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Searching For The 'Other Bob' Behind Dylan

In 1968, writer Toby Thompson set out for Hibbing, Minnesota on a quest to find out how Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. He met the legend's high school sweetheart who inspired a Dylan song

Young Bob Dylan on the verge of becoming a meteoric phenomenon. Next to Joan Baez along the National Mall in Washington DC, he performed at the historic Civil Rights March on August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy National Archives /Records of the US Information Agency
Young Bob Dylan on the verge of becoming a meteoric phenomenon. Next to Joan Baez along the National Mall in Washington DC, he performed at the historic Civil Rights March on August 28, 1963. Photo courtesy National Archives /Records of the US Information Agency

By Todd Wilkinson

The American West, be it Hollywood or the rural hinters where outlaws dwell, is famous for being a province in which people escape their pasts and court reinvention around new identities. Writer Toby Thompson understands the allure, how breaking away from one's former origins can be a path to becoming free.

Although Thompson himself is a part-time Montanan, who has spent long stretches of summers around Livingston, he has ruminated on one of the most fascinating metamorphoses in modern times.

In 1968, Thompson set out on a quest to find a holy grail in contemporary culture. On somewhat of a lark, realizing little by way of epiphany had been revealed about the childhood circumstances that yielded Bob Dylan, Thompson went where few journalists had gone before—poking around the mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota.

There he confronted a question: how to reach the essence of a person who is, by his own design, inscrutable? Thompson was a young twenty something. His intent was not to interview Dylan the elusive phenomenon who at the dawn of the 1960s experienced a meteoric rise to become “the voice of a generation,” and then only a few years later broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and retreated to upstate New York in semi-seclusion.  

Thompson wasn’t interested in recapitulating the millions of words previously written about Dylan's persona.  Instead, he wanted to gain insight into how one of the greatest songwriters of all time, who would go on to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Prize for Literature, began as Robert Allen Zimmerman.  

Up on the Iron Range where Dylan had not been exceptionally extraordinary in a conforming-minded community, and in Minneapolis where he had briefly gone to college before fatefully decamped to New York City, Thompson gained rare interviews with the Zimmerman family, Hibbing locals and even the singer’s first high school love, Echo Helstrom. Those conversations formed the basis for stories that appeared in The Village Voice

The pieces attracted attention. Of Thompson’s reporting, which caught the eye of the enigmatic musician himself, Dylan told a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, “that boy…this fellow, Toby…has got some lessons to learn.”

What Thompson did not need to learn is the journalism doctrine, “show, don’t tell.” Positively Main Street was first published in 1971 with the subtle “An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan” and an updated edition in 2008 with a new subtitle “Bob Dylan’s Minnesota.” The most recent volume of Positively Main Street includes an intriguing recounting by Thompson of details in the book  that, over the years, left readers wondering:
A body of work 60 years in the making: Dylan's musical evolution. Image courtesy Shutterstock/2026441667
A body of work 60 years in the making: Dylan's musical evolution. Image courtesy Shutterstock/2026441667

What was it like for Thompson to have a brief romance with Helstrom who served as the inspiration for one of Dylan’s early signature love songs, Girl from the North County, (which Dylan also sang during visits to Nashville in popular duet with Johnny Cash)? Among other curiosities: Did Thompson ever meet up with Dylan after the book was published? Did he ever unravel the mystery of what was inside him in Hibbing, laying dormant, that others did not recognize?

Positively Main Street borrows from the title of Dylan's song Positively Fourth Street that is a lyrical comeuppance delivered to those who either sold him short or spoke behind his back. The book remains as thought-provoking now as when it was first published.  

A part-time resident of Livingston since 1972, he's won widespread praise for his essays and profiles in Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times.  Thompson has published six books and teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State. He first came to Montana to work on a ranch in 1959, the same year Robert Zimmerman graduated from Hibbing High. 

