Monday, May 26, 2008

Take What You Have Gathered from Coincidence

In most lists of the world's greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, John Lennon and Paul McCartney crack the top 10, if not the top five or the top two. Despite the fact that their best known compositions are credited jointly, they are usually listed separately on such lists, as they for the most part wrote separately. However, it would seem to be way too much of a coincidence that two of the world's greatest songwriters just happened to grow up about seven miles from each other, meet as teen-agers, and form a band. Add in the fact that on the Abbey Road album these two songwriting geniuses were upstaged by their little buddy George, who happened to write the two best tracks on that record, and you have to think that however much you'd consider Lennon and McCartney to be "gifted" or "natural geniuses," environment had to play a major factor in their success.

I've thought about the Lennon/McCartney "coincidence" for years, but this weekend I was confronted with a "coincidence" along the same lines. I consider Bob Dylan to be the greatest songwriter of the 20th Century, and probably the greatest artist of his generation, period. Since I didn't have any pressing commitments this weekend, and since his hometown is about seven hours away from me, and since his hometown commemmorates his birthday weekend every year with a "Dylan Days" celebration, I decided to take a trip to the "North Country" of Hibbing, Minnesota.

I signed up for a bus tour of Hibbing that would spotlight the places that were a formative influence on young Bob Zimmerman. We drove by the hotel where he was Bar Mitzvahed, the building where his dad and uncle sold applicances, and the railroad tracks where the impatient teen-ager almost "bit the dust" racing a train with his Harley. We stopped into his boyhood home, which the current owner was nice enough to open up for strangers to walk through. We went to a theater building where Bob's band The Golden Chords took third place in a contest. The Golden Chords drummer was actually on the bus trip as well and told us stories about Bob and his family.

We stopped at the home of Bob's high school girlfriend Echo Helstrom, who most Dylan scholars consider the likely influence for "Girl of the North Country." Echo left town long ago, but her sister still lives there, and chatted with folks as they came off the bus. Echo came from the "other side of the tracks," and even now the home is on the outskirts of town, consisting of a large wooded area, complete with falling down buildings and rusting cars. The area directly around the home has become commercialized, with a Wal-Mart across the street. We were told that Target wants to buy up their property, but the Helstrom family is holding out.

But the central locations on our tour were "North Hibbing" and Hibbing High School. "North Hibbing" is the location where the town used to be, before iron was discovered. When the mining of iron ore began to take off, the entire town literally moved 14 miles to the south, ceding the territory to miners. And the miners took full advantage, making the world's largest man-made hole in the ground. As we gazed into the pit, our tour guide told us that this gaping hole helped enable us to win two world wars.

I wonder if it also indirectly enabled the formation of one of the world's greatest artists. What it directly enabled was the construction of one of the world's greatest public high schools. The mayor of Hibbing at the time of the mine's genesis came up with a plan to allow the city to maximize their tax revenue. Rather than tax what came out of the ground, the city assessed the property on the basis of the massive amounds of iron in the ground. Consequently, Hibbing became one of the richest cities in the country, with a tax base bigger than the entire state of New Mexico. And all that money was poured into public buildings, including the high school.

One of our guides was a retired Hibbing High teacher, who told us that the insurers couldn't even put a value on the school today. It cost $4 million in the early 1920s, which is $46 million in today's dollars. But that doesn't account for the current value of the original artwork that adorns the building --all over the school are paintings, murals, and frescoes, many of them commisioned from prominent European artists. There are marble columns. The auditoriums' crystal chandaliers alone are worth millions in today's dollars (to say nothing of the pipe organ or velvet seats). Our guide, who also graduated from Hibbing High, told us that we can make our own conclusions about the influence this school might have had on Bob Dylan, or on other notable people who came from a town that now has a population of around 17,000.

But to me it seems to be too much of a coincidence that America's greatest songwriter just happened to come from America's greatest school.


Blogger anthony said...

I like what you've written here. The tie-in with the wealth of the town and the marvelous High School is something I didn't know as explicitly as you've pointed out. It seems like something you might do more research on, and perhaps you'd have a book -- a big theme: what public money in the "drinking water" wrought in one small town, Hibbing, Minnesota ...

I did a little Googling, and it seems that some of the famous "names" on the list didn't actually go to high school in Hibbing. Gary Puckett (amazingly just one year behind Bob) grew up and went to H.S. in Twin Falls Idaho, and Roger Maris was born in Hibbing but grew up and graduated from high school in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Thank you for your intelligent blog.

Anthony Schlagel

1:11 AM  
Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

1) Did you take any photos?

2) Did they have souvenir t-shirts? Like, "It's alright ma, it's only Hibbing"?

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Opulently I agree but I contemplate the collection should have more info then it has.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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And according to this article, I totally agree with your opinion, but only this time! :)

2:34 AM  
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