It was bound to happen.
And, well, what better time than the present?
Like many cities that name a street near a stadium after a sports star who became famous playing at the venue, Darwin took a step in immortalizing one of its favorite sons last week.
Mayor Josh Johnson installed a new street sign Thursday, temporarily replacing the Twine Ball Lane sign, which marks a short alley that runs just south of Darwin’s iconic twine ball, with one designating it as Weird Alley.
After completing the installation, Johnson sent an email to publicists for “Weird Al” Yankovic to inform him of the change, which is intended to recognize the attention the singer-songwriter has brought to the town of 350 residents through the years.
“We just really wanted to convey our appreciation for Al and what he’s done for Darwin,” Johnson said. “We’re certainly fans here. And we’re excited to be tied to an artist like that.”
That tie, of course, comes from the artist’s 1989 release of “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” a kind of humorous ballad with a record-setting twine ball as its focus.
Yankovic’s song, which runs 6 minutes and 50 seconds, parodies the styles of Harry Chapin’s “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edumund Fitzgerald” with a refrain that says:
“And all of us were joined together in one common thought
As we rolled down the long and winding interstate in our ’53 DeSoto
We’re gonna see the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota
We’re headin’ for the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota”
Though Yankovic’s song never mentions Darwin by name, the lyrics have prompted thousands of people to visit Darwin through the years, Johnson said.
“It depends on the day, but I tell people that a pretty good estimate in the summer is 100 to 150 a day,” Johnson said. “Some stop and roll down their window and take a photo and leave. But the majority will get out, walk around and get a selfie with the twine ball.”
Rural Darwin farmer Francis A. Johnson, no relation to the current mayor, collected scraps of twine and rolled them into a ball for decades. By the time he died in 1989, Johnson’s twine ball weighed nearly nine tons and stood 12 feet tall. Two years after his death, the ball was moved into Darwin, where it sits under a protective shelter on the town’s main street.
“The vast majority have heard the song,” Johnson said of twine ball visitors. “Anywhere from 30 percent to 80 percent are there just because they’re Weird Al fans, and they become twine ball enthusiasts through their love of him and his music.”
One of many Twine Ball Museum volunteers, according to Johnson, says of the twine ball, “It’s their Mecca. It’s like a required pilgrimage for Weird Al fans.”
All of that is what prompted Johnson to order an extra street sign when the city purchased new signs as part of a Darwin Community Legacy Foundation project. Twine Ball Lane was among the new signs purchased last year, to designate the previously unnamed alley, but the mayor thought Weird Alley was a fitting tribute when additional signs were ordered this year.
“I thought it would be a nice thing to do to thank him,” Johnson said. “I had it for a while, and we thought the timing would be right now, because of him coming to the State Fair.”
Yankovic was scheduled to perform Tuesday night at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand, a concert that a large contingent of Darwin residents already were planning to attend.
Along with notifying Yankovic’s managers, Johnson also planned to announce the recognition on social media. Funny thing happened though — after hearing from his publicists of the sign, Yankovic beat Johnson to the punch, tweeting through his @alyankovic Twitter account: “Sure, the Grammys and platinum albums are nice and all, but now I know I’ve finally made it: they just re-named the alley next to the Darwin, MN Twine Ball.”
Johnson said he saw Yankovic’s tweet and immediately responded through the @DarwinTwineBall Twitter account: “To celebrate @alyankovic’s @mnstatefair appearance this week and to honor all he has done to promote the Twine Ball and Darwin, Twine Ball Lane will now also be known as Weird Alley. Thanks for everything, Al! This here’s what America’s all about.”
As for being scooped on Darwin’s big news, Johnson chuckled and called it a good thing.
“He’s got 5 million followers,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty exciting to have him initiate it, him unveil the name change. I’m kind of surprised by how much legs it got. But for Al to put it out versus us, that’s brought some notoriety to the Twine Ball account, as well.”
No official action was taken by Darwin’s City Council on the street name change, Johnson explained, because the alley was unnamed, and the naming did not affect any mailing address.
The plan is to have the alley marked as Twine Ball Lane most of the time, he said, but it will rotate to Weird Alley when the artist is on tour and “in the neighborhood.”
“Whenever he’s in the area, or touring within several states, we’ll have the Weird Alley sign up,” he said. “We get a lot of fans who are attending his concerts who stop by during those time periods. And they’re always really, really nice folks. It’s fun to chat with them. It’s neat for us folks in Darwin to be able to welcome people from all over the world and kind of share Francis’ legacy with them.
“And we’re fortunate, too, to have this tie to Weird Al Yankovic,” Johnson added. “There aren’t too many artists with his staying power.”