What did he learn about Dylan by going to Hibbing? Read our interview below and make sure you pick up a copy of Positively Main Street.
Butte, Montana? No, its Upper Midwest doppelgänger, Hibbing, Minnesota, where mining for iron ore created giant open pits that gnawed out swaths of the great North Woods. Rough and tumble, a town of hard-working immigrants like Butte, Hibbing seems an unlikely place, perhaps, for producing a force of nature whose poetry would command universal resonance. Pictured here is the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Ore Mine from an overlook on the edge of Hibbing. Dylan road his motorcycle as a teenager through some of the pits. Photo courtesy National Register of History Places, Ref: 66000904
Butte, Montana? No, its Upper Midwest doppelgänger, Hibbing, Minnesota, where mining for iron ore created giant open pits that gnawed out swaths of the great North Woods. Rough and tumble, a town of hard-working immigrants like Butte, Hibbing seems an unlikely place, perhaps, for producing a force of nature whose poetry would command universal resonance. Pictured here is the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Ore Mine from an overlook on the edge of Hibbing. Dylan road his motorcycle as a teenager through some of the pits. Photo courtesy National Register of History Places, Ref: 66000904

MoJo Interview with Toby Thompson

Todd Wilkinson: Before we get into that first road trip to Hibbing, Minnesota, home of the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman, tell us who Toby Thompson was in late 1960s America and what he was thinking about as a young journalist?

TOBY THOMPSON: I was a fairly serious jazz guitarist and folk-club performer.  In 1966, I’d taken a B.A. in English from the University of Delaware, where for three years, oddly, I’d frequented the same dining hall as Joe Biden, and had in 1968 taken an M.A. in English from the University of Virginia, where I’d studied with the great short fictionist, Peter Taylor. I played guitar at the Gaslight, in Charlottesville, a spot where Dylan and Joan Baez had jammed in the early 1960s.  I was studying modern literature and knew nothing about traditional journalism. But I knew through the work of New Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer that to understand America you had to get out from behind your desk and find it.  Nineteen-sixty-eight was a year during which the country needed finding.  We were in the midst of the Vietnam War and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll ruled.  As Tom McGuane said, “The culture was coming apart like a frag grenade.”

TW: For those who are younger than Baby Boomers reading this, please set the stage for how you saw Bob Dylan, the elusive mystery attached to him.

THOMPSON: Dylan had emerged from the folk revival of the 1950s (featuring The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, The Clancy Brothers, etc.) as an interpreter and composer of rough country ballads and blues that often segued into abstract, Symbolist poetry.  He’d also written some of folk music’s great civil rights and anti-war songs.  By the mid-1960s he’d gone electric, played with a band, wore skin-tight slacks, Beatle boots, and black leather pieces.  He was the hippest guy on the planet.  The complexity of his lyrics, their abstraction and Delphic pronouncements (“He not busy being born, is busy dying,” “To live outside the law, you must be honest”) made him seem the wicked messenger, our secular prophet.  People anticipated his next album, not to party behind it, but to scour it for messages as to where we were headed as a society.  After his motorcycle accident in July 1966, he quit touring, was probably recovering from substance dependency, and was in seclusion at Woodstock.  He was granting no interviews.
The old Zimmerman residence in Hibbing. During research for his book, Thompson was invited in by Bob's mother and "sat in Dylan's bedroom, on his childhood bed. I fondled his ice skates," he said. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The old Zimmerman residence in Hibbing. During research for his book, Thompson was invited in by Bob's mother and "sat in Dylan's bedroom, on his childhood bed. I fondled his ice skates," he said. Photo by Todd Wilkinson

TW: I was a young kid growing up in a small town south of Hibbing at the time you paid your visits. In many ways, your book reads like a time capsule of culture in an Iron Range boomtown, which is fascinating all in its own. Dylan is a giant figure around the world and yet, save for a few people who were fond of him in Hibbing, he was not treated as a prodigal son or perceived as not being very remarkable. Did that surprise you?

