On Losing George Floyd in Dylan Country and Making Music with my Dad

A displaced New Yorker spends lockdown in her frost-belt home

My daughter Cordelia (then 5) at George Floyd’s Minneapolis memorial the week after his death

One year ago I fled a shut-down New York with my kids, not knowing if or when we would return. After short stays with loved ones in Knoxville and Boulder, we landed at grandma and grandpa’s in my native land, the Twin Ports of Superior, Wisc., and Duluth, Minn., where I hadn’t lived since 1997. My mom is healthy and my dad unscientific, so they opened their home in spite of the risks. I’m conscious how lucky we were to have had their support while we rode out the school year, waited for “summer” (we are talking about Duluth here), and hoped for signs of normalcy.

And just when we were planning my son’s tenth birthday, ruing the lack of friends, and feeling downright sorry for all the kids whose good times were thwarted, the death of George Floyd at police hands turned all our coronawhining a whiter shade of pale. As the headlines spun, I experienced my son William’s pool party (at a just-reopened hotel) with an acute sense of our privilege. Alongside the national conscience, my own lens was changing; instead of simply rejoicing at my children’s pent-up glee, I recalled history’s images of overheated Black kids watching white peers find relief in the pools from which they were banned. As I reflected on becoming a mother ten years prior, a journey of indescribable beauty and challenges, I thought about the vulnerability of parents and those who’ve weathered the added struggle of lesser treatment on the basis of color, creed, or class.

Brad Meltzer paints a powerful picture of segregation in his “I am Jackie Robison” book from his children’s Ordinary People Change the World series.

George Floyd paid with his life for our culture’s wishful reckoning with race, the particular timing of his tragedy spurring outrage at unjust Black deaths and, even more so, their unjust lives. It was 1984 when Eddie Murphy created his indelible Mr. White skit, in which Blacks and whites live such absurdly different lives that cocktail parties erupt on public busses when Black passengers get off. Having watched this a hundred times in my youth, the Best of SNL series being family VHS staples, I’m unsure why I didn’t always live more conscious of my privilege: the exercise of easy choice I have consistently enjoyed, the lack of fear that anything truly unfair will happen to me or mine.

Following Floyd’s death, I endeavored to listen and learn. In the fraught interim since, I’ve had conversations across the political spectrum, hoping to reach bedrock—vis-à-vis racism, the politics of COVID, government size, etc.,—while trying to nudge those at the poles toward more nuanced considerations, less defined by party lines. I have felt “suggestible,” occasionally swayed by propaganda on either side, and silently contemptible at those full of “passionate intensity,” while uncomfortable in my own lack of conviction. Where I have landed is a mixed bag of disgust, concern, and hope: disgust toward media; concern about government aptitude and most politicians as well as cancel culture, identity politics, and virtue-flagging; and hope that our nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” will more than endure, maybe even helping safeguard morality for the next generation.

As Americans with selective hearing continue to argue whether or not we are racist, one thing seems clear: individualism and empathy (a wonderful word currently sullied by mis- and overuse) are not mutually exclusive, as extremists would have you think. The admission that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” need not imperil our individual rights, privileges, and pursuits. Something I once heard Carla Harris say, “There’s plenty of room at the top,” supports my belief that other people’s fortune or fair shake need not diminish one’s own. We can live thrillingly competitive and richly individualistic lives, embracing Nietzsche’s “healthy desire to stand out,” within a collectivist, interdependent, prosocial culture. And we can harbor a healthy fear of being bossed around by government without being guilty of heartlessness. A word to those profiting from polarities at odds with my view: the louder and faster you speak, the more blanket statements you use, the more you insult the intelligence of people seeking answers to those questions blowing in the wind, the less you will be heard.

150 miles from where George Floyd lived and died, Bob Dylan was born almost 80 years ago. A proponent of human rights as well as individualism, Dylan wrote some two dozen politically oriented songs between 1961–64, including such cultural anthems as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “When the Ship Comes In,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which he debuted to a sold-out Carnegie Hall at the age of 23.

