Diving Into Dylanology
He’s America’s greatest shape shifter; his lyrics are both timeless and endlessly poetic. And he has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. Bob Dylan. One of my heroes.
Harvard Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas shares my admiration for the singer-songwriter. The professor, who teaches a seminar centered on Bob Dylan, has spent half a century decoding Dylan’s imagery and has shared his findings in his book Why Bob Dylan Matters. His reason for writing the book was “to show people why Dylan is important.” The Guardian describes it as “poignant blend of memoir, literary analysis through a classical lens, musicology and, above all, love.”
Thomas segments Dylan’s career into “acoustic, electric, his Christian period, the unpopular mid-80s, his rebirth in 1997” as well as his most recent work. What he admires most is Dylan’s poetry. His music demonstrates the beauty the human mind can produce through art. And it ties in with the classics.
Thomas finds traces of classical greats in Dylan’s music. In Love and Theft for instance, he heard Virgil’s words singing back to him in Dylan’s voice. And there are many other references. His thesis that “Dylan has become Odysseus” is interesting, seeing that Dylan himself named The Odyssey as one of the books most important to him in his 2016 Nobel lecture (alongside Moby Dick and All Quiet on the Western Front).
In a Guardian interview last week, Thomas was asked if he wanted to meet Dylan. His response? “First of all he wouldn’t say anything. But also, Virgil is the poet I’ve most worked on. We know where he was born, we know when he was born, we know when he died. There are a few other anecdotes about him but most in a life that was written 100 years after he died. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to know the poet. All I need is the poetry. Besides, what would I say?”
There’s a nice New Zealand twist to this story, a tangential connection. Richard Thomas was born in London, England and brought up in New Zealand. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Auckland, in 1972 and 1973 respectively. In 2015 Bob Dylan accepted the role of Patron of the Creative Thinking Project at the University of Auckland.
Why Dylan Matters – definitely one for Christmas.