THOMPSON: Iron Rangers who’ve read Positively Main Street, and the series of Village Voice articles that preceded it, are complimentary about how vividly they capture the essence of that city when Dylan walked its streets.  I was first there in 1968, nine years after he left and only seven after he’d quit the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. Not only were many people who knew him still living in Hibbing, but the town was unchanged.  Even Dylan’s house, which had been sold after his father’s death, held the Zimmerman family’s original furniture.  I sat in Dylan’s bedroom, on his childhood bed.  I fondled his ice skates.

Dylan’s lifestyle had been middle-American.  The people of Hibbing were unpretentious, so they saw Bob as another kid who’d grown up as they had but had moved away for work and a better life—as small-town kids do today.  They didn’t know how to pronounce his stage name.  They called him “Bobby Die-lan.”

TW: Again, your book is fascinating on so many levels and one thing you don’t do is position yourself as an oracle or over-analyze. Many small towns create a kind of script identity for local citizens that they are expected to follow. Anyone who doesn’t is considered strange. Dylan, it seems to me, not only had the courage to leave and pursue his own destiny, but he had the courage to return home. I’ve been eager to ask you this: Do you think he is a force of invention or reinvention?

The first edition of Thompson's book published in 1971
The first edition of Thompson's book published in 1971
THOMPSON
: I would say, both.  Bob grew up as the son of a furniture and appliance salesman.  His mother’s family owned Hibbing’s movie theaters.  So they were middle-class business people.  They also were Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in MinnesotaWe know that he did not wear his Jewishness lightly.  His high school girlfriend, Echo Helstrom, told me that soon after she met him in 1957, she said, “Gee, Zimmerman, that’s a funny name.  Is it Jewish?”  Bob “looked straight ahead with his face sort of funny,” and did not answer.  “Later,” Echo added, “John Bucklen [his best friend] took me aside at school and said, ‘Listen Echo, don’t ever ask about Bob being Jewish again.  He doesn’t like to talk about it.’” Le Roi Hoikkala, Dylan’s pal and drummer for their group, the Golden Chords, told me, “Bob never talked about his family.  The Jews were looked up to in Hibbing.  They were professionals, and they took care of people who had less.”  But Robert Shelton, in his 1986 Dylan biography, No Direction Home, quotes a teacher at Hibbing High saying that there had been racial discrimination, and that “In Hibbing, the Finns hated the Bohemians and the Bohemians hated the Finns.  Nearly everyone hated the Jews.” Leona Rolfzen, the Zimmermans’ neighbor and English teacher B.J. Rolfzen’s widow, told me that, in Dylan’s era, “they wouldn’t let Jews play golf at the country club,” and that Dylan’s father loved golf.  I heard mild anti-Semitic remarks in Hibbing while researching Positively Main Street.  Dylan, in his memoir, Chronicles, hints that his band lost gigs in restricted venues because of anti-Semitism. And that the threat of anti-Semitism was why he didn’t apply for acceptance to West Point.

I don’t think it accidental that he reinvented himself with the name “Dylan,” that of a Welsh poet.  And that his early musical heroes--Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams--were Christians who’d been raised in fundamentalist churches.  As the great, Missoula novelist, James Lee Burke has remarked, “Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, all of those guys came out of the same background, the Assembly of God church ... their lives were like vessels filled with all this great stuff: music and religion and cultural desperation and poverty.”  For a middle-class kid like Bob, that was pure romance.  He would record three gospel collections and a Christmas album.  He’d become an evangelical Christian during the late 1970s.  And for a time he was married to a fundamentalist, African-American woman.
Hibbing girl Echo Helstrom, Bob Dylan's first love and who inspired the song "Girl from the North Country."  Not only did Helstrom provide Thompson with insight and perspective on Bob as a quiet, polite and impressionable young man, but she and Thompson themselves had what he calls "a brief romance" and remained lifelong friends.  In Dylan's own memoir, "Chronicles Volume One," he wrote of Helstrom, "Everyone said she looked like Brigitte Bardot, and she did."  After Helstrom died in 2018, at age 75,  this was one of the photos published in newspapers around the world that accompanied word of her passing. Photo by Toby Thompson
Hibbing girl Echo Helstrom, Bob Dylan's first love and who inspired the song "Girl from the North Country." Not only did Helstrom provide Thompson with insight and perspective on Bob as a quiet, polite and impressionable young man, but she and Thompson themselves had what he calls "a brief romance" and remained lifelong friends. In Dylan's own memoir, "Chronicles Volume One," he wrote of Helstrom, "Everyone said she looked like Brigitte Bardot, and she did." After Helstrom died in 2018, at age 75, this was one of the photos published in newspapers around the world that accompanied word of her passing. Photo by Toby Thompson

