Bob Dylan is a huge topic, especially when the subject is his place in history. In part 2 of a conversation with The Music Break, Professor Dr. Richard Thomas expands on the idea that Dylan is an important literary figure, not just a rock icon. He explores his connection with the writers of antiquity. (Part 1 of the conversation is here.)
Of course, it is quite a claim. Thomas’ point is that Ovid, Homer and Virgil were not gods. They were real people who plied their craft just as Dylan has done. We could, of course, wait a few millennia to see how it all shakes out. Failing that, we can rely on an expert such as Thomas, the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard University. In addition to teaching the classics, every four years he offers an undergraduate course entitled “Why Bob Dylan Matters” and has written a book by the same title (here it is on Amazon).
A lot of this seems to be about myths. Writers of antiquity — at least those whose work still is important — created myths. It’s interesting that Dylan is mining these works while at the same time creating myths of his own. Dylan, since he entered our collective consciousness in the 1960s, has played many roles. More often than not, they seem to be hiding something. Dylan is an elusive figure who appears to have handled his fame and longevity by creating a buffer between who he really is and the public. Perhaps Dylan, as a poet who is deeply connected to legendary writers of myths, decided to create some about himself.
Myth also seem to me to be reflected in some of his most popular songs. Dylan can write intimately, as he does, for instance, on much of “Nashville Skyline.” But some of his greatest songs cover a far broader landscape. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” for instance, is a mythic song that is grander than one person’s experience. It’s not just a sheriff who can’t shoot anymore, it’s all of us. In my opinion, that’s where he is different than other lyricists.
A person must think about what Dylan is saying. It is not all neatly laid out. Allusions do not hit the listener over the head. This may be why Dylan deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as other great writers, no matter when they lived. This, in the big scheme of things, makes being a rock star only his day job.
“Crossing the Rubicon” from Rough and Rowdy Ways is below the Amazon ad. TDMB previously posted about Dylan here and here.
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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.
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.