Why Dylan Matters

I have been unfaithful to Bob Dylan. That’s what it feels like. As a student, I listened over and over to those early albums, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding. I didn’t actually buy any of them: I had friends at college who could afford to do that. (Actually, I was still buying Francoise Hardy, but don’t hate me for it.)

Later on, when he was reported to have become a Christian, we bought Slow Train Coming and Shot of Love — not vinyl by now, but on tape cassette. (So actually, much less use than vinyl; except that we didn’t have a record deck at the time.) Since then we’ve listened to a few of Dylan’s later titles, those that made it to The Essential Bob Dylan collection. But for the most part I just haven’t kept up with the evolution of his career and his music.

Then I read a review of Richard F. Thomas’s book Why Dylan Matters, and knew this was what I needed to read to make some amends for my decades of infidelity. Thomas is a Professor of Classics at Harvard; more than that, he has been a Dylan fan since pretty much forever. That’s ‘fan’ in the full sense of fanatic: he is a Dylan freak, an expert, a nerd. What he doesn’t know about Dylan, or doesn’t know how to find out, ain’t knowledge. The thesis of this fascinating book is that Dylan is a classic, just as much, and in just the same sense, as Virgil, Ovid, Catullus, Homer, Aeschylus and all those others are.

Our own favourite classicist Mary Beard agrees:

At last an expert classicist gets to grips with Bob Dylan. Richard Thomas takes us from Dylan’s high school Latin club to his haunting engagement with Ovid and Homer in recent albums. He carefully argues that Dylan’s poetry deserves comparison with Virgil’s — and Thomas, senior professor of Latin at Harvard and author of some of the most influential modern studies of Virgil, should know!

This book provides an oversight of some of the twists and turns of Dylan’s musical Odyssey — another good classical allusion — with a timeline-discography of all Dylan’s albums, a discussion of the broad outline of their development, and detailed analysis of the texts of many of the songs, and how they have changed in performance over the years. Because one of the great themes is that Dylan’s work is all about performance: in his Nobel Prize lecture he frequently made the point that Shakespeare was not interested in whether or not he was writing ‘literature’: his concern, like Dylan’s, was with the details of the performance. Getting everything right, so it was the best possible performance it could be.

The final chapter takes us through Dylan’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. It’s not certain that all the details of what happened will ever be known. Dylan famously delayed for some time in responding to the Swedish Academy’s news of the award — perhaps because he couldn’t believe such an august body would really recognise his work as ‘literature’. Then he didn’t turn up in person to make his acceptance speech in Stockholm, asking the U.S. ambassador to Sweden to read it on his behalf. But he did — somewhat at the last minute — deliver the obligatory Nobel Prize lecture. Thomas describes it in his book, and you can listen to it on YouTube. It’s also touching to watch Patti Smith performing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ at the ceremony. No doubt she was mortified by losing her way at one point, which she attributed to extreme nervousness, but she was warmly applauded and encouraged by the audience of the great and the good of the Nobel Prize.

It’s a book that I loved, a book that makes me want to go back to listening and listening to Dylan’s more recent albums, and a book that makes me want to read those ancient classics of Greek and Rome, either again or for the first time.

Addendum

I’ve created a playlist on Spotify which includes most of the songs Thomas discusses in this book. If you’d like to save yourself the trouble of searching for them all, you can find them here.

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