But Dylan never intended to become protest’s poster child. By 1964 he expressed he was no longer interested in politics, that he wanted to “write from inside me.” While his songs were out of his hands—art eclipsing its maker—Dylan excavated a new philosophy in “Back Pages,” a cautionary tale that renounces youthful proselytizing in favor of a deeper understanding around “lies that life is black and white,” and a more complex treatment of the words “equality,” “good,” and “bad.” Embarrassed by his former certitude, Dylan calls for critical thinking over finger-pointing, and moral imagination over sanctimony. Ten years later the same man wrote “Hurricane,” with its searing “In Paterson that’s just the way things go/If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street/Unless you want to draw the heat.” Dylan sings to injustice when his spirit is moved and he finds the words; he doesn’t go looking for it.

A Dylan shrine at Fitger’s Brewery, the 19th century brick behemoth that sprawls along Duluth’s Lake Superior shore.

Part of going home for me is always a reconnection with Dylan. I’ve loved his music my whole life, to the point that one of the few times I got into trouble was for carving “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a dresser. My all-time favorite bragging right is having been born in the same hospital as Bobby D, a place he cited to local glee at a Duluth stop on the Simon & Dylan tour of 1999 — “I was born right up on that there hill!” The outpouring of Dylan braggadocio from a place he scarcely looks back on has compelled me to wonder if we shouldn’t re-name it Dyluth.

When it was announced in 2016 that Conor McPherson, a playwright I’ve interviewed and whose idiomatic poetry I love, was commissioned, nay chosen, to write and direct a musical about Bob Dylan that he then set in Duluth, it was about more than I could take. I wormed my way into covering the London opening for my former employer, American Theatre magazine, and in the spring of 2017 I sat agape at the Old Vic theatre next to two Americans who couldn’t stop crying. McPherson’s story, a prequel set in 1935 before Dylan was born, is a beautiful dirge of a play, but the lasting joy has been Simon Hale’s arrangements, which reveal a whole new troubadour to love, a full-voiced musical theatre Dylan rich with vibrato and tone. Hear the London score here.

With my North Country bluster at an all-time high, I was organizing a group to see it on Broadway before coronavirus shut all theatre down for what will be well more than one year. Luckily Duluth News Tribune writer Mark Nicklawske had made previews and wrote a fine review, agreeing about the music with his review title, “Girl from the North Country makes Dylan music shine.” It will be a very great day when Broadway re-opens, and I can’t wait to get my own picture beneath the Broadway marquis boasting “Duluth, 1936,” Zenith City’s debut on the Great White Way.

Just a few months later at home in Duluth, deep in the self-examination and erratic behavior brought upon by living with one’s parents at 40, I settled for taking my family down Minnesota’s actual Highway 61, making us sing through the namesake album with its opening wonder, “Rolling Stone.” At the time my husband and I were navigating our personal set of COVID challenges, namely unemployment, home school, and a New York lease we mightn’t be able to honor, all while getting the precious experience of living in my childhood home, a mid-life chance to assess origins and identity to the core. Of countless poignancies, including my daughter learning to swim and my son learning to ride a bike in the same places I did — nostalgic narcissism at its height — the greatest was getting to moonlight with my daddy’s cover band. Music, specifically folk, rock, and pop, has been at the heart of my family and is indivisible from my childhood. Mom and I worshipped Mary Travers; Daddy almost always had a band.

My guy.

Flipside consists of my dad shining on drums and vocals plus two terrific guitarists, one of whom can sing anything, and a rotating door of female leads. I tackled their current vacancy with zeal, hungry to play rock ’n roller. A decade ago, I would have been no candidate to sing with a band, but at age 31 I fell into studying voice with a classical music friend in New York. A passing complaint about not being able to sing led him to assure me that everyone has a voice and to claim he could teach me in just one lesson. In proving his point, he changed my life. Over the years since, we’ve studied as time has allowed, and Dad has apprenticed me on brief visits home. But it took the pandemic to send me home for long enough to really dig in. And it was bliss: some of my favorite music, a microphone, and my dad.

