Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Why Bob Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

In the new book Why Bob Dylan Matters Harvard classicist Richard F. Thomas places Dylan's writing firmly within the Greek-Roman tradition. Thomas argues Dylan is an artist of world historical importance, the poet of the English language during the second half of the 20th Century, taking up the mantle of T.S. Eliot. In 2016, Dylan earned the Nobel Prize for Literature placing his work within an elite group of American writers.* While the book may come off as a plea to skeptical academics to take Dylan's art seriously, it's also evident Dylan studies (Dylanology) will from this point on be in the hands of academics (for better or worse). Why Bob Dylan Matters illuminates how the music of Dylan connects to the wider scope of history.

Thomas draws connections between Dylan's work and the ancient world, a part of history that's fascinated Dylan since childhood. Thomas notes Dylan's membership in his High School's Latin Club back in Hibbing and his lifelong use of Rome for inspiration. He compares Dylan's love songs to those of the Roman poet Catullus. Roman imagery and ideas are specially present in Dylan's 21st Century albums, in particular the 2012 LP Tempest. Clues to Dylan's passion for Rome are all over his work, from passages in his memoir Chronicles Vol.1 and his radio show The Theme Time Radio Hour (2006-2009). There's also the obvious parallel of 20th Century America being the new Rome. Dylan, born in 1941, the year America entered the Second World War, the conflict that ended with America emerging as a global superpower. Dylan's art has evolved along with America's rise and decline on the world stage. 

Thomas also puts to rest the notion that Dylan's a plagiarist. Going back to the early days in New York in the early 1960s, Dylan was accused of lifting melodies from other folk songs and recently of using lyrics from such diverse sources as Confederate poet Henry Timrod and the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga. Thomas explains the concept of intertextuality, "the creative use of existing texts" to produce new meanings. A plagiarist passes off another's work as their own. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: a good poet borrows, a great poet steals. 

Thomas spends little time on Dylan's long middle period that arguably lasted from 1967 and ended with Time Out of Mind in 1997, although he does discuss the 1974 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. The book also analyzes Dylan's ever changing stage persona. After winning the Nobel Prize, his concert repertoire remains unchanging, serving as a sort of overview of his career, including the Frank Sinatra covers that have enamored him over the past few years. 

Another strength of Why Bob Dylan Matters is that it opens the door for more discussion on Dylan. More studies are needed that view Dylan from a female perspective, by cultures outside of the West, his relationship with Jewish-American and African-American culture, and what his music says about the human condition itself. The humanities owe Dylan a great debt, he will help keep them in business. Whether Dylan will still be listened to in the next century is unknown. But we can conclude his work changed many during his own time. To quote a Dylan lyric, "I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me."

* The following Americans have also been awared the Nobel Prize for Literature: Sinclair Lewis (1930); Eugene O'Neill (1936); Pearl S. Buck (1939); T.S. Eliot (1948); William Faulkner (1949); Ernest Hemingway (1954): John Steinbeck (1962); Saul Bellow (1976); Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978); Joseph Brodsky (1987); Toni Morrison (1993); Bob Dylan (2016).