TW: You’ve spent a lot of time in Livingston/Paradise Valley, Montana and you keenly understand how the West has this mystique for being a region where non-native people go to shake their past and start over.  Is this similar to what Dylan did?
 
THOMPSON: In Martin Scorcese’s documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan said that he feels he was born in the wrong place.  And that he is trying to find his way home.  He reinvented himself in the city—specifically Minneapolis’s Dinkytown, and New York’s Greenwich Village.  He told outlandish tales about having run away from home multiple times, growing up in places like Gallup, New Mexico, traveling as a boy with a carnival, with Black bluesmen, etc.  As an adult, he’s lived in multiple places, owning properties all over the world.  He has a castle in Scotland.  He owns a farm with his brother outside Minneapolis and at one point had a ranch near Phillipsburg, Montana.  But then, creative writers are constantly reinventing themselves.  Bob’s a different person in every song.

TW:  Were you Dylan, would you open yourself up to being intensively interviewed? And do you see any parallels with the holy grail quest among journalists and fans to get the late J.D. Salinger to reveal the creative force behind The Catcher In The Rye?
 
THOMPSON: Rolling Stone has published a collection of 31 Dylan interviews in a volume that is two inches thick.  So he’s done his share.  He limits the Q & A’s, usually, to whatever project he’s selling: a new album, a new book.  So there’s this hunger among journalists to learn more: to hang with him, to see him let down his hair.  He learned early that to be enigmatic, Garbo-like was an extraordinary draw.  When I had an assignment from Rolling Stone to profile him in 1993, he demurred, claiming he had nothing new to say.

Some writers like the interview format as inspiration to riff off questions.  Norman Mailer was brilliant at that. If I were as eloquent as Mailer was, I might court interviews more regularly.
The troubadour never rests: Dylan's tour bus in 2019 parked at State College, PA, home of Penn State where Thompson teaches English Lit, including a seminar that features music and words of Dylan. Thompson also saw Dylan perform when he came to Bozeman.  Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
The troubadour never rests: Dylan's tour bus in 2019 parked at State College, PA, home of Penn State where Thompson teaches English Lit, including a seminar that features music and words of Dylan. Thompson also saw Dylan perform when he came to Bozeman. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson

TW: You have used Dylan as a subject-muse in the English Lit classes you teach at Penn State and he’s the focus of a seminar this year. Tell us about that. Does the resonance carry across generations? And what kind of revelations do young people today have about Dylan?
 
THOMPSON: The course I teach is a senior writing seminar, so students not only listen to and read much of Dylan’s oeuvre for the course but write three nonfiction pieces (usually memoirs): first, a response to one or more of his love songs; second, a response to one or more of his political songs, and third a longer essay, “My Personal Relationship with Bob.” That title is tongue in cheek, but having listened to hours of Dylan’s music, read his memoir, Chronicles, Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America, and my book, they have developed a relationship with him.  In 2019, he played at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium in one of the best shows of his I’ve seen.  My class attended.  I scouted Bob’s touring bus the morning of the show, a photo of which I’ll forward to you.  The bus was outside the State College Marriott.  But rock stars often are overlooked by academia.  I had to remind the university that a Nobel Laureate was on campus.

