in the Bob house for a year, and got my fix out of it, then moved to my new house here,” said Metsa, who notes that his 1978 move from the Iron Range to Minneapolis’s vaunted West Bank blues and folk scene mirrors Dylan’s trek to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961. “At Bob’s house, part of my renter’s duties—and I was happy to do it—was to handle the guests. It was especially busy during the summer, with parties from five different countries and from every city in America you can name. There were people, literally from teenagers at Wisconsin youth camps to retired couples in their RVs, coming through and taking pictures. I would have them sign and date the guest book, and they were all really nice and respectful. Which pretty much kind of defines a Dylan fan.”

The story is oft-told, but Dylan fans will gobble up these two newest tomes, both of which provide great insight to Dylan’s origin story and Bob-affiliated tourist destinations. 

“The basic facets of Dylan’s character were really forged on the Iron Range,” said Metsa. “I think most importantly, his work ethic. I mean, even miners retire in their 60s, but the guy just got finished with a European tour, for God’s sakes. I think he’s got a real inner strength that a lot of Minnesotans do, especially Northern Minnesotans. Dealing with just the weather, just getting through those harsh and cold and brutal winters, I think that has a lot to do with it. 

“Also, the Iron Range is really in touch with its own roots. Basically, all our grandparents or great grandparents, including Bob’s, came from Europe or Russia or in my case, Finland, and the Iron Range has always had a respect for those traditions, still to this day. My dad was full-fledged Finn, and I grew up around all Finlanders, and around the [old world] customs, be it the food or the gatherings or the proliferation of accordions. I think, myself, and Dylan, we have a great respect for our traditions and our personal histories.”

As Dylan himself once said, “My country is the Minnesota-North Dakota territory. That’s where I was born and learned how to walk and it’s where I was raised and went to school. My youth was spent wildly among the snowy hills and sky blue lakes, willow fields and abandoned open pit mines. Contrary to rumors, I am very proud of where I’m from and also of the many bloodstreams that run in my roots.”

Metsa takes that a step further in the “Bob Dylan—Highway 53 Revisited” chapter of “Alphabet Jazz”: “You can walk into an Iron Range bar on the weekend and find any of the five character types imbued in Bob Dylan’s persona: the greaser dressed in black leather jacket, white T-shirt with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in his shirtsleeve, dark sunglasses, leather belt buckled on the side, and engineer boots; the hard-working miner fresh off his second shift, enjoying a cold one before going home to the wife and kids; the asshole protesting that his drink is not strong enough and costs too much; the trickster doing card tricks at the bar and gambling with loaded dice; or perhaps the weirdo in the back booth drinking cheap brandy straight up and reading James Joyce.” 

Metsa’s Dylan bonafides include friendships with Dylan cohorts Bucky Baxter, Larry Kegan and Nora Guthrie, and he’s acted as ringleader for Dylan and “Blood On The Tracks” tribute shows. As a radio host and journalist, Metsa has interviewed several Dylan associates, including legendary Hibbing High School English teacher Boniface “B.J.” Rolfzen, whom Dylan has cited as his biggest influence.

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“He was a brilliant teacher, philosopher, extremely well read, and I actually spent a handful of afternoons with him,” said Metsa. “He had a tremendous love for language, and the power of poetry. Although he was a teacher, he presented some of those texts almost as an actor. Bob, who B.J. always referred to as ‘Robert,’ always sat in the front. He had him for both English and humanities, and all that literature…I just think Bob fell under the Rolfzen spell right off the bat, which continues to this day.

“When I got the call to do my two pieces in ‘Bob Dylan in Minnesota,’ that’s the one gentleman I really wanted to bring more attention to because I think you can draw a straight line between B.J. Rolfzen and his class at Hibbing High School and Bob’s Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. It goes right back to B.J. Rolfzen.”

The rich detail and context of the New York and Minneapolis recording sessions for Dylan’s 1975 classic “Blood On The Tracks” give proper due to the Minneapolis-based players who made much of the uncredited music in “Blood in the Tracks,” out in September via the University of Minnesota Press.

“[Co-author] Rick [Shefchik] is a Duluth East 1970 grad and I was a Roosevelt High grad from Virginia in 1974, and both of us are real be-true-to-your-school guys,” said Metsa. “And that’s why we’re right up front in the beginning of the book. We both love the New York sessions, just not as much as the Minneapolis sessions.

“’Blood On The Tracks’ helped Dylan get back on the radio. Other than being a really fantastic record, it was really one of the keys to him getting back in sync. Before that, he was… I mean, I love him. I’m not the guy to criticize him, I’ve never criticized Bob Dylan. There are enough people who do that. I’m not going to do that; I’m going to stand up for my fellow Iron Ranger, you know?”

The Shefchik-Metsa book also serves as a vivid oral history of a slice of Minnesota life that captures jobbing musicians of the ‘70s and 80s, driving from suburb to suburb, town to town, and the early tremors of regional rock scenes.

“I have a big place in my heart for lifer musicians, because I know personally how tough the goddamn life is,” said Metsa. “Our book really gives a glimpse into what these guys went through, and it’s very truthful about what they did afterwards—especially in the case of [musicians Greg] Inhofer and [Kevin] Odegard, who had some really tough times after playing on one of the greatest albums of all time. It’s a very unvarnished look at the life of a musician. And for me, that was a real charge being able to share those stories.”

Dylan fans have long wondered how long the 82-year-old troubadour can keep performing. Last week the New York Post reported that Dylan’s recently concluded tour will be his last. Metsa’s take?

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I think Dylan is like Dolly Parton, who recently said she wants to die on stage. I don’t necessarily know if I want to be there for that gig. But on the other hand, I’d hate to miss the ascension.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Nora Guthrie.