Is it possible that Dylan is describing his hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota in this song? Perhaps I’m falling into the trap of assuming the lyrics of a song are necessarily autobiographical. Of course, that’s not always the case. However, I do think most everything an artist does is partly about themselves. It’s unavoidable.
There’s really nothing in the song that unequivocally states that the setting is Hibbing. I guess it’s just as likely that it’s no town in particular, just a general description of any small-town hometown USA. But still, let’s look around, see let’s see what we find.
the streets have names you can’t pronounce
The music starts and the people sway
Shuckling (also written as shokeling), from the Yiddish word meaning “to shake”, is the ritual swaying of worshippers during Jewish prayer, usually forward and back but also from side to side. (from Wikipedia)
Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill
Typically your uncles live in your hometown, especially those that work together.
The song references – Set’em Up, Joe, Walking the Floor – are such that a person living in the 50’s in Hibbing would be familiar with them.
There are palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
That phrase doesn’t really help make my case.
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
He was born in Duluth. Close enough.
I touch the garment but the hem was torn
This reads to me like a rejection of his Jewish heritage, which of course for Dylan was rooted in Hibbing.
There’s walnut groves and maplewood
Both grow in Minnesota (and also in much of the USA).
Of course, only Dylan knows the answers to this, and he’s not saying. Does it really matter? Not really. But it could be Hibbing. Or not. It’s fun to consider.