Bob Dylan's church(es): Travels in the North Country fair

Twilight stretches out over an eternity during the summer solstice in the North Country of Minnesota, where I found myself this past week on a pilgrimage of sorts to Bob Dylan country. Work had brought me to Minneapolis, his brief collegiate home, and so I extended my visit for two days to fulfill a desire two decades old and drive to his hometown of Duluth, and of course to his home during the formative years from the age of six to eighteen, Hibbing, Minn. The long summer days and evenings gave me ample time for this adventure, one I will admit sounds a bit quixotic in the aftertelling. But I am a firm believer in the power of place, both as a matter of artistic influence and as a valuable source of interpretative information. I would hazard that going on the road to Lowell, Mass. three years ago taught me more about Jack Kerouac than any book; driving through The Burren in Ireland on the way to Sligo gave me more than a few clues to Yeats’ melancholy soul; and countless trips down the Jersey shore shed more light on the sources of Bruce Springsteen’s particular genius than anything we ever learned in school. Besides, my Dylan pilgrimage gave me a great story to tell a cop if I got pulled over (I did; it worked; or maybe that was just “Minnesota Nice” in action).

I am not the first to attempt this kind of pilgrimage (followers of Bob, like enthusiasts of Lonergan, brook no obstacle in their maniacal pursuit of connection with The Golden One), so I had some helpful clues from previous visitors to lead me to every shrine on the way. And shrine is a word that is important in this context, because I became more and more intrigued with the influence of religious places (or at least a religious aesthetic) on Dylan as a young man with each new glimpse of his past.  

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Though usually associated with Hibbing, Dylan was born in Duluth, where he lived until he was six, and his parents are buried in a Jewish cemetery there. His childhood home (the second floor of a simple duplex on Third Avenue in Duluth, overlooking the westernmost tip of Lake Superior) was just two blocks from the nearest synagogue, but also five doors up the hill from St. Josephat's Polish National Catholic Church, with St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church another block or so away (Dylan was born in St. Mary’s Hospital nearby). In fact, one cannot look down on Lake Superior from Dylan’s childhood home without seeing the spires of St. Josephat front and center in one’s field of vision. Religious tribalism (and anti-Semitism) being what it was and is, Dylan likely never thought to set foot in either church—but he would have passed St. Josephat at least twice every day, and his lyrics from “Beyond the Horizon” from "Modern Times" suggest St. Mary left him with one powerful auditory memory:  “Beyond the horizon, the night winds blow/The theme of a melody from many moons ago/ The bells of St. Mary, how sweetly they chime.”  

When the Zimmermans moved to Hibbing in 1947, they were joining a community rather more prosperous than what one might find today; during World War II, fully a fourth of the iron used in U.S. armaments was mined and processed in Hibbing, making it an important (and prosperous) cog in the Allied victory. For many decades, the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine was the largest open-air iron mine in the world, and it still operates today, a red hole in the landscape so vast that the enormous trucks traversing its depths look like toys from the mine’s rim. 

The Zimmermans found a house just three blocks down from Hibbing High School, where Dylan would first try out his musical chops.  Hibbing High is an impressive and stately structure, built in the days when Hibbing was flush with tax revenue, but you can’t quite see it from Dylan’s front door. What you can see is the truly enormous Catholic church that occupies much of the space between, Blessed Sacrament, and its neighboring school, Assumption School. Again, one cannot look left from Dylan’s house without the campanile of Blessed Sacrament dominating the skyline; and again, Dylan would have passed in front of the church and school at least twice a day. In fact, his brother’s mother-in-law’s funeral was held in that church many years later. 

The evening I visited, the pastor was presiding over Eucharistic Adoration inside; I stopped to join in the rosary, the pastor’s Kenyan-accented English joining with the voices of the five women present, all of whom prayed in that queer Catholic cadence that comes from rote recitation: “HAIL maryfullofgrace, the LORD is withthee /BLESSedartthouamongwomen, and BLESSedisthefruit of thywombJesus…”  When Dylan lived down the street, the now-diminished parish was running at full throttle, with the pews packed and the school over-enrolled by hundreds. What did he think of the crowds coming and going from the school every day, or the men on the steps every Sunday morning, or the rituals and processions and religious iconography out front?  

(In the process of fact-checking my information on the church and the pastor, I discovered that he has a new assistant, because the former assistant was on trial that very day half a mile away in the St. Louis County Courthouse for four counts of sexual abuse of minors. That took some of the transcendent glow off of my experience of Adoration. It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.)

For Dylan’s bar mitzvah, his and the other Jewish families in town brought in a rabbi from New York; even then, Hibbing’s Jewish community was a small one. The family worshipped in a small synagogue on Second Avenue, within walking distance of Dylan’s house, and the building (now apartments) still stands today; if you look closely enough, you can see the wood covering a Star of David window up top, and the faint outline of a menorah on the wall above the window. 

For the party afterward, the Zimmermans invited almost 400 people to the Androy Hotel, a Hibbing landmark (and down the street from “Zimmys,” the now-shuttered Dylan-themed bar and restaurant). I walked down the street from the Androy to where Abraham Zimmerman’s appliance store had been on 5th avenue. Dylan worked there off and on as a teenager. If you look to your right when you exit the store, you’re looking straight at the Androy…but if you look directly ahead, you’re looking across the street at a Catholic Church.  Immaculate Conception. It’s now pastored by the same priest who runs Blessed Sacrament, but it would have had its own staff and congregation in Dylan’s day. He would have spent every working afternoon he was working in the store watching the comings and goings of the parish out the window.  

Hibbing is of course full of churches—Episcopalian, Lutheran, and nowadays evangelical of many stripes—so perhaps it is not so surprising that one should bump into a Catholic one now and again. But still…doesn’t one wonder to what degree these sacred places influenced the aesthetics and the worldview of this balladeer of the sacred and the profane in everyday life? Most of us associate Dylan’s Christian aesthetic with his controversial conversion to Christianity in the early 1980s, but his childhood feet were never far from the doors, nor his ears from the bells, of St. Mary, of St. Josephat, of Blessed Sacrament, of Immaculate Conception.

One final bit of info, from Bob himself, in Chronicles Vol. 1:

Across the street from where I stood looking out the window was a church with a bell tower.  The ringing of the bells made me feel at home, too.  I’d always heard and listened to the bells.  Iron, Brass, silver bells—the bells sang.  On Sundays, for services, on holidays.  They clanged when somebody important died, when people were getting married.  Any special occasion would make the bells ring.  You had a pleasant feeling when you heard the bells.

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