In the pantheon of American writers – comprising authors, playwrights, poets and songwriters – nobody epitomises the spirit of Americana, that mythic quintessence of the country’s culture, history and tradition, more than Bob Dylan.
It would take years to travel to all the places he’s name-checked in song: few artists write lyrics with such a strong sense of place. But we’re going to try.
If we were to plot a route for a tour that encapsulates Bob’s lyrical world, we would have to begin in the American heartland, in Hibbing, Minnesota. It’s a small town famous for two things: one of the world’s largest open-pit iron mines, and being Bob’s place of birth. From there we might move on, as he did, to New York City, where the tousle-haired teenage troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica first made his name in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, and up again to Rhode Island where he was booed off for playing an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
More likely we would head south from Minnesota, and reverse the migration of the blues all the way back to the Mississippi Delta that inspired New Orleans Rag. Bob’s a reclusive character (you may have heard that), which makes him a solitary sort of travelling companion.
But at the end of a long day he likes to drink whiskey and reminisce about the musicians who inspired him as a young man. Like the time when, aged 17, he got to see Buddy Holly play just three days before he died in a plane crash. Sometimes he’ll light up talking about how it all began, hearing Robert Johnson and Hank Williams on distant radio stations from Shreveport, Louisiana, and how Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis turned their blues and country music into rock’n’roll.
He’ll talk passionately about how his idol Woody Guthrie put political protest into folk music and how Elvis Presley injected it with the sex appeal that made girls go wild. Bob never quite did that; that wasn’t his thing. But he took what they all did and made it his own.
By now our paddle steamer has reached Mississippi so we’ll hop off for Bob to visit Oxford. It was here, in 1962, that one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement took place, when James Meredith became the first black student to enrol at the segregated university – commemorated in Oxford Town on Bob’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the following year.
Staying in the South, where so much music began, we’ll move on to Alabama, where Bob was once Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, and across to Nashville, where he recorded some of his greatest albums, including Blonde On Blonde and, of course, Nashville Skyline itself, before heading further south. We’ll cross the border at El Paso and head into Mexico for Romance In Durango, where Dylan once went on the run with Magdalena on the album Desire.
We’ll travel to Europe, too. No tour would be complete without a trip to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, where a disgruntled folk fan famously yelled out ‘Judas!’ when Bob picked up his electric guitar in 1966. And we’d go to Asia, stopping off in Tokyo, where he recorded the classic live album Bob Dylan At Budokan in 1978. And to China, where the tireless performer – at 77, he still does more than 80 concerts a year, including one this month at Hong Kong’s Convention and Exhibition Centre – performed in Beijing in 2011.
Our return leg could only end in one place: Stockholm, where Dylan was honoured in 2016 as the first songwriting recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature – a fitting award for a writer and musician whose influence has travelled to every corner of the world.
Bob Dylan is playing at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on 4 August. hkticketing.com