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Video: Dr. Richard Thomas on Bob Dylan, the Classicist

The 1960s and 1970s brought an explosion of musical creativity. It seemed as if there was a pent up dam of new and imaginative approaches to music and lyrics that seemed to spontaneously emerge. It’s a half century later and it still is remarkable and unprecedented.

An interesting question, however, is how the best of these artists stack up against the greatest artists of antiquity. Dr. Richard Thomas, the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard University, makes a forceful case that at least one of these artists — Bob Dylan — is a worthy heir who has every right to be mentioned along side these giants.

Thomas is the author of a 2017 book entitled “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Every four years, he teaches an undergraduate course of the same name.

Bob Dylan (Photo: Chris Hakkens)

In part one of a two-part conversation with TDMB, Professor Thomas makes a compelling case that Dylan is a genius who carries on in the tradition of Homer, Ovid and Virgil. And he proves that it was deliberate: Dylan’s lyrics contain direct quotes and close paraphrases from the works of these authors.

Professor Thomas doesn’t mince words when it comes to his opinion of Dylan’s stature. This is from the book’s introduction (Here it is at Amazon):

For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greeks and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Green and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being constrained by time or place.

In the first of a two-part conversation, Professor Thomas describes Dylan as a writer whose work “is engaged with what it means to be a human being at the deepest and most fundamental level.” He also says that, like the classic writers, his work is revisited time after time. Of course, whether he matches Ovid, Virgil and Homer in longevity regard remains to be seen.

“False Prophet” from Rough and Rowdy Ways is below the Amazon ad. TDMB previously posted about Dylan here and here.

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Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

🎼🎺🎻🎹🎷🎶🎵


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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