Some of the Dylan students have taken my seminar more than once.  And at least one kid, from a conservative Pennsylvania family, had his life transformed by studying Dylan.  It wasn’t so much Bob’s wiggy Surrealist lyrics, as his courage in tackling life.  It was his ability to reinvent himself and recover from career slights, tragic love affairs, and to combat social injustice.  It has surprised me that students relate more easily to the early songs, like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Girl from the North Country,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Times They are a Changin’,” rather than later masterpieces--such as those on Blonde on Blonde.  But the early songs were ones he wrote when he was about their age.

Another thing they are intrigued by is his artistic development.  Many of them came from towns as small as Hibbing, so they’re fascinated by his methods of transforming himself.  I emphasize the process of artistic growth and change in the class, and they dig that.  The art life is rocky, even for someone of Dylan’s talents.  He’s traveled a hard road.
The Moose Lodge in Hibbing where Helstrom met Bob and saw him playing guitar and singing for the first time out along the street. In fact, Echo's hands can be seen at left on the parking meter.  The Moose Lodge is also where Helstrom and Dylan attended their high school reunion in 1969 and Dylan brought his wife, Sara, back to Hibbing for a visit. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
The Moose Lodge in Hibbing where Helstrom met Bob and saw him playing guitar and singing for the first time out along the street. In fact, Echo's hands can be seen at left on the parking meter. The Moose Lodge is also where Helstrom and Dylan attended their high school reunion in 1969 and Dylan brought his wife, Sara, back to Hibbing for a visit. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson

TW: Kind of unbelievably, Dylan, then one of the most recognized music performers in the world,  returned for his 10th-year high school reunion but his classmates were unimpressed or at least treated him that way. Do you know that happened, and does it ring true, in general, for what you discovered when you were talking to townsfolk and members of his family? 

THOMPSON: I write about it in my book. The reunion was in August of 1969, and Echo phoned me the minute it was clear that Bob would attend.  She wanted me to come.  It was three days away, and I would have had to fly out.  I couldn’t arrange it.  Later she described his attendance thusly: “As soon as he walked in, people clustered about.”  Instead of making fun of him, as they had at school, “they wanted autographs.”  She approached and he said, “Hey, it’s you!” and introduced her to his wife, Sara.  He signed Echo’s program, then, as she recounted, “he managed to lean closer and whisper, with his eyes real big, like old times, ‘I saw the story.’” Meaning my series in The Village Voice.  After a while, the shoving around Dylan’s table got rough, “and some guy who had had a little too much to drink, tried to pick a fight with Bob, so he left.”  That was it, Bob Dylan returning for his 10th-anniversary class reunion.  It had been held at the Moose Lodge, the same place where Echo had jimmied the door for Bob to play the piano, at their first, meeting, 12 years ago.  I doubt that he’d have been prompted to attend if he hadn’t relived his childhood through my series for The Voice.
"One thing is certain: Echo saw the 'Dylan' in Bobby, before anyone else, and helped to coax him forth. She coddled, petted, and lured him from beneath that timid exterior.  In the vernacular, she 'saw' him—saw the star he would become." —Thompson on Echo Helstrom 
TW: Related to the last question, and you get at this when you describe him returning for the funeral of his dad, that while he presented a new persona to the world, the good-natured, somewhat shy kid from a normal family, being polite and with manners never left him.  How would you explain it?
 
THOMPSON: A song on his most recent album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is titled, “I Contain Multitudes.”  That’s a line from Walt Whitman, and it speaks to the multiplicity of selves that Dylan has revealed tirelessly in his work.  Songs, such as “Visions of Joanna” and “Tangled Up in Blue” are told from points of view that either suggest different characters speaking or different sides of Dylan’s personality in conflict.  Some of these sides are masculine, some are feminine, some pose as classical deities—as in the song “Mother of Muses,” which bows to Calliope, the Greek muse of eloquence and poetry.  Attending his father’s funeral in Hibbing, sleeping again in his childhood bedroom, then greeting guests downstairs after the service, it makes sense that the quiet and polite Bobby Zimmerman might have emerged.
 
