Gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel: In the matter of Bob Dylan, Minnesota and Red Wing

With all due apologies to Prince, Judy Garland, Garrison Keillor et al, Bob Dylan is probably the single most influential cultural force to come out of Minnesota. Even today — more than 30 years removed from his last Top 40 hit (“Gotta Serve Somebody,” from the regrettable Born Again phase)– Dylan still looms large in the popular imagination. With another comeback always around the bend (a new exhibit of his paintings, a new tribute album, a new tour), he is the ultimate refutation of his fellow Minnesotan Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American life.

Given this celebrity and enduring influence, many Minnesota communities with Dylan ties have staked a claim to the singer – and, by extension, made themselves destination points in the cottage industry of touring Dylan’s Minnesota.

As the birthplace and early childhood home, Duluth, naturally, enjoys native son bragging rights. It’s also where he got his first taste of big time rock n roll — a 1959 concert by Buddy Holly and Big Bopper that fueled Dylan’s nascent dreams of pop stardom. In 2011, in a better-late-than-never acknowledgment of its historic connection, Duluth hosted its first annual Dylan Duluth Fest. The city also boasts a “Bob Dylan Way” — a 1.8 mile walk through downtown festooned with signs depicting the silhouetted profile of the Dylan in his 1960s prime.

An incorrigible fabulist in his younger days, Dylan often tried to pass himself off as coming from exotic locales “out West.” Truth is, Dylan spent the bulk of his childhood and adolescence ensconced in conventional, middle class, Midwestern comfort in Hibbing. The then-prosperous Iron Range city shaped Dylan in fundamental ways, infusing him with, among other things, the prodigious work ethic that has been one of the hallmarks of his long career. Cold and isolated, Hibbing doubtless drove his desire to ramble in the wide world. Perhaps for that reason, Hibbing was slow to honor Dylan, though it is now home to an annual Dylan Days celebration and features a modest Dylan exhibit in its library.

And then there is Minneapolis. During his brief tenure at the University of Minnesota, the fledgling singer immersed himself in the Dinkytown coffee house scene, where he was exposed to traditional music and beat literature that profoundly influenced him. Minneapolis is also where the young Bobby Zimmerman re-invented himself in the most fundamental of ways, adopting the moniker “Bob Dylan.” Is Dylan’s biting critique of his fellow hipsters, “Positively 4th Street,” a reference to that Dinkytown thoroughfare of the same name? Some say so, though the song is generally thought to refer to the 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

But if Duluth, Hibbing and Dinkytown form the geographic trinity of any Dylan-inspired tour of Minnesota, other Minnesota locales resonate in Dylan’s life and work and also have a place. In some recordings, such as “Girl from the North Country” and “Meet Me in the Morning,” Dylan evokes the state in oblique ways. The listener is never quite sure where, precisely, the action is taking place. But in other songs, the geographic references are explicit.

In “The Walls of Red Wing” (released on the seminal LP 1963 “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan”), Dylan cast a lamenting eye upon the famous boys’ reformatory located in the picturesque river city. In the lyric, Dylan assumes the identity of an “inmate” at Red Wing– a conceit that helped foster the mistaken notion among some fans that the young Dylan must have spent time in reform school. On the contrary, Dylan’s description of the institution, larded with melodramatic references to barbed wire and electric fences, strays so far from fact that you can’t help but wonder if he ever laid eyes on the place. As the Minneapolis writer Brad Zellar once pointed out, the reform school “looks more like an East Coast private college or academy than a correctional institution.”

Still, in matters of Dylan, such disconnections can always be attributed to artistic license.

In all likelihood, Dylan did pass through Red Wing at some point. After all, he was famously peripatetic. More significantly, he was fascinated by U.S. Highway 61 – which runs from Duluth through Red Wing to the Gulf of Mexico. Dylan mythologized the road in his 1965 masterpiece “Highway 61 Revisited.” It’s not hard to see why Highway 61 intrigued Dylan: much like the Mississippi River (which it parallels), Highway 61 provides the symbolic link between Dylan’s native state – and contemporary modern America — and the Deep South, the Ur-source of so much of his musical inspirations.

But is there another reference to Red Wing in Dylan’s work?

Like much in the arcane and voluminous world of Dylan scholarship, this is a matter of dispute. The song in question is “Blind Willie McTell,” Dylan’s haunting and cryptic homage to the deceased Georgia blues singer of the same name. Recorded in 1983 during the sessions for “Infidels,” the song was not included on that album and Dylan did not perform it in concert until 1997. Since then, it has been a frequent staple of Dylan’s live shows.

While “Blind Will McTell” is not particularly well known to the general public, it is regarded as a masterwork by Dylan scholars. The English music critic Michael Gray, author of the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, declares Blind Willie McTell “the spookiest important record since “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The song’s geographic cast is wide, with references as far flung as East Texas and Jerusalem. In the final verse of the song, Dylan sings, “I’m gazing out the window/Of the St. James Hotel/And I know no one can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell.”

But where, precisely, is the St. James Hotel?

In his book “Bob Dylan in America,” Sean Wilentz, a leading Dylan-ologist, acknowledges “the obvious allusion to St. James Infirmary” – the blues standard from which Dylan derives the melody. (That song also inspired McTell’s classic, “Dying Crapshooter Blues,” and itself can be traced back to the 19th century English ballad, “The Unfortunate Rake.”) But, Wilentz writes, “I’ve preferred to think the song must be talking about a real hotel, just as “Highway 61 Revisited” refers to a real highway.”

There are a number of St. James Hotels to which Dylan’s listeners have ascribed the reference, including a St. James Hotel in Selma, Alabama that dates back to 1837. Visited by plantation owners and not far from a major landmark of the Civil Rights Movement (the Edmund Pettus Bridge), that hotel’s rich history aligns with the dark, thematic sweep of the song “Blind Willie McTell.” But, as Wilentz points out, Dylan could not have gazed out its windows, as the hotel had been shuttered for more than a century by the time Dylan wrote his lyric.

Another possibility is the St. James Hotel in New Orleans. But, like the St. James Hotel in Selma, that, too, was long closed at the time of Dylan’s composition. St. James Hotels located in New York Times Square and London, Wilentz contends, “have no obvious connection to the American past” – that past being a principle thematic concern of the song.

That leaves the St. James Hotel in Red Wing. Built in 1875, that St. James Hotel has remained in operation all these years. If Dylan ever actually saw the Walls of Red Wing, at the very least, he passed by the stately brick pile; both the reformatory and the hotel are located on the same road, Highway 61 and in view of another perennial inspiration, the Mississippi River. What better vantage is there for a singer from the North Country to reflect back on the American past than to peer out a window that affords a view of those vital arteries?

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