Sunday, March 18, 2018

Bob Dylan's Scarlet Town Revisited--Professor Craig Grau Scratches Beneath the Surface of a Complex Roots Story

Historic Hibbing High School
When Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Kinney added yet one more tome to the increasingly high stacks of Dylan literature he needed a new angle, and thus created a study not of Bob but of the various kinds of fans and followers he has generated over the course of a career. The title of his book reflected its angle: The Dylanologists. Categories include the concert-going Front-Rowers, the Tapers, the Scholars and others. Last but not least are the Lyrics-Dissecters, a tribe I ascribe to at times. These categories are not really cleanly drawn boxes, since many of the scholars are dissecting lyrics, and many concert goers collect memorabilia.

Through my association with the annual Dylan Days and Dylan Fest activities here in the Northland I've had the privilege of getting to know many interesting people over the years. One of these is UMD's former Associate Professor of Political Science Craig Grau whom I met through mutual friends, and a former student of his.

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in 2016 Gabriel Rubin, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal, flew in to Duluth to see some of the touchstones of our town associated with the city's Native Son and to meet a few of the people who might shed light on his story. Professor Grau was one of those in attendance as we met in a board room of the Northland Foundation downtown.

At that time he shared several insights about the song Scarlet Town, which appears on Dylan's last album of original songs, Tempest. A few months back Prof. Grau was sharing some of the deeper layers of the song and I asked if he might allow me to share them here. He was initially reluctant as it seemed to him this song is powerfully personal. And yet...

What I find personally fascinating is the way in which creativity works, the manner in which reality is transfigured by imagination to produce art. Here is the song, and a suggested interpretation.

Bob Dylan's Scarlet Town
by Professor Craig Grau, Political Science, University of MN-Duluth.

As an artist Bob Dylan uses allusions and license to create masterpieces of music. Tucked in the center of his album Tempest is the song "Scarlet Town". In a web article from October 14, 2012, Jim Beviglia sets forth interesting elements of this song ( The title and death scene remind one of the centuries old ballad "Barbara Allen" which Dylan was intimately acquainted with. Certain phrases and beat are from 19th century poet John Greenleaf Whittier. And Scarlet Town seems located near Dylan's famous "Desolation Row."

It will be maintained here that Beviglia is guessing correctly. Scarlet Town and Desolation Row are both references to the geographic area where Dylan was born and raised. Scarlet Town is not about Barbara Allen. It is about Bobby Allen (Zimmerman), known to the music world as Bob Dylan.

To begin let's refresh the Barbara Allen story. The British ballad is about a man often called "Sweet William." Who loves Barbara Allen. In the month of May he sends a friend to bring Barbara Allen to his bedside where he is dying for the lack of her love. She empirically notes that he is indeed dying, but does not return his love. When she hears bells tolling to announce his death, however, she feels remorse and insists that when she dies that she be buried next to Sweet William. Eventually from his grave sprouts a rose and from her grave a briar and the two intertwine.

The Dylan Tempest album has a British theme, but it is argued here that "Scarlet Town" can be heard as a Dylan autobiographical song - one with major themes of his life. The first concert that he gave after the album's release was in Winnipeg, Canada. "Scarlet Town" was the only song from Tempest that he sang.

Of course what follows is not definitive. Only Dylan knows of what he wrote, but this author believes he is trying to tell his audience something about the people and places of his youth.

Biographical references come from, among other sources, No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan by Robert Shelton, (New York, Beech Tree Books, William Morrow, 1986); and Just Like Bob Zimmerman's Blues, Dylan in Minnesota, by Dave Engel, (Rudolph, WI, River City Memoirs-Mesabi, 1997.

So let's get started -----

"Scarlet Town" (Boldfaced type -- Written by Bob Dylan) --- (Lighter lines by Craig Grau, Feb. 11, 2013 ©, Revised by Craig Grau, Nov. 19, 2016 ©; Revised and edited by Craig Grau, Nov. 27, 2016 ©.

In Scarlet Town, where I was born

This is a common first line from versions of Barbara Allen, but Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 and his family a few years later moved north to Hibbing, Minnesota on the Iron Range, with its open pit iron mines.

A mineral form of iron is Hematite. Its red powder has been a source of the cosmetic rouge for centuries. Visitors to the mines of the Minnesota Iron Range may find that they reflect its reddish color. Indeed the year book of Hibbing High School from which Dylan graduated is called Hematite.

There's ivy leaf and silverthorn

While the Barbara Allen ballad speaks of roses and briars, Dylan writes of ivy and silverthorn.

Ivy is the symbol of colleges and Duluth had two when Dylan lived there. Silverthorn can be a symbol of immigrants, which included Dylan's grandparents and many others in the region.


Uncle Tom still workin' for Uncle Bill

In 1946 Bob's father, Abe Zimmerman, was hit by polio and he moved his family from Duluth to Hibbing to be near family members (Shelton, 32).

Abe went to work for his two brothers, Bob's two uncles (Engel, p. 49).

Scarlet Town is under the hill.

The famous Hibbing High School auditorium.
Bob lived near a hill in Hibbing (Shelton, p.32) and under a bluff in Duluth.

Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissin' his face and heapin' prayers on his head

Recall in Barbara Allen in the month of May, Sweet William asked for Barbara's love, but she spurned him. However Dylan adds "Holme" to Sweet William and a Mistress Mary treats him much differently than Barbara Allen. William Holme, who lived in the 15th century, was referred by a contemporary Thomas Thorpe as the "begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets. (Shakespeare's last play was "The Tempest")

Abram Zimmerman was the begetter of Bob Dylan.

Governor Dayton honors Minnesota's Native Son.
Interestingly, in Britain in the 19th century there was a William Holme Sumner who had an estate called Hatchlands. The most famous member of that family was granddaughter Beatrice (1862-1946) who was called Beatie. She was strong willed and ended up marrying a very good cricket player and they became well known in the first half of the twentieth century (See The Indomitable Beatie, by Ronald Morris). In the famous nursery rhyme about a contrary young woman the British version begins - Mistress Mary quite contrary ----. (See Tom Thumb's (Pretty) Songbook, 1744) .

In May 1968, Bob's father Abram Zimmerman who had been very athletic before being stricken by polio died. His wife was Beatrice, who had a strong will and was called Beatty (according to Engel she pronounced it "'beat-ee'" ) (Engel, pp. 33-34).

Bob's father enjoyed smoking cigars (Shelton, p. 33). Dylan's mother was an extrovert who did not need her father to teach her how to drive his car (Shelton, p. 28). On the Tempest album Dylan is pictured with his band smoking a cigar.

So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I'll weep for him as he would weep for me
Little Boy Blue come your blow horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born

Dylan knows that he loved his father and his father loved him. When father Abe died Dylan took it very hard according to biographer Shelton and when his mother needed money since the family accounts were frozen Dylan took care of his widow mother financially Shelton, pp. 60-1). As a teenager Dylan's first musical instruments of choice were horns (Shelton, p. 37). Little Boy Blue is also in the British book Tom Thumb (See Tom Thumb's (Pretty) Songbook, 1744).


The Seven Wonders of the World are here
The evil and the good livin' side by side
All human forms seem glorified
Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite
See who will hold you and kiss you good night
There's walnut groves and maplewood
In Scarlet Town cryin' won't do no good

As life ends those you have known are dying. You offer yourself to others, but accept rejection if necessary. Crying over dead relationships or those who have died does no good.

Walnut Grove in southern MN is was the home of Laura Wilder. Maplewood is a northern suburb of the MN Twin Cities.


You've got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn't do that I wish we had
In Scarlet Town, the sky is clear
You'll wish to God that you stayed right here

Are the legs those of a woman or a man with polio. Maybe he wishes he had spent more time with his father and stayed in Scarlet Town.

Set 'em up Joe, play "Walkin' the Floor"
Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore
I'm staying up late, I'm making amends
While we smile, all heaven descends
If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It's all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town

In 1941 the year Bob Dylan was born Earnest Tubbs recorded "Walking the Floor Over You". He was known as the Texas troubadour. Dylan is now known as America's troubadour.

When some of Dylan's maternal relatives lived in Superior Wisconsin it was described in a Dylan biography as the "flat-chested little sister of Duluth Minnesota, inclined to saloons and whore houses" (Engel, p. 17).

He is making up for mistakes of the past.

"Scarlet Town," as does the album Highway 61 Revisited (1965) has references to Dylan's boyhood region. But they are not alike. In the title song of that earlier album Abe is asked by God to kill his son, but in "Scarlet Town" Dylan declares that he loved his father as his father loved him. In Highway 61 "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" is a scary journey while in "Scarlet Town" Mistress Mary is a caring wife and Little Boy Blue a dutiful son. The concluding song of Highway 61, "Desolation Row" begins with residents of his home town selling postcards of circus workers that had been lynched in 1920. While in "Scarlet Town" persons black, white, yellow and brown are all beautiful where he was born.

The phrase most associated with Bob Dylan is "a rolling stone" who could find "no direction home" as described in the most famous song on the Highway 61 Revisited album. In "Scarlet Town" he declares that the seven wonders of the world are there and one wonders why one left. "You'll wish to God that you stayed right here."

Dylan displays a kinder, gentler, loving Bob. He is still America's Troubadour with his magnificent "never ending tour", but he seems to indicate in this song that as Harry Chapin often sang "All my life is a circle," but perspectives change.

* * * *
Duluth Dylan Fest Update
Duluth Dylan Fest 2018 will feature lectures by two author/professors as part of the John Bushey Memorial Lecture Series. SMSU English Professor David Pichaske, author of Song of the North Country, will open the week on Saturday May 19 at Karpeles Manuscript Museum. Saturday May 26 will feature a talk by Harvard Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas, author of Why Bob Dylan Matters. Stay current on Duluth Dylan Fest activities here at the Bob Dylan Way website or here on Facebook.
Photos on this page taken during Governor Mark Dayton's visit to Hibbing to make a proclaim the day Bob Dylan Day after he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature

No comments:

Popular Posts