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The Origins of Bob Dylan’s Accent

On Robert Zimmerman’s 70th birthday, an attempt to trace the origins of his singular voice. Plus: my favorite deep cuts, two of which never appeared on an album proper.

As an observer of American accents—a new current favorite is Eleventh Dream Day drummer Janet Bean’s Kentucky lilt—Bob Dylan’s long fascinated me. He’s got one of the most familiar voices in all of popular music, and one of the most distinctive, but it remained a mystery to me even after I moved to the Midwest. And for good reason: Dylan is from Hibbing, Minnesota, not just a very distant point on the map (about halfway between Duluth and International Falls), but a culturally diverse one thanks to the iron mining that drew immigrants from all over the world.

Fortunately, one of my friends, Graeme Wood, was given the enviable task of going to Hibbing and doing linguistic detective work:

“Is it true that people in Hibbing talk like Bob Dylan?” I asked. She narrowed her eyes and issued an abrupt correction.  “You mean, ‘Is it true that Bob Dylan talks like people in Hibbing?’” Her accent was an even Midwestern plod, garnished with a snarl all her own.

In celebration of Dylan’s 70th birthday, my favorite deep cuts (if you can’t get your way through Dylan’s mutt of an accent, his site has all the lyrics). One of the curious things about Dylan is that for all his hits, a couple of his best songs—and my personal favorites—never made it on a proper album. Like these first two:

1. “Blind Willie McTell” (an Infidels outtake)

2. “Foot of Pride” (another Infidels outtake)

3. “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” Alex Ross, who’s spent a lot of time thinking about Dylan, argues that the test pressing of Blood on the Tracks is Dylan’s masterpiece. Since my taste in music is somewhat idiosyncratic I’ve never been a big fan of the album, as it’s more about relationships than quasi-religious apocalypse, but this song is an exception.

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