Why Bob Dylan still matters

by James Belfield / 27 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan. Photo/Getty Images

The study of Bob Dylan’s songwriting is receiving a classical makeover thanks to a New Zealand-raised Harvard professor.

A year after he graduated from high school in Hibbing – a mining town in heartland America near the shores of Lake Superior and just south of the Canadian border – Bob Dylan found he needed a lift south to get to the start of his second year at university.

So the then-19-year-old’s father asked the father of an old school friend who lived down the road, someone the future Nobel Prize-winning songwriter had spent time with at the school’s Latin club, if he could drive him the four hours to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“And my dad took Bob’s bags and tried to take his guitar,” the friend recalled, “but Bob held on to his guitar and then he sat there on that whole trip down and had it held between his legs – and I don’t believe he said a single word the whole way.”

This story – which dates back to 1960 – was told to Dylanologist Richard F Thomas by the old school friend, now 76, and although it doesn’t find its way into Thomas’s book Why Dylan Matters, is exactly the sort of biographical minutiae the singer’s obsessive fans pore over, looking for pointers towards his genius.

Although Thomas is in many ways no different from those hard-core fans (he can’t help linking the quiet teenager in the back of a neighbour’s car to Dylan’s key ingredients for great writing – experience, observation and imagination), his main reason for travelling the 2400km from Boston’s Harvard University, where he’s a professor of the classics, to a small town known for having the world’s largest open-cast iron mine was the old schoolmates’ link via that Latin club.

Because 67-year-old Thomas, who grew up in Auckland and received his BA and MA (first-class honours) from the University of Auckland in 1972-73, is a classicist, and Why Dylan Matters is not about biographical minutiae but about how Dylan’s pilfering of phrases, tones and poetry from the likes of Homer, Virgil, Catullus and Ovid is not the petty thieving of some guitar-wielding plagiarist, but the purposeful work of a craftsman who not only knew the timeless truths of great poets but also recognised his own place among them.

And, of course, it’s not plagiarism, because as TS Eliot puts it and Thomas is quick to remind us, “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. It’s an eons-old tradition on which Thomas has become a world authority, including the snappily titled 1999 book Reading Virgil and his Texts: Studies in Intertextuality.

Richard Thomas.

The crux of Why Dylan Matters is Thomas’s line-by-line studies of songs and their intertextual origins, from competitive efforts to outscore the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood in Fourth Time Around to the essence of Rimbaud appearing in Chimes of Freedom and the “loud and clear” echoes of Virgil’s Aeneid in the 10th verse of Lonesome Day Blues from the 2001 album “Love and Theft”.

Thomas says that although they’ve also been the basis of four attention- and headline-grabbing seminars he has taught at Harvard since 2004 and, after the hoopla surrounding that Nobel Prize, the ideal subject for this book, the chemistry of his self-confessed fandom for Dylan and classics has been a slow distillation.

“In the 70s, in graduate school in Michigan, I was listening to Blood on the Tracks and studying the lyric poet Catullus … and seeing that the poetry of both lay in the broken aspects of love,” Thomas says. “So I was putting these things together in the 1970s, but in those days of teaching classics, you were forbidden from going outside the bounds of the classical corpus – if you wandered past the third or fourth century CE, you were being transgressive.

“So it was only when I started teaching the seminar on what he’d done in “Love and Theft” that it became an academic thing for me.”

Although Thomas had long considered a “retirement” book on “Dylan and time”, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 accelerated the process. “The Nobel Prize was on the day of the last class, and I was terrified because I’d just signed a book contract, the press was there, I didn’t have the shape of the book in my head yet … and I had a nine-month deadline.”

That shape eventually emerged as a rather affable approach to storytelling in which Thomas’s own experiences (trips to Hibbing, snatches of conversations outside Dylan gigs, personal memories) break up what’s often a thorough piece of hard academia. For example, a chapter in which the professor gets his hands on early drafts of Tangled Up in Blue at Dylan’s archives in Tulsa (a dream for any Dylanologist) is breathlessly introduced by the advice to “fasten your seat belts”.

“The publishers were constantly wanting me to write for people who don’t already know Dylan, but I was really writing for the people I met in concerts and who you get a bond with through Bob,” he says. “Those experiences were shaping the way I was getting into the songs and into the topic. And okay, it’s not what objective authors are supposed to be doing, but since so much of my relationship with Dylan is personal and so close, I felt I could do that. And partly because I’ve earnt the right to do it – I’ve written all this stuff on Virgil and Horace already – and if people don’t like it, that’s tough. Sort of Bob Dylan attitude, right?”

It’s an attitude he enjoys adopting. He’s a two-a-year concertgoer (five this past year as he got to grips with studying the set lists for the book); his first memory of Dylan is of singing Blowin’ in the Wind at his Auckland school and realising the version he was being taught was not the radio-friendly Peter, Paul and Mary one; he bought a balalaika (“not a great choice”) after falling in love with Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago with the intention of becoming a Dylan-esque troubadour; and long before experiencing love and loss, he already knew that any girlfriends would have to live up to the traditions of Blonde on Blonde’s Visions of Johanna.

But the real thread that runs through Thomas’s book is his love for both the poetry and music of Dylan and those long-gone masters. And in an extremely crowded marketplace for Dylanology, his enthusiastic voice does rise above the rather dusty tomes from the likes of Christopher Ricks, Michael Gray and the ubiquitous Clinton Heylin.

He is happy to talk about his “almost missionary zeal” for Dylan’s latest “classical” period and hopes “people who are interested in Dylan having never really known him or having abandoned him in 1965 will come back to see what’s there”, but he’s also keen for Dylan fans to use him as a bridge back to the classics, which he says is enjoying something of a renaissance: “For example, translations of the Aeneid haven’t been as intensive since the 17th century.”

And if that gets more people to emulate Dylan and his Hibbing neighbour of half a century ago and join a Latin club and study the likes of Virgil, Homer and Ovid, so much the better.

“They all deal in what matters to humans and what is most disruptive to the lives of individuals and societies. It’s terrifying for me that Secretary of State George Marshall gave a Princeton commencement speech as recently as 1946 when he said no man can expect to be a responsible statesman who hasn’t studied Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, and now we’ve got this idiot in the White House for whom history is a complete emptiness.

“That’s terrifying, but a push back for the humanities …can fight against this absence of information, knowledge and understanding.”

Why Dylan Matters, by Richard F Thomas (HarperCollins, $29.99)

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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