TW:  Let’s get to the topic of inspiration for his great song, “Girl from the North Country,” Echo Helstrom.  This may blow the minds of some people reading this, but you ended up having, as you say, "a small romance " with Echo and forging a lasting friendship with her—something that Bob seemed most curious about. How did it happen and what are some of the insights she offered that otherwise might have been unknown?
 
THOMPSON: Echo was a free spirit (she died in 2018), and her open-heartedness became the center of my book.  She was something of a folk heroine, featured in most biographies, and is the inspiration for the name of a Portland, Oregon rock group called Echo Helstrom.  But I was the first to write of her.  I did not find her immediately.  Somebody said, “You ought to contact this girl Bobby dated in high school,” but I was near the end of that first trip to the north country and was hesitant.  I thought I had too much material as it was.  But I called Echo’s home and spoke to her mother, who said she’d relay the message to Echo in Minneapolis, where she lived.  I was leaving next morning, and I believe Echo called back that night.  She said she’d speak with me next evening.  I also had an appointment in Minneapolis with David Zimmerman, Bob’s brother. Their mother, Beatty Zimmerman, had been away, and I had not been able to interview her that trip (I would later).  I caught Echo nearly by chance.  She was striking in appearance, had Scandinavian blonde hair, looked vaguely like Brigitte Bardot, and was friendly but tough.  I remember Tom Jones was on the television in her apartment as I interviewed her.  She wore high black boots with a hound’s check suit.  We chatted that night for perhaps three hours, and I realized immediately she knew Bob better than anyone out there--that they had been soulmates.  In Chronicles, he would call her his Becky Thatcher.  They were wholly American kids who shared dreams of a wider world—she wanted to be an actress--and I wonder if his development as a romantic and his eventual escape from Hibbing would have been so rapid without Echo’s support.  They were both outsiders–he a Jew in a town rife with prejudice, and she a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks--but they believed in each other.
Thompson and Helstrom, the original girl from the north woods, in Hibbing long ago and far away.  On short notice, Helstrom told Thompson that he should show up at Hibbing High's Class of 1959 10th-year reunion so he could meet Bob, but he couldn't make it.  Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
Thompson and Helstrom, the original girl from the north woods, in Hibbing long ago and far away. On short notice, Helstrom told Thompson that he should show up at Hibbing High's Class of 1959 10th-year reunion so he could meet Bob, but he couldn't make it. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
 
TW: Tell us about your friendship.

THOMPSON: We stayed in touch for 50 years.  She continued to report that my book about Bob was her favorite and that Bob had spoken to her about our relationship. A least once, skeptically.  For, on my second trip to Hibbing, Echo and I had indulged in a brief romance.  It’s dramatized in PMS. The romance was delightful but psychologically complicated for both of us.   

TW: She helped you to understand where Bob came from. To have his first real love open up with an honest view, no agenda and no airs, that’s ordinarily hard to find.

THOMPSON:  Richard Goldstein, who wrote for the Voice and had essentially invented rock journalism in 1966 with his Pop Eye column, had been hired as editor of a counterculture journal called US, which would be published as a Bantam paperback, along the lines of The New American Review.  He telephoned me and asked whether I had any material I’d held back from the Voice series and whether I’d be willing to drive back out to Hibbing for a second trip.  I called Echo and asked if she’d accompany me to Hibbing, to show me some of the spots where she and Bob hung out, and she agreed. I was back on the American road.

