Bob Dylan, Minnesotan

Eighty years ago today, Robert Allen Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota. As Bob Dylan, he would go on to become, probably, the most culturally influential Minnesotan in history.

Dylan’s first musical reference to Minnesota comes, I think, with ‘Girl from the North Country‘, a song reputedly about his high school girlfriend, on his second LP, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. His next reference came on his third LP, 1964’s The Times They Are a-Changin’: it was just as evocative, but much less comfortable.

“This is a song about, uh, iron ore mines and, uh, iron ore towns” Dylan said as he introduced ‘North Country Blues‘ at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Dylan grew up in Hibbing on the Mesabi Range and sang:

Come gather ’round friends
And I’ll tell you a tale
Of when the red iron pits ran plenty
But the cardboard filled windows
And old men on the benches
Tell you now that the whole town is empty

The song charts the decline of the unnamed town and its iron mining industry. Among the reasons Dylan gives for this decline:

They complained in the East
They are paying too high
They say that your ore ain’t worth digging
That it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing

There have been a number of Dylans over the decades: the protest singer, the electric poet, and Born Again Christian, to name just a few. They haven’t always been consistent with each other. Consider the muscular pacifism of ‘Masters of War‘ from 1963:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Now compare that with the muscular Zionism of 1983’s ‘Neighborhood Bully‘:

Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he should apologize.
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad
He’s the neighborhood bully

Well, he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep
He’s the neighborhood bully

It is always interesting, then, when you find a thread that does run consistently through Dylan’s music. In the 1980s, the United States was wracked by fears of foreign imports flooding the country. Dylan shared these concerns: 1983’s Infidels included ‘Union Sundown‘ where he returned to the themes of ‘North Country Blues’, singing:

Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore
My flashlight’s from Taiwan
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia
My belt buckle’s from the Amazon
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day

Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
’Til greed got in the way

And on Modern Times from 2006, ‘Workingman’s Blues #2‘ begins:

There’s an evening’s haze settling over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s getting shallow and weak
The place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

Indeed, this concern with the hollowing out of American industry in the face of low wage foreign competition is among the most consistent of Dylan’s political themes. It is a concern that seems to have originated on Minnesota’s iron range.

Such a view on trade is likely to earn snorts of derision from the Cato Institutes and Tom Friedmans of the world (though American Compass might like it). I believe that trade makes us better off, after all, we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t. But I do think that we free traders have often been too dismissive of the costs to some of such economic globalization. This isn’t to say that we should block or reverse it, but we must do better in terms of policies to deal with these concentrated costs.

Bob Dylan has traveled a long way from Minnesota but he has never really left it. The iron range where he grew up, and the lives of the people he grew up among, continue to be one of the most consistent influences on him as a musician. So, happy 80th to one of Minnesota’s most famous sons.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.