John Lamb, Published September 12 2009
Lamb: A book about Bob
But in this collection of essays, one previously largely unsung muse gets fleshed out.
In the book’s first piece, rockumentarian Greil Marcus focuses as much on Dylan as he does on one of Dylan’s high school teachers, B.J. Rolfzen.
An English literature teacher at Hibbing High School, Rolfzen was a source for firsthand accounts of what Dylan, who Rolfzen only referred to by his given name, Robert Zimmerman, was like in high school. He’s even featured in Martin Scorcese’s documentary, “No Direction Home.”
Rolfzen died in August at age 86.
His role in forming Dylan, er, Zimmerman’s affection for poetry wasn’t only noticed by Marcus but also by one of the book’s editors, Colleen Sheehy, director of the Plains Art Museum.
“His high school education was his foundation in English literature,” Sheehy says.
She discusses the book at the beginning of Wednesday’s Rush Hour Music Series at the Plains, featuring Grand Forks’ literati folk rocker, June Panic.
In Marcus’ piece, “Hibbing High School and ‘The Mystery of Democracy,’ ” the music historian tells of visiting Hibbing during the town’s 2006 tribute to its estranged son, Dylan Days. At the high school he meets Rolfzen who talked about how the student/singer always sat front and center for the teacher’s talks on the literary arts.
Though Rolfzen had already been slowed by a stroke, Marcus recalls how the mentor still beamed, “a teacher thrilled to be learning from a student.”
Sheehy also met Rolfzen in one of her dozen visits to Hibbing and was also impressed with the retired teacher’s contagious passion for the written word.
“Once I went to Hibbing, I really understood how Dylan came out of that environment,” she says.
Similarly she visited Hibbing High School, an educational gem in a town that has seen better days.
In particular she recalls the school’s auditorium as “palatial,” comparing it to a New York theater.
“It’s like being in an opera house. To think that’s in a small town is astonishing. And that’s where Dylan first got booed.”
The book is the product of a symposium called “Bob Dylan’s American Journey,” focusing on his formative years from 1956-66, when his music took a turn after his motorcycle accident. Of the 45 speakers at the symposium, 20 dissertations were culled into this book.
Marcus’ entry is a particular favorite for Sheehy, who co-edited the book with Thomas Swiss, a professor at the University of Minnesota. The book will be available for purchase at the discussion.
“It really does what I was hoping would come out of this, was give people an understanding how (Dylan) came out of (Hibbing),” Sheehy says of Marcus’ essay. “It’s always interesting how one artist can generate so much critical analysis. I think in 100 years people will still be studying him. He really was the Shakespeare of our time.”
And the man behind Minnesota’s bard was B.J. Rolfzen, who “Highway 61 Revisited” is dedicated to.
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Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533