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Tangled Up In Books

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

By Akash Goel, Crimson Staff Writer

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.”

The Academic Bob Dylan

Gordon Ball, professor of English and Fine Arts at Virginia Military Institute, has nominated Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996, when he was first urged to do so by the ’50s beatnik poet Alan Ginsberg.

Ginsberg wrote in a letter: “Dylan is a major American bard & minstrel of the XX Century, whose words have influenced many generations throughout the world. He deserves a Nobel Prize in recognition of his mighty and universal powers.”

The lyrics to Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” are included in the Norton Introduction to English Literature, a standard high school and college textbook that is compiled according to generally accepted canon of English Literature. Dylan has also received an honorary doctorate in music from Princeton University.

Prof. Thomas, was inspired to teach the class after talking to a colleague about the prospects of a seminar on the New York Yankees. He started thinking outside of his own discipline, the Classics, and it didn’t take too long to come up with the idea of a course based on Dylan, who Thomas has been listening to for the past 40 years.

“As part of my own intellectual development, I’ve seen the literature behind his songs and the literary effect behind the combination of his songs and his lyrics and his music which work in a remarkable symbiosis,” Thomas says.

While some might doubt that the course on Dylan is a legitimate intellectual exercise, Thomas viewed the prospect differently.

“Dylan is this clearly literary and cultural figure, perhaps the primary literary and cultural figure in this country in the last half of the 20th century,” he asserts. “If that’s not worth two hours a week for a semester than it’s not clear to me what is.”

Thomas recently nominated Dylan for a Harvard honorary degree in Arts and thinks Dylan should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature long ago. He also thinks what makes Dylan so timeless is his anonymity and the universality of his music. He cites the song “Masters of War,” which was written in the ’60s but is widely held to be relevant today, whereas more topical songs like Eminem’s recent tirade against President Bush, “Mosh,” likely won’t be remembered beyond next year.

Sullivan compares the ever-fluctuating persona, or voice, in Dylan’s lyric poetry to that of the classic poets: “Every once in a while you get a poet like a Horace, or a Shakespeare or a Dylan who’s able to play around with their persona and actually make their persona the subject of the poetry itself.”

Clem B. Wood ’08, a student in the Dylan seminar, unquestionably sees a great academic quality to the class. In addition to viewing Dylan as one of the great American poets, Wood sees Dylan’s influence as pervasive even beyond music and literature.

“Culturally, Dylan represents the most American of figures, and he has a keensense of history,” Wood says. “From wearing paint on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, as if a blackface minstrel, to parading around in 10-gallon hats worthy of aCivil War general, Dylan manages to show an appreciation of Americana ineven his physical appearance.”

However, regardless of the debate of the academic merits of Dylan, Sullivan thinks people are asking the wrong question.

“It’s really not so much ‘Is Dylan a valid object of study,’ but you have to decide if rock and roll or American music is a valid object of study,” he says. “And once you realize that it is, or once you concede that it is, then all arrows will point to Dylan.”

Dylan’s Relevance Today

In a time when “music” to our generation has more to do with the ins and outs of Nick and Jessica’s marriage than the soulful, original and momentous music of our parents’ generation, where does a geriatric harmonica player with a black lung voice fit in? Is Dylan, decades beyond the pinnacle of his career and currently caught up in controversy over charges of plagiarism, mired in an inescapable career trough or will his later work stand the test of time?

When asked last month in his first public broadcast in 19 years why he was still actively touring, Dylan said it was because he did not think other people are doing what he does. He addresses the same question in his recently published memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One, saying that he has hopes to be discovered by a new audience.

Between Dylan’s seemingly ubiquitous presence and what Prof. Thomas calls the “never ending tour,” his appearance in a Victoria Secret commercial and one of his song’s close lyrical resemblance to passages from a Japanese Yakuza novel, the Troubadour has sparked some heated controversy.

In regards to the commercial, Sullivan postulates that it’s Dylan just being consummately self-referential and trying to stay one step ahead of his own image. Sullivan refers to a 1965 interview wherein Dylan said the only commercial he would ever do is for “ladies’ undergarments.”

Not only has Dylan’s image been questioned in recent years, but his musical integrity and lyrical honesty have also come under scrutiny. Songs off of his new album such as “Floater” and “Po’ Boy” seem to take lines almost verbatim from the English translation of Junachi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza.

With a particularly suggestive album title such as Love and Theft, Sullivan argues that Dylan is very consciously tapping into other traditions while at the same time using them to vary his own persona.

“The fact that he took these lyrics from a Japanese gangster novel and made them into something quintessentially American, that’s Love and Theft,” he argues. “He takes it, he transforms it, he makes it his own. This happens in great art everywhere.”

This borrowing of traditions and allusion even goes back to ancient Roman poetry. Prof. Thomas points out the striking similarities between a verse in Dylan’s “Lonesome Bay Blues” and a passage in the English translation of Virgil’s Aenied.

Thomas offers his own explanation for Dylan’s sometimes incomprehensible motives and notes that society doesn’t always understand the means to his ends.

“He’s always known where he’s going, and it’s taken us a while to catch up to where he’s going,” Thomas says. “In hindsight we can see that, but in the moment it can seem like betrayal; it can seem incomprehensible because it’s not familiar. But that’s why he’s an artist, poet or whatever title you want to give him.”

Coming to Harvard

The Undergraduate Council’s booking of Dylan, a significantly more prominent figure than Guster or Busta Rhymes, came as a surprise to most students.

President of Undergraduate Council, Matthew W. Mahan ’05, said in an e-mail that the Concert Commission got the idea of inviting Dylan after measuring the artist’s popularity by the number of times he appeared in Thefacebook.com profiles.

Chair of the Concert Commission Justin H. Haan ’05, who is also a former Crimson executive, said in an e-mail that the logistics worked out well.

“After learning that Bob Dylan was playing the last show of a fall tour in Amherst on Nov. 20, we approached his agent with the idea of performing a show at Harvard the following night,” he says.

To the council’s delight, the show hasn’t completely drained their resources for future concerts.

“When all is said and done, Dylan will probably have cost the UC less than $10,000, which is less than one-tenth of our Committee Fund,” said Mahan.

Prof. Thomas looks forward to the show, and notes that Dylan’s performance, similar to the oral tradition of Homeric poetry, is just as significant as his music and lyrics.

“Dylan is a classic and consummate performer,” Thomas says. “Performance is so much a part of his expression, of his song and of his essence.”

—Staff writer Akash Goel can be reached at agoel@fas.harvard.edu.

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