I picked her up in Minneapolis on a Friday afternoon.  She was stylishly dressed in a gray Austrian cape with a short skirt and knee-high white boots, very mod sixties-ish.  We drove north on what then was the rural two-lane to Hibbing, talking like we’d known each other forever.  I had a half-pint of Scotch in my glove compartment, and after a while, I offered her a drink.  She accepted.  We shared that half-pint and got to Hibbing around ten o’clock, just as the miners’ saloons were rocking.  There were four or five of them, and each featured a rock or an accordion-driven polka band.  In Chronicles, Bob writes about hearing those polka bands as a kid, and I’ve always thought his affinity for the harmonica came from listening to those accordions wheeze.  Very Lawrence Welk Midwestern.  Anyhow, we danced, talked, drank Grain Belt Premium beer, and closed the bars.  At some point, I stood on my head and my change, wallet, and car keys spilled onto the dance floor.  She laughed and we knew a connection had been made.

Thompson "playing" the piano Dylan had played at the 1958 Hibbing High Talent Show.  In 2008, Thompson was invited to attend Hibbing's "Bob Dylan Days" as a literary draw; the musical draw was Rambling Jack Elliott. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
Thompson "playing" the piano Dylan had played at the 1958 Hibbing High Talent Show. In 2008, Thompson was invited to attend Hibbing's "Bob Dylan Days" as a literary draw; the musical draw was Rambling Jack Elliott. Photo courtesy Toby Thompson
TW:
And where did it lead?

THOMPSON:  For the next couple of days, we were inseparable.  She took me everywhere that she and Bob had hung out, to the pizza parlors and teen canteens, to the Moose Lodge, where she’d jimmied its door, to old Hibbing, its abandoned buildings and the red dust mines, and to meet her family.  Her house was in the country, on a service road paralleling the woods. I listened to the same ‘78s his mother had kept—the ones he’d write about in Chronicles--the Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers cuts that had been his earliest exposure to that music.  Echo’s father, a tough working man and hunter, had bear skins nailed to his barn door, and the old house where he and Mrs. Helstrom lived still had an outhouse. They enjoyed me, particularly Echo’s Finnish father.  “He likes you ‘cause you’re fair,” Echo said.  Meaning blond.  They held a Sunday cookout for me and I played and sang a lot of Bob’s songs, including “Girl from the North Country.”  It was confusing for them, I think.  My theatricality and boyish enthusiasm made them feel as if Bob had come home.  To use the poet Robert Graves’s terminology, I seemed Bob’s “blood-brother, his other self, his weird.”  Everybody’s feelings on that were decidedly mixed.

Echo and I finished the weekend by visiting Hibbing’s radio station, where Echo sang a song she’d written, called “Boy from the North Country,” to my guitar accompaniment.  I have a tape of that.  The DJ, a young guy on the day shift, interviewed us for hours.  I sang and played guitar, and the switchboard lit up like neon.  We said our adieus that afternoon.  I needed to finish researching and write my US piece, so I stayed on.  She rode back to Minneapolis with her nephew.

TW: You were, remarkably, able to chat with members of Bob’s family, too.
           
THOMPSON: In Hibbing, I interviewed Dylan’s mother—that’s another story—then holed up to write my piece, mailed it off, and drove back to Minneapolis to see Echo.  We spent one last evening together and it was sad.  It was as if Bob, or someone vaguely comparable, had reentered her life and now was leaving.  The emotions I felt were too complicated to name.  The next morning, I headed back East.

Later I realized that, despite journalistic proscriptions against such behavior, our romance fit the bildungsroman format I had in mind for Positively Main Street.  And indeed the mythic one.  Her name was Echo Star Helstrom, for God’s sake, “sister of mirage and echo,” as Graves writes, with “hair curled honey-colored to white hips,” and more than one Narcissus might love her.

That summer I wrote my book, realizing I had this construct. 

TW: Did Echo set any conditions and how did Bob react?  He took an interest in what she said.

THOMPSON The only thing Echo asked me not to publish was what Bob wrote about her in the frontispiece of her high school yearbook.  The captivating thing about Bob’s early prose is that it reads just like later Dylan–the dropped consonants at the end of words, the faux slang, the poetry of it.  It comically depicts an incident he mentions in Chronicles, concerning Echo’s father running him off one night with a flashlight and shotgun.  Funny, rambling, “Bob Dylan’s 219th Dream,” so to speak.  But it ends with him writing, “Love to the most beautiful girl in school.”

