Thompson's North Country journey to Dylan's roots re-issued

Michael Schneider
October 06, 2008
cover of book “positively main street”

In 1968, long before Toby Thompson authored several books of non-fiction and many articles for magazines (such as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and Esquire) and became an associate professor of creative writing at Penn State, he was a 24-year-old unpublished wannabe. He had come of age to Bob Dylan's music and, blessed with acute cultural antennae, knew that Dylan's searing fusion of poetry and rock ‘n roll was something big and real that the world hadn't heard before.

He was aware, furthermore, that no writer had reported on Dylan's beginnings—his hometown family life and friends. There were stories of him running away from home at 13, learning to play blues on the streets of Chicago.

Thompson phoned Zimmerman's Hardware in Hibbing, Minnesota, where Dylan's Uncle Maurice answered and said Yeah, sure, I'll talk with you. Taking off from Washington, D.C. in his VW beetle, Thompson trekked to the north country, where he talked not only with Dylan's uncles, still running the store where young Bob had swept floor, but also his high-school English and music teachers, the clerk in the music store that special-ordered Bob's first harmonica rack, and others who remembered the kid who played with amps at full blast ten years earlier at Hibbing High. Among them was Echo Helstrom, long blond hair, Swedish, Dylan's (then Bobby Zimmerman) first love, the inspiration for his classic "Girl from the North Country." She and Thompson had a romance.

The result—published as a six-part series in The Village Voice—was a journalistic scoop. Thompson showed that, contrary to Dylan's propensity for self-mythologizing, Bobby loved his parents and never ran away from home. Inherently an outsider because he was Jewish, Bobby Zimmerman was mostly a normal, middle-class kid having a passionate love-affair with music.

The Village Voice series, combined with a follow-up article for a rock magazine, came out in 1971 as a book, Positively Main Street. Out-of-print for many years, it's now re-issued by University of Minnesota Press. As much about Thompson as Dylan, it has the flair of "new journalism" in its glory days. The last chapter, when Thompson finally gets to talk with Bob's mother—unhappy with what she's heard of Toby—is a rare treat, a young man appreciating and basking in the love of his hero's mom.

Toby Thompson, M.A., is associate professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts. Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota, was published in a revised edition by the University of Minnesota Press in April 2008.

Last Updated October 06, 2008