In light of his new book, Why Bob Dylan Matters, Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas shares why the legendary singer has changed the way we experience music.
Bob Dylan, master of the English language in my lifetime, and the greatest songwriter of the last half century, has become a classic. His song is here to stay, and belongs with other classics, going back to T. S. Eliot, Shakespeare, ultimately to Homer and Virgil, the greatest poets of Greece and Rome—poets whose lyrics Dylan has been channeling in recent decades.
One way of thinking about a classic is to imagine a world in which a particular artistic genius did not exist, to think of what would not have happened if we subtracted that genius. Without Homer there would have been no Greek tragedy, no Virgil. Without Virgil, later poets such as Dante, Milton, Eliot and Seamus Heaney would have written something, but not the works they actually gave us. Similarly, in the mid-1960s Bob Dylan utterly transformed popular music, both lyrics and performance, and he has continued to do so for over 50 years. The models he sought were outside the song tradition, the French Symbolists, the Romantic poets, the Beats, but also within that tradition, in the rich and deep traditions of folk music. “I had all the vernacular down,” says Dylan in his Nobel Prize lecture. “When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.” Everything was transformed and blended into new genres through the art of Bob Dylan. Without what he did in those years, other artists, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, would have done something else.
In the lecture Dylan reveals some of the musical and literary figures who influenced him, starting out with Buddy Holly, the rock 'n' roll singer he saw and heard aged 18, days before Holly died in a plane crash. The lecture ends with Homer, one of the authors he says “stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school”—“I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
These revealing words hint at the ways Dylan’s art has evolved across these years, from way back in the Latin Club at Hibbing High School in northern Minnesota, to his entering into the worlds of ancient and modern poets and singers and recreating new worlds in his own astonishing art.
In his memoir Chronicles, Volume One (2004), a creative work as much like a novel as an autobiography, Dylan talks about the three ingredients of his songwriting: experience, observation and imagination. In Why Bob Dylan Matters (HarperCollins 2017) I explore all three elements, revealing how the imaginative mind of Dylan has across the years transformed a wealth of things seen, heard, read, and experienced into a written and performed art that will not see its equal. Like that of Virgil or Eliot, his is a voice for the ages, a modern classic.