Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hear the Heartbreak in Dylan's Walls of Red Wing

Keith Olson, 1940-2018
The other day someone sent me a note about an obituary for Keith Olson, who was born here in Duluth in 1940. During his childhood he began shining shoes at the Spalding Hotel and moved up to bellhop. Family difficulties resulted in his being sent to the Duluth Children's Home on East 5th Street, with events that then which then led to his being sent to the Red Wing Boys Reformatory school in Red Wing.

The obituary is a beautiful testament to how people who encounter hard circumstances in their childhood can overcome these in surprising ways. He met someone who became the love of his life, whom he considered a gift from God, and whom he says, "saved my life." And experienced very real success in his career, eventually acquiring a beautiful home which also became a labor of love.

For many, if not most, Red Wing has been made famous by the shoe factory there. Red Wing Shoes produces sturdy, reliable work boots and has built an enduring reputation for its comfortably durable products. For Dylan fans though, Red Wing brings a somewhat darker tone to the conversation as we recall to mind Dylan's somber "Walls of Red Wing." Interestingly the obituary cites Keith Olson as stating that he once drove in a car with Dylan from Hibbing to Duluth when they were young.

Although this this can’t be verified, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that if young Mr. Olson were in a car with Robert Zimmerman, the latter might pick his brain a little about his experiences in the reformatory, internalize it and spill it out later in the form of a song, which he later before three times in the early Sixties.

When I began investigating this idea thread, a Hibbing High classmate of Bob's sent me a note saying, "Bob and I and our classmates all knew about Red Wing."

* * * *
Hibbing isn't really that far from Duluth, so it's not uncommon for Duluthians to head up to the Iron Range town and vice versa. We all know the story of how Dylan as a 17-year-old youth came down from Hibbing to see, hear and be inspired by Buddy Holly at the Duluth Armory just days before his untimely death in an Iowa cornfield.

There's an incident in my own life of driving Highway 53 which immediately came to mind when I read this story of Keith Olson. About ten years ago I was driving to Hibbing while listening to the audiobook Cool Hand Luke, which later became the film starring Paul Newman. It's a prison story, not reform school, but the similarity holds. As I was driving North I came upon a hitchhiker. As a former hitchhiker myself I generally try to help when able, though I do so with care, reading their faces and sensing their spirit. He seemed like a good person.

I asked where he was headed and he said Hibbing, as was I. To make a long story short, he'd just been released from prison. In order to get a license to be a cabby in Minneapolis he had have a 30 day residency in Minnesota. He was going to stay with a brother or friend (I've since forgotten) for 30 days. He was a humble man, maybe in his mid-thirties. He had purportedly been dealing LSD, though the crime he'd been arrested for was, he said, rigged.

There were other details, and I considered writing a story about it. Is it possible that Bob heard details in Keith's stories and followed through?

* * * *
The late Keith Olson. (Used with permission)
As I reviewed the obituary again there were more details that seemed to call for my attention, and like an Aha I realized I knew his wife Pat (referred to as Patricia in the obit) and even knew Keith, had once been to an informal party or meal in their beautiful lakefront home on Superior Street.

One of the surprises of living in the vicinity of a place where a famous person grew up is that you keep running into people with stories, with memories related to the famous person. It shouldn't surprise, because this person--in this case Robert Zimmerman--was not some mythological figure but rather an ordinary person who lived here and did the things others do.

In Olson's case, he didn't wear it on his sleeve but he didn't forget riding in a car with Bob Dylan, getting a glimpse of life and escaping his childhood sorrow. At the end of his life, he was "pressing on, to the higher calling" of his Lord, shaking the dust off his feet and not looking back.

* * * *
"Walls of Red Wing" was originally recorded for Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, famous for its contributions to the emerging folk and protest scene. The song eventually appeared on Bootleg Series 1-3, Rare & Unreleased. Both Joan Baez and Rambling Jack Elliot later covered the song.

Walls Of Red Wing

Oh, the age of the inmates
I remember quite freely:
No younger than twelve
No older ’n seventeen
Thrown in like bandits
And cast off like criminals
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

From the dirty old mess hall
You march to the brick wall
Too weary to talk
And too tired to sing
Oh, it’s all afternoon
You remember your hometown
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

Oh, the gates are cast iron
And the walls are barbed wire
Stay far from the fence
With the ’lectricity sting
And it’s keep down your head
And stay in your number
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

Oh, it’s fare thee well
To the deep hollow dungeon
Farewell to the boardwalk
That takes you to the screen
And farewell to the minutes
They threaten you with it
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

It’s many a guard
That stands around smilin’
Holdin’ his club
Like he was a king
Hopin’ to get you
Behind a wood pilin’
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

The night aimed shadows
Through the crossbar windows
And the wind punched hard
To make the wall-siding sing
It’s many a night
I pretended to be a-sleepin’
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

As the rain rattled heavy
On the bunkhouse shingles
And the sounds in the night
They made my ears ring
’Til the keys of the guards
Clicked the tune of the morning
Inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads
From inside the walls
The walls of Red Wing

Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.;
renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music

* * * *

Related Links
YouTube video of Dylan performing Walls of Red Wing
DNT obituary for Keith Olson

The  Service for Keith Olson will be held at The First Presbyterian Church 300 E 2nd St. Duluth November 20th at 2 p.m.

1 comment:

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