Should Duluth Do More to Acknowledge Dylan’s Northland Roots?
The Economics of Music-Based Tourism
by Ed Newman
History is replete with landmarks -- places of birth, places where heroes have fallen, places where the dead have been laid to rest. In recent times the movers and shakers of rock and roll history have produced more such landmarks. Elvis left us Graceland. Buddy Holly put Lubbock, Texas on the map. The Beatles have brought economic blessings to Liverpool. And one of our own, here in the North Country, is as significant as any of these. Perhaps because he is still performing -- twice in Minnesota the last couple years on his Never Ending Tour – it would be a good time to reflect on what it is that has made some critics declare Bob Dylan to be the most significant person in rock history.
The Economics of Music-Based Tourism
One of the visitors to Duluth during Dylan Fest 2011 was Mr. David Leaver of Manchester, England, who co-authored with his late wife Ruth a paper titled “Before they were famous: music‐based tourism and a musician’s hometown roots”, which had been published in the Journal of Place Management and Development. Leaver’s research showed that music‐based tourism is an emotion-driven experience with ideas of pilgrimage, nostalgia and heritage that centers on sites where either great music was produced, places where famous artists were born, lived or died, or places which shaped their early history. Though the primary market segment is comprised of baby boomers, it has expanded to include younger visitors for whom these music icons have become part of pop culture.
The economic realities involved are no joking matter. Graceland draws upwards of 600,000 visitors are year. Liverpool’s tourism revenue expanded by 40% once that city began promoting sites like Strawberry Fields as a destination. Even the house featured in Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story captures 50,000 visitors a year now because they promote it.
According to Anna Tanski, director of the Duluth Visitor’s Bureau, the average Duluth tourist stays 2.3 nights and spends $645 dollars. Dylan fans have been making pilgrimages to the Northland for years without the city’s involvement. Why not capitalize on this interest by giving fans something more to see and do that might satisfy this fascination? Just 1,000 more visitors would produce $645,000 dollars.
I’m not talking about an artificial shrine. I’ve been told that Dylan himself wouldn’t want a statue. As Leaver says “It is important to recognize the sensitivities of these visitors and authenticity is a key factor.” Zimmy’s, the Dylan-themed Hibbing restaurant that closed last year, was just such a place, a touchstone for fans from Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
I spoke about this with Marc Percansky, a producer for annual events like the Twin Cities’ Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan and Guitars for Vets. “People in every city in every part of the world like to speak of the famous people that come from their hometowns,” said Percansky. “They take pride in knowing that they walked the same ground, breathed the same crisp air and looked up at the same open sky. They feel a connection to them in some kind of way.
“As for Duluth, it just so happens that one of the most influential musicians of all time is from there. That is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted and didn’t happen by accident. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I am sure Bob feels the same way. He has even said himself in Rolling Stone magazine, ‘You’ll never see another town like Duluth.’ The early developmental years are never forgotten. They shape who we are.”
John Bushey, host of KUMD’s longstanding Highway 61 Revisited, added, “All musical icons are from somewhere. Dylan happens to have his roots in Duluth and Hibbing. His influence is not only in music and on other musicians, but on poets, artists, writers, politicians, and people in many other fields.
“People somehow, whether right or wrong, feel a connection to famous people. They may feel like they know them, or have been guided in life somehow. People travel the world to seek out the roots of those they feel connected to, or influenced by. Whether it’s Liverpool, Graceland, Texas, or Duluth and Hibbing, people want to travel to see where the person they admire is from.
Dylan has never really denied his Minnesota roots. On the back of his first two albums he is listed as being from Duluth. He wrote poetry and songs about northern Minnesota, Duluth, Hibbing, and the Iron Range (North Country Blues, Girl from the North Country, etc...). He mentioned Duluth in his song “Something There Is About You” on Planet Waves. He’s mentioned it on national TV when receiving a Grammy award. As Bushey notes, “His roots are here. He is from here. Therefore, whether we like his music or not, we should be proud that someone from this area has had such an important impact on the world.”
Nelson French concurs. As VP of the Armory Arts and Music Center board, French is quite passionate about honoring our ties to Dylan and placing his life here into its historical context. “Mr. Dylan’s roots in the North Country are an important part of Duluth’s and the Iron Range’s history,” said French, “and tied inextricably to the history of our nation and the world. Dylan was born in Duluth in the early 1940’s as World War II was becoming a part of everyday life in America and six when his family moved to the Iron Range -- a dual and economically connected community (the North Country) that provided much of the raw material that allowed our country to prevail in the war to end all wars. The post-war era brought with it a transformation of American society. Mr. Dylan grew through the 1950’s and launched himself on the world stage shortly after seeing Buddy Holly perform at the Historic Duluth Armory.
“It is very important for communities to recognize and celebrate their history and the history of those who come from a place and have done well and made change locally - and/or have gone on to make change in the world. Honoring Mr. Dylan’s roots in the North Country and celebrating the influences should be a vital part of any local or regional educational and tourism efforts. In this regard I think of the “Triangle of the North Country” which includes the Duluth Goldfine/Zimmerman Home, the Hibbing High School and Zimmerman Home and the Historic Duluth Armory.”
The pilgrims will continue to come whether we welcome them or not. I believe there’s more that we can do to make them feel at home when they land on our shores.