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Bob Dylan and John Hammond: Crossroads of Superior and Highway 61

Like Melville’s “Moby Dick,” this story begins with a sub-sub-librarian. A few years ago, the former director of the public library in Superior, Wisconsin, called me out of nowhere after an absence of decades to inform me that he’d discovered genealogical research my late father, Barry Singer, had never completed — as well as a video of the two of them meeting at the library with Superior’s then-Mayor Herb Bergson.

Their meeting marked the occasion when the last synagogue of Superior permanently closed its doors, with the community’s remaining funds going to the library. Alluding to Superior’s yet-to-be-written Jewish history, my father quoted Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

When I returned to my hometown a few years ago, I stopped by the old Carnegie Library in which I’d spent much of my childhood. Abandoned in the early 90s, it was protected from demolition by a vigilant group of locals for over a quarter century. Situated on Hammond Avenue, named for the city’s founder, Brig. Gen. John Hammond, the large building could be had for just $125,000 — but required several million dollars in renovations.

After Osterlund Architecture purchased the space, I contacted the head of the building project, Andrew Osterlund, and, channeling my father’s passion for local history, told him about the library’s special place in history — and its secret link between Bob Dylan and John Hammond’s ancestors.

The Delta Blues legend, Robert Johnson, recorded “Cross Road Blues,” a song about the intersection of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1936. In the song, he asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now, save poor Bob if you please.” Just five years later, Bob Dylan was born at the opposite end of Highway 61 in Duluth and was raised in Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan’s kinship with this stretch of road produced “Highway 61 Revisited,” which was voted the greatest Jewish pop song of all time by The Forward.

Dylan’s friend, John Hammond Jr., discovered his great talent in New York in the early 60s and referred him to his father, John Hammond II. The record producer, who also happened to be the grandson of Superior’s founder, catapulted Dylan’s career into the national spotlight by signing him with Columbia Records.

Dylan credits “Moby Dick” as one of three literary works that influenced his song writing. In his 2016 Nobel acceptance speech, he quoted Capt. Ahab, saying, “Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, ‘It’s not down on any map. True places never are.’” Dylan long kept his place of origin and family history a mystery, but my father helped local author, Dave Engel, to reveal details of his Jewish upbringing in Minnesota in his book “Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues.” A reporter once asked Dylan about his relationship to his birthplace of Duluth; Dylan responded cryptically, “Maybe I’m really from Superior…”

When John Hammond II visited his grandfather’s city, he didn’t think much of it. According to his autobiography, “Hammond on Record,” it was the dreariest city he’d ever seen. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said, “but you can see it from there.” A radical progressive, Hammond II discovered and produced a number of famous Black and Jewish artists over his 40-something-year career. And he often questioned his own identity, remarking to his conservative father that his grandmother and Superior’s founding mother, Sophia Vernon Wolfe, looked rather Semitic and had a Jewish-sounding last name. At one point, he asked his father very directly if they were of Jewish descent. His father, who’d been described by the press first as “a poor man” and then later as a very wealthy Upper East Side banker after marrying Emily Sloan Vanderbilt, vehemently dismissed it as impossible.  Nonetheless, Hammond II deeply admired Jews and genuinely wanted to be counted as one.

Hammond II’s son, John Paul Hammond Jr., always has believed in his heart that he was a Jew — and his Jewish wife, Marla Joy Farbstein, always introduces him as her Jewish husband. On the eve of Hammond Jr.’s 79th birthday this November, I was able to inform him that his and his father’s instincts concerning the Hammonds’ Jewish ancestry had been spot on.

You see, Sophia Vernon Wolfe was the granddaughter of Benjamin Wolfe, a founding member of Kehila Kadosh Beth Shalome — known today as Congregation Beth Ahaba — in Richmond, Virginia. Samuel Oppenheim’s “The Jews and Masonry” notes Wolfe was also a prominent member of the Scottish rite of the Masonic Lodge, founded by Jews in America. Wolfe’s temple president and fellow Master Freemason, Jacob I Cohen Jr., wrote a Hebrew prayer for President Washington and went on to write The Jew Bill that would allow Jews to hold political office.

John Paul Hammond Jr. was absolutely stunned by the revelation and felt that he and his father had been vindicated. I like to think that Hammond II’s fascination with his own family’s deep Jewish and American founders’ past is a big part of what attracted him to Dylan and the other iconic American artists he’d signed: from Benny Goodman to Leonard Cohen to Willie the Lion Smith to Aretha Franklin to Bruce Springsteen, and many more.

After leading Black troops to fight for the Union in the civil war, Hammond Jr.’s great-grandfather headed the office of American Indian Affairs for the Dakotas where he became Sitting Bull’s only trusted white friend, convincing him to safely surrender to American troops in 1881. Sitting Bull wrote “Surrender Song” for the occasion. After closing down this office, he purchased and developed land across from Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior. He designed the city to attract immigrants from Europe seeking asylum. Among those immigrants were Dylan’s Lithuanian- Jewish ancestors, the Kaners, Karons, Arnoviches, and others who founded Superior’s Jewish community.

Dylan’s grandfather, originally a Karon, changed his name to Solemovitz and then rolled that to Stone (“Karon” means “cornerstone” or “foundation” in Hebrew) by the time he arrived in Superior. “Like a Rolling Stone” takes on a whole new meaning for me now that I know Dylan’s lineage can be traced back to the cornerstone of King David’s Temple. In Psalm 118, it says: “The stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone.”

The rejected stone edifice that still stands on Hammond Avenue has become the cornerstone of this crossroads in time. It is a remnant of the rich history of a small city that was once expected to be a sprawling metropolis, that became the summer White House for President Coolidge, a business investment for President Roosevelt, a hometown for a Jew who won the 1940 World Series, and a sanctuary city that saved a generation of immigrants from persecution — ultimately giving birth to a new generation of American music.

It’s a shame that most locals aren’t aware of this rich history hidden in plain sight on the streets of Superior. But in the spirit of my father, I feel compelled to share our rich heritage with the potential to bring us back together in such divisive times.

But the times, they are a-changin’. Osterlund Architecture is poised to receive a $3 million grant to restore the old Carnegie Library and showcase its past, as the Superior Telegram reported in November. And award-winning filmmakers David Grubin and Michael Bacon with Andrew Osterlund and I are in the early stages of working on a film and concert to document this incredible history.

Perhaps Dylan might even consider revisiting Highway 61.

Superior: this story is our story, and I invite you all to get involved and invest in this project, learn more about our incredible city, share our history far and wide, and put our crossroads on the map.

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About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.
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