Sunday, October 14, 2012 By Aaron Brown
By Aaron J. Brown
In reviewing my family history files I always thought the Swedish villages where my great-grandmother's family is from seemed more like a random collection of letters that have no meaning. Recently I met some Swedish journalists to unravel the mystery. They told me my family came from a random collection of letters that have no meaning.
Of course, those journalists weren’t in Hibbing to help me with my identity problems. They were here for the same reason thousands of people come to Hibbing every year: to find out more about the hometown of Bob Dylan, and to a lesser extent the Greyhound Bus Company.
In last month’s “Rolling Stone” cover story, Dylan said, “We can't change the present or the future. We can only change the past, and we do it all the time.” How true. In telling and retelling stories of the past we imagine much more than we actually know. We tell what we like; we ignore what bores or troubles us. But what of the present?
Dylan connects more people to the Iron Range than anyone would have expected back when young Bobby Zimmerman lit out from here 53 years ago. People in Hibbing tend to focus on small details, like how he was “odd” in high school, or how he hasn’t played a free concert at the auditorium. (Kevin McHale, the Hall of Fame basketballer from Hibbing, runs gun safety clinics sometimes! Where are you, Bobby?) Point is, people all over the world are deeply moved by Dylan’s work and find local attitudes about Dylan to be adorable.
Dylan and Greyhound brought Kristin Lundell, a well-regarded music writer in Sweden, and Karin Grip, a photographer for one of the nation’s largest newspapers, to Hibbing earlier this month. It helps that Lundell’s mother is from the same Swedish town as the founder of the Greyhound Bus Company, which traces its origins to Hibbing. She’s writing a book on that topic, along with a newspaper story on Dylan. Even though I am only a “pop historian,” unlike most Iron Rangers I maintain a large Google footprint, so I get to meet folks like Kristin and Karin. (Google is a website).
After determining that someone, probably me, transcribed my Swedish ancestry incorrectly at some point, we conversed. Living in the woods as I do, it is good for me to actually communicate with humans in real time on occasion, if only for humility. For instance, don’t describe someone as “obviously Swedish” because they are blonde and attractive. You know who will give you the skunk eye? Brunette Swedes, that’s who.
I felt slightly better after asking a very sensitive question that’s been weighing on me recently. “Is it OK to talk to Swedish people about the Swedish Chef from The Muppets?” Thank God, it is! They’re used to it. Is the Swedish chef speaking Swedish? No, though my family’s vaguely Swedish port of origin was probably written in the Swedish Chef’s language. In any event, this was not the international incident I feared.
For a long time, American history has been built around the idea that people from all over the world came here to escape something or find opportunity. But the convoluted family tree shared by me and many modern Iron Rangers shows that it’s hard to look back with any clarity. What is clearer is that, at present, the world is more connected than ever. Simple things like music and stories translate with relative ease, and people can communicate in an instant -- without the cumbersome overseas journey and risk of death faced by my forbearers.
It’s amazing how my ancestors took enormous leaps of faith to meet each other in a new land, while Bob Dylan brings pieces of their history back to me. In addition to my conversation with the Swedes, a new friend from England has done much to connect me with my Cornish history, including a decorative wall hanging describing the proper way to make a Cornish pasty. Last week I went to Atlanta and visited the Coke museum. Within moments of posting a picture of me with the Coke polar bear, David shared one of him with the same bear.
The past is important, but as Dylan said it can be changed. There is no substitute for the present. It sits perfectly on the border between what we can control and what we can’t.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations. The next show airs next Saturday from 5-7 p.m. at the Boardman Theatre at Eveleth-Gilbert High School in Eveleth. Admission is free. Arrive by 4:30 p.m.