Review: Vivien Horler
Why Dylan Matters, by Richard F Thomas (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)
There was a great deal of surprise and even some ridicule when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
But for Richard F Thomas the award provided delightful vindication. A New Zealand-born Harvard professor of classical poetry and a man who gives seminars on Homer, Virgil and Ovid, Thomas also teaches a course on Bob Dylan.
Suddenly, instead of being regarded as something of a maverick, Thomas became the world’s leading academic on Dylan, and everyone wanted to know what he had to say.
This book is personal reflection on his thesis, and a distillation of his famous course.
He was 23 when he arrived in the US in 1974 to do a doctorate at the University of Michigan. He had with him a trunk containing the writings of Homer and Virgil, the epic poets of Greece and Rome, along with Sappho, Catullus, Horace and Ovid. For 2 000 years, he writes, their poetry had fired the minds and imaginations of philosophers and poets, painters, sculptors and musicians, dreamers and lovers.
He also had two albums with him: Songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
Thomas writes: “For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have 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 Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today, and incapable of being contained by time or place. That’s why Dylan matters to me…”
And if you have any doubts about Thomas’s argument, he will dispel them, entertainingly but at length. He says it was mainly after the year 2000 that Dylan started to reference, borrow from and reuse the work of the Greek and Roman poets in his own songs.
Here’s one example in which Thomas heard Virgil “loud and clear” in the 10th verse of Lonesome Day Blues: “I’m going to teach peace to the conquered/ I’m gonna tame the proud.”
And here’s Virgil from the Aeneid, translated by Mandelbaum: “…to teach the way of peace to those you conquer/ to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
And Thomas says that when he sees the younger generation of Dylan fans – like his daughters or his first-year students – engage with his work, he takes it as a testament to the intergenerational nature of the artist’s work, and how it endures.
Thomas has now been teaching his Dylan seminar every four years since 2003, tracing the evolution of the artist’s songs from their early folk, blues and gospel roots, and changes from acoustic to electric. He also explores how the themes connect song to song and album to album. The themes, he says are as boundless as those of the folk and literary cultures from which his art developed: music, social justice, war, love, death, faith and religion.
Thomas’s class was meeting on October 13, 2016, the day the Nobel Prize was announced, “and it was one of the high points of my teaching career to experience the utter joy of my first-year students on that day, since they knew the judgment of the committee was righteous”.
Dylan is famously enigmatic, refusing to be drawn on the meaning of his songs – he is quoted in the book as saying the meaning changes every times he sings them – and while he did accept the Nobel Prize, he was unable to attend the award ceremony as he had “other commitments”.
But he did submit an acceptance speech, which is a condition of winning the award, and it was read at the ceremony by Azira Raji, the American ambassador to Sweden. In it he addresses the question of whether his lyrics constitute literature.
He disarmingly compares himself to Shakespeare. “I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His works were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?… ‘Is the financing in place?’… ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature’?”
And Dylan then brings up his own concerns in making music. “Who are the best musicians for these songs? Am I recording in the right studio? Is this song in the right key?… Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature’?”
And he concludes, joyfully, by thanking the Swedish Academy for both taking the time to consider the question, and then “for providing such a wonderful answer”.
And really, who can argue with that?
- This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on April 1, 2018