The Bob Dylan gold mine was at the bottom of the stairs, down in the cramped furnace room of a ranch-style house in Hibbing.
Surrounded by bookshelves and a file cabinet, B.J. Rolfzen was sitting in his basement study, reading John Milton's "Paradise Lost." "How many people read Milton on Sunday morning?" wondered University of Minnesota museum curator Colleen Sheehy, recalling her first encounter with Rolfzen three years ago.
Well, Dylan's former high school English teacher does. And he was sitting at the same desk where he graded the work of Robert Zimmerman, Hibbing High School class of 1959. That desk and a paper by Dylan, analyzing characters in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," are part of "Bob Dylan's American Journey, 1956-66," an exhibit which opened Feb. 3 at the University of Minnesota's Weisman Art Museum.
"I can see Robert coming through the door in Room 204," said Rolfzen, 83, in a recent phone interview. "He came there quietly every day. He was alone. He always sat the third seat from the door. He always sat in the front row in front of the lectern. He never looked around. He was very attentive, very focused."
Rolfzen will attend the Weisman opening and read a poem he's written about his famous student. But it's the Dylan document from 1958, when he was a high-school junior, that fans will want to see. The 22-page paper includes a few misspelled words ("storys," "compair") and a note from Rolfzen: "I think that more could have been done with this, don't you?" "I gave him a B," recalls the teacher, who used to hear Dylan's rock trio practicing in the Zimmermans' garage, and has seen a few Dylan concerts over the years. "I often tell for a joke that I'm going back to the high school and change that to an A."
The paper's current owner might object, however: "I heard someone paid $13,000 for it, and he got rid of it for $34,000," Rolfzen said.
Why is an exhibit that's essentially historical — built around artifacts, recordings, vintage photos and films, and video interviews with Dylan himself — being presented at an art museum?
"We do a lot of interdisciplinary exhibitions," said Sheehy, who also curated the 2002 show "Springsteen: Troubadour of the Highway" at the Weisman. "I think it's really important that Dylan is looked upon as an artist, not just as a historical figure. He is an artist of the highest caliber in whatever art form you want to talk about. "Dylan's American Journey" originated at Seattle's Experience Music Project in 2004, then traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and New York's Morgan Library before winding up on the campus where Dylan once was a student.
Sheehy wanted to give it a home-state touch. So she headed to Hibbing. While the exhibit's original curator spent only one day there and another in the Twin Cities, Sheehy made about 10 trips to the Iron Range town to gather material. Mining such sources as the Hibbing Historical Society and the Dylan-themed Zimmy's restaurant — hub of the town's annual Dylan Days since 1992 — she collected about 50 items, expanding the exhibit by nearly one-third.
- A photo of 3-year-old Bobby and his mother on a 1944 visit to Hibbing, which was his mom's hometown. (They moved there from Duluth, where Dylan was born, three years later.)
- Audio recordings of Zimmerman singing in his Hibbing living room in 1958.
- A 1959 snapshot, taken by his mother, of 17-year-old Bob playing guitar in their living room.
- A 1957 photo of the singer/guitarist, wearing a white tie and plaid sport coat, rocking with his high school band, the Golden Chords, at Hibbing's Little Theater.
- A 1958 newspaper ad for a Golden Chords gig at the Hibbing Armory. The trio played between sets by a DJ who spun records. Admission was 50 cents.
- A 1957 snapshot of Bob with a young woman at Herzl Camp, a summer camp for Jewish kids in Webster, Wis.
- The movie marquee of Hibbing's Lybba Theater. Named for Dylan's great-grandmother and owned by his uncle, it's where Bob saw movies that starred his heroes James Dean and Marlon Brando.
- Various historical photos of Hibbing, including the high school and Zimmerman's girlfriend Echo Helstrom.
Sheehy and her staff also did extensive digging in Dinkytown, the Minneapolis campus neighborhood that was Dylan's haunt after he left Hibbing, but came up with little beyond a 1960 tape, recorded in someone's apartment, and a chair from the 10 O'Clock Scholar, a coffeehouse where Dylan and other local folk pioneers, such as John Koerner and Tony Glover, performed.
Sheehy's staff has prepared a map of Dinkytown, locating key Dylan spots such as Gray's Campus Drug (now the Loring Pasta Bar), where he lived in an upstairs apartment. (The exhibit has a similar map of New York's Greenwich Village, showing the clubs in which Dylan sang.)
Sheehy was able to confirm with the university that Robert Zimmerman was registered for four quarters - fall of '59 through fall of '60 - and declared music as his major.
"Dylan's American Journey" also tells the next couple of chapters of his much-chronicled story. Among the coolest artifacts from his early New York years are a 24-minute tape of his first non-club gig in Manhattan, at Carnegie Chapter Hall Nov. 4, 1961, in front of 53 people. In contrast to his current taciturn style in concert, he was very talkative.
Hard-core music fans will appreciate seeing the handwritten or typed lyrics for several classic Dylan songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone."
And for the celebrity-obsessed, there's a silly letter that Dylan typed to Joan Baez's mom, pretending to be her daughter. It is presented next to a handwritten letter from Baez to mom, explaining the hoax, and saying she was having a lot of fun with her boyfriend Bobby.