‘Fifty-Sixth & Wabasha . . .’

Bob Dylan was back in Minnesota this week, playing a festival in his birthplace of Duluth Tuesday night and an open-air gig last night in St. Paul. It would have been fun to see either one, but I imagine there might have been more resonance in seeing the show in Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dylan made no mention of his Duluth/Minnesota roots during his hometown show, and unless I’m very much mistaken, he’s mentioned the port city only once in all of his many published and recorded songs. In “Something There Is About You” from 1974’s Planet Waves, he sings:

Thought I’d shaken the wonder and the phantoms of my youth
Rainy days on the Great Lakes, walkin’ the hills of old Duluth
There was me and Danny Lopez,
Cold eyes, black night and then there was Ruth
Something there is about you that brings back a long-forgotten truth

That mention, however, is more than he’s given the Iron Range city of Hibbing, where his family moved when young Robert Zimmerman was six, and where he stayed until he headed for Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. A search at bobdylan.com shows that Hibbing is mentioned in the album liner notes on his first three albums. The mentions on Bob Dylan (1962) and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) are in the fanciful lists of cities where the young singer supposedly grew, including Gallup, New Mexico, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on both albums and Cheyenne, South Dakota and Phillipsburg, Kansas, on Freewheelin’. (Some Googling seems to show that there is no place called Cheyenne, South Dakota, but is that surprising? No.)

On the back of his 1964 album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, there is a reference to Duluth and specific mention of Hibbing in Dylan’s own notes, titled “11 Outlined Epitaphs.”

the town I was born in holds no memories
but for the honkin foghorn
the rainy mist
an the rocky cliffs
I have carried no feelings
up past the lake superior hills
the town I grew up in is the one
that has left me with my legacy visions
it was not a rich town
my parents were not rich
it was not a poor town
an my parents were not poor
it was a dyin town
(it was a dyin town)
a train line cuts the ground
showin where the fathers and mothers
of me an my friends had picked
up an moved from
north Hibbing
t south Hibbing.
old north Hibbing . . .
Already dead . . .

There are, certainly, other mentions in Dylan’s work of Minnesota locations. And as I write that, I think first of “The Walls of Red Wing,” a song recorded in 1963 about the reform school for boys whose mention sent a shiver of fear through me and my grade school pals. An outtake from the Freewheelin’ sessions, the song showed up in 1991 on The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991. The version in the video below evidently comes from a bootleg recording of an April 12, 1963, performance at New York Town Hall. (Just as the mention of the reform school at Red Wing chilled me and my friends when I was a child, so now does the mention of “St. Cloud prison” in the latter portion of the song send a shiver – of recognition, not fear – through me; that facility sits no more than a mile from where I write.)

I could go on and on, obviously, panning Dylan’s stream for mentions of Minnesota places, and I may get back to it someday. But we’ll close with one of my favorite Dylan tunes with a Minnesota place reference, this one, evidently, to St. Paul’s Wabasha Avenue in “Meet Me In The Morning” from the 1975 album Blood On The Tracks.

Meet me in the morning, 56th and Wabasha
Meet me in the morning, 56th and Wabasha
Honey, we could be in Kansas by time the snow begins to thaw.

As Wikipedia notes, however, “The intersection mentioned in the song, 56th and Wabasha, apparently does not really exist.” That’s certainly the case in St. Paul, and it’s also the case southeast of there, in the small Mississippi River town of Wabasha. There’s no Wabasha Street or Avenue in Wabasha, and anyway, the numbered streets there seem to top out at Twenty-First Street, which – truly – dead-ends a half-mile east of Highway 61 just a little ways northwest of Dylan Drive.  That leaves us, I suppose, with the idea that the narrator and his object will meet somewhere that does not exist. Or else that Dylan just used “Wabasha” because it sounded good and fit the rhythm of the tune he had in mind. I vote for the latter. Here’s “Meet Me In The Morning.”


3 Responses to “‘Fifty-Sixth & Wabasha . . .’”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    There was a time when St. Paul’s South Wabasha St. became Minnesota state highway 56 (South Concord) as it crossed South Robert St. But that stretch of 56 is Minnesota 156 now, plus part of that Wabasha/Concord stretch on either side of Robert has been renamed Cesar Chavez Street, and… and… uh…

    As one of MinnPost’s commenters proffered earlier today: a contributing factor to the capital city’s stable population figures over the years has been “Minneapolitans who mistakenly crossed the border and realized it was easier to buy a house in St. Paul than figure out how to get out of that city.”

    No direction home, indeed.

  2. The lyric is not “Fifty-sixth and Wabasha”, it is actually “Fifty-six and Wabasha”, referring to the intersection of old Minnesota Highway 56 and Wabasha Street in Saint Paul, Minnesota. If you listen, you can hear Dylan sing “fifty-six”, rather than “fifty-sixth”, particularly on the take that was released as the B-side to “Duquesne Whistle”. Minnesota Highway 56 no longer intersects Wabasha Street, but from 1963 to 1974 it did intersect Wabasha Street, at what is now (in Feb. 2021) the intersection of George Street and Cesar Chavez Street in St. Paul.


  3. http://zdrake.blogspot.com/2021/02/where-is-56th-and-wabasha-meet-me-in.html

    I have an elaborate discussion of the “Highway 56” theory at the blog post linked above. I actually think the lyric is “56 and Wabasha” (referring to the highway), not “56th and Wabasha” as is commonly understood.

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