Does Bob Dylan have ties to the St. James Hotel?When Bob Dylan takes the stage Tuesday at the Mayo Civic Center, he’ll be just a few miles from “The Walls of Red Wing” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
By: Sarah Gorvin, The Republican Eagle
When Bob Dylan takes the stage Tuesday at the Mayo Civic Center, he’ll be just a few miles from “The Walls of Red Wing” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
There’s no dispute that the Minnesota native famously referenced the Red Wing correctional facility and the highway that curves along the Mississippi River in his music. But did the icon and Minnesota native make another Red Wing reference in his music?
Mike McKay, the general manager of the St. James Hotel, thinks he did.
“It’s a very real Red Wing tie to Dylan,” McKay said of his theory.
The potential reference is found in “Blind Willie McTell,” a song about a deceased Georgia blues singer. In the song’s last line, Dylan sings he’s “gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel.”
Tie together those lyrics, Dylan’s strong connections to Minnesota, the fact that the St. James is located directly on Highway 61 (which Dylan more than likely traveled), and the lyric can only reference Red Wing, McKay said.
But other Dylan researchers are not so sure.
“It’s too simple. They want esoteric,” McKay said, adding that Dylan scholars love mystery almost as much as the man himself does.
Other researchers make claims that Dylan is referencing the classic blues song “St. James Infirmary,” or St. James Hotels in Alabama, New Orleans, New York and London.
But McKay dismisses the other St. James locations and the reference to the old blues song.
“They never tie it in, in my mind,” McKay said of the other theories. “The other St. James (hotels) were not open during the period of time he wrote the song. I think they’re a lot farther reach.”
But McKay’s theory isn’t exactly widely accepted yet; a few hurdles stand in the way.
To begin with, unless you actually visit Red Wing, you might not be familiar with the fact that the St. James Hotel is located directly on Highway 61.
“Even if you looked it up, it says Main Street,” McKay said.
That means for many Dylan researchers, that connection is almost impossible to make.
In addition, because the St. James doesn’t keep records about who has stayed there (“You’d have volumes and volumes of records,” McKay said), there’s really no way to prove whether or not Dylan ever set foot in the hotel.
“(But) it’s probably likely that he stayed here,” McKay said.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that “Blind Willie McTell” isn’t one of Dylan’s most popular songs. In fact, McKay said many Dylan fans probably haven’t even heard of it.
The song was recorded in 1983 and then only released on what McKay calls a “bootleg copy.”
“Dylan kept it buried,” McKay said.
Still, McKay stands behind his theory. On the St. James Hotel website, he has posted a long narrative explaining the hotel’s Dylan connection. The goal, he said, is to draw history buffs and Dylan enthusiasts to the Red Wing landmark.
“There’s a huge interest in history,” McKay said. “That plays a huge part in people who come to the St. James Hotel.”
But with Dylan still alive and touring, it begs the question why not just ask him what St. James Hotel he’s referencing?
“He’s a very shy person,” said Donna Drews, executive director of the Mayo Civic Center. “He’s pretty much a loner. We are very protective of his wishes so that he’s not unduly interrupted or put in a situation where he’s just not comfortable.”
McKay adds that Dylan simply likes the enigma.
“Dylan loves the mystery,” he said. “And he’ll keep it a mystery.”
If you go…
Bob Dylan will perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Taylor Arena at the Mayo Civic Center, Rochester. Civic center executive director Donna Drews said this will be Dylan’s fourth show at the center.
As of Friday there were still many standing room only floor tickets available, though reserved balcony seats were more limited. Tickets are $49.50 and $55. Visit www.mayociviccenter.com for more information.