Tangled Up In Books

Bob Dylan will always remain a musical legend, but how does his songwriting stack up in the world of academia?

In an industry where beauty, either physical or vocal, often counts more than talent, Bob Dylan continues to defy musical convention and set the standard of success. From his role as a voice of protest at the height of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the ’60s and ’70s to his latest and highly acclaimed album, Love and Theft, Dylan, over the past 40 years, has sung, inspired and changed the American music tradition so much as to embody the tradition itself.

But Dylan’s influence has spanned beyond the scope of folk, rock and blues music. In addition to selling over 57 million albums, Dylan is the only musician to ever have been considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. This year, Harvard is even offering a freshman seminar titled “Bob Dylan,” taught by Professor of Greek and Latin Richard F. Thomas and focusing on the musical and literary significance of his work. This course, among the ranks of seminars on Goethe, Dickens and Rousseau, prompted a discussion around campus of the academic merit and importance of such a class.

Dylan’s recent output has again caught the eyes of critics—Love and Theft topped Village Voice’s renowned Pazz and Jop list in 2001—but most agree that Dylan can never top the albums of his ’60s heyday. At age 63, Dylan is still going strong, hitting over 100 venues a year, and this Sunday he will add Gordon Indoor Track and Field Center to the list, though even his most diehard fans admit that his voice can no longer sustain the rigors of his touring schedule. If this is the case, what keeps him going and is the “idea” of Dylan still relevant today or just a rehash of a lost era?

The Essential Bob Dylan


Dylan led the life of an average teenager. Before studying at the University of Minnesota, he played mostly rock and roll and listened to artists such as Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Michael Sullivan, a serious Dylan aficionado and graduate student who works closely with Thomas, who is also Chair of the Department of the Classics, says that it wasn’t until 1959, during Dylan’s only semester at the university, that he was exposed to the folk genre that would soon be inseparable from Dylan’s name.

Dylan was greatly inspired by Bound for Glory, the autobiographical account of Woody Guthrie, a founding father of the American Folk Movement. He started playing coffee shops and even traveled cross country to visit the terminally sick Guthrie in a hospital in New York.

“He goes and visits Woody Guthrie in the hospital; they have a conversation. And suddenly, within the next couple years Dylan is sort of this new Woody Guthrie of the ’60s singing socially-conscience, powerful songs that relate to the era,” says Sullivan.

Dylan’s popularity immediately took off after his ballad, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” was brought to a commercial audience by the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Sullivan points out Dylan’s relevance to one of the greatest moments in the American Civil Rights movement by adding that Dylan was introduced at the March on Washington shortly before Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.”

“People got into the tune [Blowin’ in the Wind] hearing this very melodious, harmonious Peter, Paul and Mary version. And then suddenly this guy from Minnesota, in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, gets up and starts singing it, not in a beautiful voice, but in something that’s very much an American voice,” Sullivan explains. “Something that’s authentic.”

Although he was not the first musician to write protest songs, as an advocate of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam movements, Dylan made it “cool” to write politically motivated lyrics.

According to Sullivan, “The protest songs as a genre rose up within this kind-of neo-folk movement in the U.S. that started in the late ’50s, but basically hit its crescendo in the early ’60s and which Dylan very self-consciously abandons in 1964. He got bored with the self-righteousness of the folk movement and sort of turned to his own experiment.”

Since Dylan’s initial ascendancy to fame, he has been constantly evaluating and re-evaluating his own image and style of music.

Dylan’s choice to play an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival has often been cited by critics as a pivotal moment for the artist’s rock career and a symbol of how he goes against the expectations of his audience. Sullivan reflects that Dylan has “become all these different permutations of himself at different times and as a result different permutations of American music.”

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