It’s worth noting I wasn’t always daddy’s little girl, whom he once taught karate and treated with a gender neutrality that has served me well. As a teen, it was another story — my early champagne tastes rubbed him the wrong way, while I was indignant at his lack thereof. Our communications suffered for some 10–20 years before the milestones of walking me down the aisle and grandfatherhood began to bridge the gap. When I started to sing we gained something new to share. I used to wonder why he had raised me to love the good stuff but never thought to help me learn an instrument. Looking back I see that it’s because he was still finding himself, something I can sure relate to now.

After a handful of practices and gigs, on July 4, 2020, we played Jack’s in Superior, where the clientele would raise many a Manhattan brow. Situated on Tower Avenue, a main drag you can see cloned throughout our country, Jack’s is across from a McDonald’s, a gas station, and a drug store. But inside its “garden,” bizarrely muraled walls block the golden arches and other low buildings. It was the end of the night, and the band was attempting to take requests, officially done with our fourth set but grooving and loathe to let the night end. Just over the walls, lilac trees waved fragrantly and a full moon rose. It was warmer, softer night air than is typical at those coordinates. I looked at the sky and, seeing the moon, turned to my dad and asked, “You guys do ‘Bad Moon Rising’?” He said, “Sure do,” and asked me if I knew it. I looked at the man who raised me and replied, “Of course.”

I had two trains running on stage with my dad that patriotic night. On the one hand, I couldn’t believe I was spending the Fourth of July with mostly cross-eyed Trumpers. On the other, I well know that ugly things can tell beautiful tales, like how to bridge our country’s ridiculous political divide. A divide so destructive that in recent years my father, who raised me to love Bruce Springsteen with the fervor I possess, took to renouncing Bruce for his politics with the invective, “He should shut up and sing,” upon which I’ve invited Dad to take his own advice. For what he and Bruce have in common—age, demography, pained dads, tough moms, love of music, family, friends, and country—is more important than politics will ever be.

Months later back in New York, reunited with my vocal benefactor, I commented that my dad “drowns me out” when we sing together. Unless I’m harmonizing up, Mom (my shamelessly biased number one fan) says she can’t hear me over him in our duets. My teacher explained that this is a matter of sonics, the slower sound waves of the male voice absorbing the faster sound waves of the woman’s register. Scientifically, I must sing higher to be heard. My dad’s voice absorbs mine. Absorbs rather than drowns out. It strikes me as analogous. As a country and world, might we “absorb” each other’s viewpoints through conversation, letting empathy heighten our gratitude rather than judgment kill our joy. Might this not improve our relationships with loved ones and strangers across the political divide. Then when we really need to be heard, might we first listen, take a deep breath, and go high.

Epilogue

In my COVID tenure with Dad’s band, I ended up with a genuinely weird repertoire of songs, from Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” to Mellencamp’s infectious “Hurts So Good,” changed to the female point of view. There was the ridiculously fun “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” with my daughter’s and my favorite line, “Before I put another notch on my lipstick case…,” Duffy’s “Mercy,” which I had never heard and loved tackling, and the really mediocre“I Love Rock ’n Roll.” And much as I do indeed love rock ’n roll, I really couldn’t get past the music’s obvious rhythmic mimicry of sex and lyrics about picking up an underage man in front of my dad.

Funniest of all might have been Meredith Brooks’s “Bitch.” If my heart is in the 60s-70s, this 90s anthem resonates through my own real-time memory in a way that only experience can. Loving the irresistible melody, I was conflicted over the verses — yes, I absolutely “contain multitudes,” (hat tips to Whitman and Dylan now), so admit to being all the stock characters of “lover, child, mother, sinner, saint,” but no, I resist the clichés around women’s moods — both the women who lean into that narrative and the men who belittle it. So I don’t love the line, “Rest assured that when I start to make you nervous, and I’m going to extremes, tomorrow I will change, AND TODAY WON’T MEAN A THING.”

But damn I loved singing it.

Weston MacKinnon captures Eduardo Kobra’s five-story Dylan mural, completed over two weeks in 2015, found at the corner of Hennepin and 5th Street in Minneapolis.

A girl from the North Country, Cassandra Csencsitz is now a New York-based writer, editor, and mother of two.

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