Winter in Minnesota means tucking in with some of the great bards of the Iron Range, from the gone-too-soon John Berryman to the early scribblings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But for maximum heart-cockle-warming and whiny intensity, look no further than Minnesota’s most celebrated poet: Bob Dylan. Dylan’s “Minnesota” songs, scarce as they are, pack a special emotional wallop – think of the achingly beautiful “Girl From The North Country” or the middle-period “Went To See The Gypsy.” Unfortunately, not everything that falls out of Dylan’s mouth lands as convincing poetry, but a discerning listener can easily pick out the lyrical gems. Here’s a quick guide – you can find most of these on Spotify, but why not go out and buy the hard copies to stow beside your Rimbaud and John Milton collections? They won’t be out of place, I promise.
1. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan / The Times They Are A-Changin’
Dylan’s early sixties records expanded his Woodie Guthrie-aping strum to include a wider palette of folk music styles. On paper, some of Dylan’s early work has a preachiness that makes for some half-rate poetry, but the majority of his stripped-down early period has an unmatched power and directness in its language. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” uses repetition and a straight-forward narrative to tell a story that will probably make you cry if you haven’t heard it before. “Masters Of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” turn basic, apocalyptic imagery into stirring calls-to-arms. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is Dylan’s best break-up song and proof that you can act like a complete jerk and no one will care if you do it over an acoustic guitar.
2. Blood On The Tracks
Dylan rediscovered his story-telling groove in 1975 with the initially troubled Blood On The Tracks, his best work since his mid-60s peak. Dylan recorded Blood in New York City first, before a Minnesota homecoming took him to Sound 80 Studios in Minneapolis for a re-recording. “Tangled Up In Blue” alone is worth the price of admission, but don’t forget the gorgeous imagery of “Simple Twist of Fate” or the epic, anti-fame hate-rant of “Idiot Wind.” The clean, stripped-down production focuses the attention on Dylan and the uncanny mix of wry wit, anger, and deep pathos that he assembles into classic song-stories.
3. New Morning
As the sixties drew to a close, Dylan fought with his own mythic persona and the expectations of diehard fans as he slid from one style and genre to another. After a notoriously bitter London performance and a motorcycle crash, Dylan began a period of retreat from the public eye, producing the strange anti-fan mega-album Self Portrait, and the massively underrated New Morning. The album lacks some of the clarity and earnestness he would later tap for Blood On The Tracks, but he manages to bring together a lot of disparate sounds and genres into a pleasant and heart-felt album. He mixes an impeccable narrative rhythm with weird imagery on “Went To See The Gypsy” and a focused anger and confusion on “Day Of The Locusts.”
4. Empire Burlesque / Oh Mercy
You could easily write off Dylan’s work in the ’80s as a toothless exploration of his Born Again persona (probably the least compelling version of himself that Dylan created), but you might miss a lot of woefully underrated material. These albums aren’t perfect, but they contain some earnest, aching songs like “Most of the Time” and “Tight Connection To My Heart.” Just ignore the horrendous album covers and you’ll find that Dylan was actually a consistently honest, bare songwriter in the decade of coke and excess.
5. Time Out Of Mind
Dylan only became more interesting when he got old enough to talk convincingly about death. Brooding mortality hangs over songs like “Love Sick,” which really strips down his poetry to bare, penetrating imagery (“I see…lovers in the meadow” sounds both deep and deeply creepy coming from old-timey Dylan), as affecting on the page as it is on the album. You won’t find pissy girlfriend rants like “Positively 4th Street” or stirring protest songs on Dylan’s more recent albums, but he delivers the goods nonetheless.
6. Chronicles: Volume One
Dylan’s memoir does fans the great disservice of skipping the moments they probably care most about – he glides right over the Newport Folk Festival and his move to electric guitar – in favor of setting the record straight about his retreat from society and his notoriously cranky attitude toward fans and his own success. I don’t feel like I’m betraying my “Fiction and Poetry Examiner” title by listing Chronicles, because much of the book reads like an elegant fictional retelling of the artist’s life. Dylan reinvents his own reinventions by weaving a strange, sympathetic tale of the artist at his most vulnerable moments.
Pad this list out with Dylan classics like Blonde On Blonde and Bringing It All Back Home, and you’ll get a more than decent picture of one of Minnesota’s oddest and most inspiring native sons. And be sure to visit his house the next time you’re in Hibbing: you can learn more about it here.