Echo’s and my communications remained spotty.  But during that summer she sent me “Toby’s Song”:

            Hey!  Toby!
            Where can you be?
            Somebody told me
            That you went back to
            Washing Machine, D.C.!
            How can that be?
            You played for me on your old guitar,
            Took me for a ride in your little car,
            Drove me near and drove me far,
            We looked at the moon,
            And stared at the stars,
            You stood on your head in my hometown bar ...
            How can it be you’ve gone so far?
 
            Hey?  Toby?  Where you are?

I was touched.  Personally, and because Echo was Bob’s north country muse, having inspired one of his most endearing songs.  I’d come out of the East a nothing writer, testing the winds of adventure, found success, courted the muse, slain my hero’s calculated mythology by revealing his relative normality, “become” my hero, then retreated home.  Sadder and wiser, I’m afraid, for knowledge has its price.

Her stories related to me, about Bob, continued after my book was published.  He telephoned her after he’d read Positively Main Street, and said, “You came off pretty good in the book.”  He called her every few years.   Echo moved a lot, but he had this uncanny ability to find her.
 
TW: The late Ed Bradley interviewed Dylan for 60 Minutes and it’s something that was referenced in one of Scorsese’s films, No Direction Home, that the poetry, content and musical compositions flowed through him, that it was probably incredibly difficult for him to explain something that is ineffable. What’s your take?
 
THOMPSON: He said what many artists do, that the process of composition feels as if some other force is at work, and they’re just copying material down.  This returns to Dylan’s interest in religion, magic, and mystical incantation.  Again to quote James Lee Burke, on writing: “I believe that whatever degree of creative talent I possess was not earned but was given to me by a power outside myself, for a specific purpose, one that has little to do with my own life … Jack Kerouac once said, 'Your art is the Holy Ghost blowing through your soul.’'' 

Dylan might say “Amen” to that.

Dylan receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at The White House in May 2012. Photo Shutterstock/2026441667
Dylan receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at The White House in May 2012. Photo Shutterstock/2026441667
TW:
After writing the book, following him closely, having a relationship with Echo, there still remains a mystery of how Bob Zimmerman became Bob Dylan. Is it a question best left for the ages?

THOMPSON: This is a great puzzle about Dylan.  One thing is certain: Echo saw the “Dylan” in Bobby, before anyone else, and helped to coax him forth. She coddled, petted, and lured him from beneath that timid exterior.  In the vernacular, she “saw” him--saw the star he would become.  I doubt that he’d have made it out of Hibbing without her encouragement.

In Chronicles, Dylan wrote, “As far as Bobby Zimmerman goes, I’m going to give this to you right straight and you can check it out. One of the early presidents of the San Bernardino [Hells] Angels was Bobby Zimmerman, and he was killed in 1964 on the Bass Lake run …That person is gone. That was the end of him.”  If there are remnants of Hibbing’s Bobby Zimmerman in Dylan, he’s spectral, wraithlike.

TW: How has your view of Dylan evolved and changed?

THOMPSON: I first saw him as the cocky folk artist of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” then the black-jacketed hipster of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but now as the elder statesman of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” or “I Shall Be Released.”  I share the belief of many that he is a painfully shy and sensitive individual, one who finds the footlights a comfort yet intimacy a chore, and who feels existence in all its nuances more keenly than most.  In his 60 Minutes interview he spoke of the bargain he’d made “with the Chief Commander” to keep writing, to keep singing.  I’d like to think that bargain is firm.  And that he’ll persevere.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thompson's book, Positively Main Street, is a great original contribution to the canon of writing about Dylan. (Also support your local indie bookseller by ordering from them if you can). Below enjoy Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash performing "Girl from the North County."



Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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