Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Why Bob Dylan Matters'


Richard F. Thomas's 'Why Bob Dylan Matters.'
Richard F. Thomas's 'Why Bob Dylan Matters.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Do we really need another person to explain why Bob Dylan matters? He just got a freaking Nobel Prize, and an Amazon search for Bob Dylan — restricting the search strictly to books, mind you — yields 7,350 results. (For comparison, there are only 5,354 books about Elvis Presley, and barely over five hundred books about Chuck Berry.)

A sizable portion of younger listeners, though, are highly immune to Dylan's charms. Millennial writer Natalie Shure just got over 160 retweets for the sentiment, "There is no beloved musical artist more overrated and boring than Bob Dylan."

Another Twitter user responded with the story, "I said 'Bob Dylan sucks' on Facebook once and somebody I hadn't spoken to in years left me a voicemail about it." That's the point when Prof. Richard F. Thomas got dragged into the conversation.

On the face of it, Thomas would seem well-suited to introduce new generations to Dylan. Since 2003, he's taught a Harvard freshman seminar on Dylan, a course the book's back cover informs us is "wildly popular" — but other freshman seminars include "Challenges to the International Monetary and Financial System in Historical Perspective" and "Emptiness, Non-attachment and the Problem of Suffering," so take that for what you will.

Being a Dylan fan, and having read the book, I have to say that I'm not sure Why Bob Dylan Matters will do much to convince unbelievers, unless their basis for dismissing Dylan is that his lyrics make insufficient allusions to classical literature. Thomas is primarily a classics scholar, and a good chunk of his new book is devoted to explicating Dylan's surprisingly involved relationship with Rome, Ovid, Homer, and the like. (Did you remember that Dylan devoted a portion of his Nobel acceptance speech to a discussion of the Odyssey? Frankly, I'd already forgotten.)

Some of the subjects you might expect to be broached in a book titled Why Bob Dylan Matters — his influence on younger artists, his social impact, his work's status as common cultural currency — are hardly touched on. Instead, Thomas situates Dylan in the context of world literature, which may count as "Dylan 101" in Harvard Yard, but not very far beyond.

This all sounds kind of harsh, but there's actually a lot to recommend Thomas's book. It's just not for the Dylan neophyte. It will be best enjoyed by those who, like Thomas, are intimately familiar with Dylan's work, and have given a lot of thought to his use of language and his repurposing of material from literature and folksong. Thomas has a lot to say about this, and it's in the spirit of T.S. Eliot, quoted thusly:

Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

That 1920 observation serves as epigraph to a chapter chronicling Dylan's extensive references to Virgil in the Love and Theft song "Lonesome Day Blues." Thomas also looks closely at similarities between the poetry of Catellus and "If You See Her, Say Hello"; the Rimbaudian textures of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"; links between Robert Burns and "Highlands"; and the extensive allusions to the near-forgotten Confederate poet Henry Timrod on Modern Times.

If you're not used to reading literary criticism, some of this will be tough going. The book has buried gems, though, for any Dylan fan. One of them is what journalists might call a "buried lede": the fact that Thomas was one of the first scholars granted access to the Dylan archives in Tulsa. He just seems to have looked at a single notebook, but it was a good one. In it, Dylan developed the lyrics to songs including "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Meet Me in the Morning."

Thomas discovers that an early draft of the "Tangled Up in Blue" lyrics went, "Lord knows I paid some dues/ Wish I could lose, these dusty sweatbox blues." Good edit, Bob. The author also notices a list of words Dylan listed for possible line conclusions in that song (Jew, who, few, clue, do, flew, grew, new, rue, sue, too, you, zoo, shoe, glue, view) — and studies the origins of the reference to "56th and Wabasha" in "Meet Me in the Morning."

The book correctly notes that Wabasha is a street in our own St. Paul, and also correctly notes that there's no "56th" that intersects it...but Thomas thinks that the stretch of Wabasha between 5th and 6th might do in a pinch. (Now you know what to hum next time you're headed to the Amsterdam Bar and Hall.) As it happens, though, that particular lyric was a late addition to the song. Initially, that line went "Meet me in the morning/ We could have a ball." Another good edit, but in this case I may be biased.

The author is a big fan of late-period Dylan; the Time Out of Mind chapter takes its title from a 1997 interview in which Dylan declared that "this gift was given back to me," seemingly referring to his lyrical genius. One of Thomas's most persuasive arguments for why Bob Dylan matters is that — like God, according to those banners that hang from churches — Dylan is not done speaking.

There's an engaging discussion of what's up with Dylan's "Sinatra phase" (it's now as de rigueur for Dylanologists to explain this period as it once was to explain the born-again phase), and as a literary scholar who's long been on Team Bob, Thomas was clearly moved and gratified to see the Swedish Academy give him a co-sign.

Thomas even remembers a relevant nugget of lit-world scandal: the 2008 incident in which Swedish Academy secretary Horace Engdahl said that American writers weren't getting Nobels because "the U.S. is too isolated, too insular." Americans, Engdahl elaborated, "don't translate enough and don't really participate in the great dialogue of literature."

And yet, there was Engdahl several years later, personally taking the podium in Stockholm to admit that giving Bobby Zimmerman a Nobel "was a decision that seemed daring only beforehand and already seems obvious."

Does it, though? Thomas's new book aside, that seems to remain very much in the ear of the beholder.

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