The impact of Bob Dylan’s formative years in Minnesota is something he’s often spoken about — including in his Nobel lecture — but much less often sung about. Even if you stretch (and as you’ll see, I most definitely stretched), a playlist of Dylan’s officially released songs referencing or recorded in Minnesota doesn’t fill 90 minutes. Nonetheless, these are 18 songs worth revisiting as we mark 80 years since the day Dylan was born in Duluth.
“When I Got Troubles” (recorded 1959, released on No Direction Home soundtrack in 2005)
“When I Got Troubles” is Dylan’s earliest recording to have been commercially released; recorded in 1959 at the Hibbing house of his childhood friend Ric Kangas, it was a revelation for viewers of Martin Scorsese’s documentary.
“Girl from the North Country” (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
Dylan’s first and greatest song about Minnesota, “Girl from the North Country” finds Dylan reminiscing about the land where “the snowflakes storm/ when the rivers freeze and summer ends.” The song was very likely inspired by Dylan’s high school sweetheart Echo Helstrom, another Hibbing kid born in Duluth. Helstrom herself believed the song was about her; while Dylan himself has never publicly confirmed that, he shared warm memories of Helstrom in his 2004 memoir.
“Walls of Red Wing” (recorded 1963, released on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 in 1991)
This song, recorded for Freewheelin’ but ultimately shelved, paints a Dickensian picture of a juvenile detention center in Red Wing. Given the first-person lyrics and Dylan’s cagey obfuscation of the details of his upbringing, some early listeners came to the conclusion that Dylan must have done time there. In fact there’s no evidence of such a stay; at some point the imposing institution must have simply made an impression on young Bobby Zimmerman. Given his rebellious adolescence, it’s not implausible that at some point he was at least threatened with a trip to Red Wing, perhaps by an exasperated teacher.
“North Country Blues” (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964)
On his most pointed protest album, Dylan made space for a harrowing chronicle of a family pushed to despair when an iron ore mine closes. The song’s title and a reference to the “red iron pits” leave no doubt Dylan was singing about the Mesabi Iron Range where he grew up, and where he’d witnessed the painful postwar contraction as demand dried up and the most accessible ore was depleted.
“Highway 61 Revisited” (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Dylan’s second-best-known song alluding to Minnesota, “Highway 61” isn’t nearly as direct as “Girl from the North Country.” The choice of highway wasn’t at all coincidental, though: Dylan deliberately referenced the road that wound its way down from northern Minnesota into the Mississippi Delta, cradle of the blues. The highway “begins about where I began, wrote Dylan in his memoir. “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere.”
“Positively 4th Street” (single, 1965)
Here’s where we start to stretch. Amateur Dylanologists (already numerous by 1965, some of whom went on to become professional Dylanologists) immediately tried to locate this tirade’s eponymous roadway. To the extent Dylan intended to reference an actual 4th Street, it was most likely the one in Manhattan that ran through Greenwich Village; many listeners hear the song as a kiss-off to folk purists who critiqued Dylan’s decision to go electric. Nonetheless, there’s also a 4th Street running through Dinkytown in Minneapolis, where Dylan first cut his folkie teeth. It’s entirely possible that he was thinking of both.
“All Along the Watchtower” (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
Minnesotans positively cherish the notion that Dylan’s famous watchtower was inspired by the Prospect Park Water Tower. While Dylan would certainly have been familiar with that Minneapolis landmark, located not far from the University of Minnesota campus, there’s no evidence that Dylan was thinking of any real-world tower at all when he wrote the song, which more explicitly alludes to a watchtower referenced in the Book of Isaiah. So really, Jerusalem has a better claim to this song than Minneapolis does, but that won’t stop us from continuing to grasp at this straw.
Half of Blood on the Tracks, 1975
Dylan’s most extensive Minnesota recordings in his professional career also happened to form half of his most beloved album. The first sessions for this album were in New York City, but Dylan subsequently came to Minneapolis where his brother David assembled a band for Dylan to re-record several songs at Sound 80. The 2018 release of a Bootleg Series box dedicated to Blood on the Tracks allowed fans for the first time (legally, at least) to judge for themselves whether the Minnesota sessions, long criticized by some fans who preferred the songs’ starker original versions, were a good idea. Unfortunately, the source tracks for the Minneapolis sessions were lost, so all the set’s outtakes were from the New York session.
Although “Meet Me in the Morning” is one of the New York recordings on the album, I’ve included it in this playlist because of its lyrical reference to the corner of “56th and Wabasha.” There’s no such intersection in St. Paul, but it’s quite likely that Dylan did have the Capital City’s Wabasha Avenue in mind when he wrote the song.
“Miss the Mississippi” (recorded 1992, released on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 in 2008)
This isn’t a Dylan original; it’s an outtake from the acoustic cover sessions that produced Good As I Been to You. Written by Bill Halley (not to be confused with the Comets leader Bill Haley), it’s been widely performed by artists including Jimmie Rodgers and Crystal Gayle. Although the Mississippi River originates in Minnesota, this song is generally understood to be about a poor soul who travels north — not south — for employment among “the big city lights,” while yearning for a home and a sweetheart “on that old river shore.”
“Red River Shore” (recorded 1997, released on Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 in 2008)
This Time Out of Mind outtake was one of the best-received tracks to emerge from Dylan’s Bootleg Series release spanning that era. It makes an apt companion piece to “Miss the Mississippi,” as it’s a darker and more complex treatment of the same theme: thinking back to a lost love left on a river shore. But which river shore? The safe money is on the Red River of the South, which runs along the Texas-Oklahoma border: that’s the river that gave John Wayne’s 1948 movie its title. But then, the Red River of the North is also a major river, and one that’s far closer to Dylan’s original home turf as it runs between Minnesota and North Dakota into Canada. Could Dylan have been thinking of both? Let’s say…yes!
“Summer Days” (Love and Theft, 2001)
This Minnesota reference isn’t precisely a Minnesota reference, but the connection is so satisfying that it has to be mentioned. The lyrics of this song include the lines, “She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past,’ I say, ‘You can’t? What do you mean you can’t, of course you can!'”
That’s an allusion to one of the most famous lines in Minnesota-raised F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. “Can’t repeat the past?” asks a hopeful Jay Gatsby. “Why, of course you can!”
“When the Deal Goes Down” (Modern Times, 2006)
At this point, our playlist takes us out of the lyrics and into associated media…but who’s going to stop us? In the evocative music video for this song, directed by Bennet Miller, Scarlett Johansson plays the seeming object of the singer’s affections. The mid-century setting suggests the world of Dylan’s youth, as does the license plate glimpsed on a car: 10,000 LAKES / MINNESOTA.
“Must Be Santa” (Christmas in the Heart, 2009)
I’ve saved the best stretch for last. In this music video, Dylan (joined, eventually, by Claus himself) presides over a riotous holiday house party. His longtime friend Louie Kemp speculates Dylan may have drawn inspiration from an occasion in his Dinkytown days when he played Santa in a skit performed at a boozy Jewish frat shindig. Could this be how that deal went down?