Tuesday, March 5, 2019
Books: Why Bob Dylan Matters
Why Bob Dylan Matters, Revised Edition
By Richard F. Thomas
Dey Street Books; paperback, $15.99; available today, Tuesday, March 5
When the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016, there was debate raged. Some celebrated, while many others questioned the choice. How could the world’s most prestigious book prize be awarded to a famously cantankerous singer-songwriter who wouldn’t even attend the medal ceremony?
In Why Bob Dylan Matters, Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas answers this question with magisterial erudition. A world expert on Classical poetry, Thomas was initially ridiculed by his colleagues for teaching a course on Bob Dylan alongside his traditional seminars on Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.
Dylan’s Nobel Prize brought Thomas vindication, and he immediately found himself thrust into the spotlight as a leading academic voice in all matters Dylanological. Today, through his wildly popular Dylan seminar—affectionately dubbed "Dylan 101"—Thomas is introducing a new generation of fans and scholars to the revered bard’s work.
This witty, personal volume is a distillation of Thomas’s famous course, and makes a compelling case for moving Dylan out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and into the pantheon of Classical poets. Asking us to reflect on the question, "What makes a classic?", Thomas offers an eloquent argument for Dylan’s modern relevance, while interpreting and decoding Dylan’s lyrics for readers.
Thomas writes, "Dylan's songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and 'creatively reuse' their work in his own songs. I first began to make the connection after a trip to Normandy, where I had been invited in the spring of 2001 to give a lecture at the University of Caen on Virgil and other Roman poets. My host, Catherine Mason, a lingustics professor there, met me at the train station. She suggested that instead of touring the town, pretty much pummeled out of its historical state before the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, we might head for the beach. That sounded good to me, so I followed her to the parking lot. As we got into her car and she turned the key in the ignition, music came blasting from her car stereo. As we've all done, she had gotten out of the car earlier without thinking to turn down the volume, and the familiar bars of Dylan's 'Idiot Wind,' then and now one of my favorite songs, urgently interrupted our tentative conversation:
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes
Blood on your saddle
"Our conversation quickly turned to Dylan, to that song and its importance. For Catherine, a single mother who had recently gone through a divorce, and an American expatriate bringing up two young sons in France, the breakup song had powerful personal resonance. She had gotten hooked on Dylan twenty-five years after I had, with its 1990 album Under the Red Sky, whose nursery rhyme and fairy-tale traditions became part of the rhythm of bringing up her two young sons. As we walked on what had been Sword Beach, landing point for the British Third Division on D-Day, she talked about her plans for a conference on the performance art of Dylan. Did I want to give a paper at her conference, and maybe even co-edit the proceedings into a volume, she asked? I said sure, not really knowing how I would find a way into the topic. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how the songs from Dylan's 1997 album, Time Out of Mind, had lately begun somehow to remind me of the work of the Roman poets. Still, I had yet to share this insight with anyone.
"It was not until many months after my trip to Caen, soon after September 11, 2001, the day that permanently changed the modern world, that what I would present at the Dylan conference became clear to me. Dylan's album 'Love and Theft' came out on that day, and I bought it at the Tower Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a daze, in the hours after the towers in New York had been leveled. When I eventually listened to the album, I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse of 'Lonesome Day Blues':
I'm gonna spare the defeated - I'm gonna speak to the crowd
I'm gonna spare the defeated, boys, I'm gonna speak to the crowd
I'm goin' to teach peace to the conquered
I'm gonna tame the proud.
"The idiom, rhymes, and music of these lines belonged to Dylan, but the thought and diction, rearranged by Dylan, came from Rome's greatest poet, Virgil. In Dylan's lyrics, I recognized these lines from Virgil's Aeneid, spoken by Anchises, father of Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome. Anchises, who had died on the journey from Troy to Sicily, instructs his son from the Underworld on just how Rome is to rule the world:
but yours will be the rulership of nations,
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.
-Virgil, Aeneid 6.851-53, tr. Mandelbaum
"Suddenly, when I heard Virgil's lines echoed in Dylan's song, my paper topic was obvious. 'Bob Dylan's Performance Artistry' ended up taking place in Caen in March 2005, and I brought along my younger daughter, who was a college freshman at the time and a veteran of a few Dylan concerts. I was delighted, and surprised, that she'd chosen to spend her first college spring break with her father at a Bob Dylan conference...
"In 2003, between my trips to Normandy, I decided to submit a proposal to the Freshman Seminar program at Harvard for a course on Dylan (the first of its kind, to my knowledge). The seminar was eventually approved by the faculty committee responsible for selecting these courses, though not without a fight. I later heard from a friend and member of the committee who had supported my proposal of pushback from some quarters. 'What's he going to do, sit there and listen to 'Highway 61 Revisited' with his students?' was the general attitude. Well, yes, it would be hard not to include that song in the course. My friend had countered that my proposal was no different, and no less appropriate, than putting in to teach the works of T.S. Eliot. This argument won the day, and the seminar has been warmly supported ever since. I teach it every four years, most recently in the fall of 2016.
"Since 2003, the seminar has evolved and changed, as Dylan has continued to produce new work and break new boundaries. We trace the evolution of Dylan's songs from their early folk, blues, and gospel roots and by way of the transition of his art from acoustic to electric in the studio and in performance, the latter being the arena that most inspires and motivates him. We move chronologically but also explore the way the themes of his song connect over time, are part of a larger system that connects song to song and album to album, down through the years. The themes comprehended by Dylan's songbook are as boundless as those of the folk and literary cultures from which his art emerged, and these are the themes of the seminar: music and social justice, war and the human response to war, love and death, faith and religion, song as compensation for the realities of mortality."
Why Bob Dylan Matters will illuminate Dylan’s work for the Dylan neophyte and the seasoned fanatic alike. You’ll never think about Bob Dylan in the same way again.