BOB DYLAN’S PERFORMANCE ARTISTRY: COLLOQUIUM IN CAEN (FRANCE), 10-12 MARCH 2005 ** Report by Dr Christopher Rollason ** It may not be known to all comers that the work of Bob Dylan has in recent years acquired an increasing (and eminently deserved) weight and significance in the academic world, for its literary and musical merits in its own right and as an aid to study and thought in a whole range of disciplines. Dylan conferences, however, are still a rarity in the university environment, and, unless the author of this report is mistaken, until now none had ever been held outside the English-speaking world (and precious few inside it). The three-day colloquium held at the University of Caen (Normandy, France) from 10 to 12 March 2005 thus marks a major step forward in the visibility of Dylan studies, and the organiser, Catharine Mason, Associate Professor of English at the host university, deserves all praise for this initiative. The event brought together Dylan specialists and experts in related fields from France, Britain, Canada and the US, and enjoyed the support of the US consulate in Rennes (and even the presence of the Consul at the opening). Papers were given in both English and French. ** The vantage points from which Dylan’s work was examined included the literary, the ethnological, the linguistic and the musicological. The literary note was sounded loud and clear in the opening paper, delivered by Gordon Ball, Professor of English at the Virginia Military Institute, on ‘Dylan and the Nobel’. Professor Ball – who is better placed than anyone to speak on the subject, as the person who has nominated Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 1996 – gave a persuasive overview of Dylan’s literary qualities, stressing how his poetry arises out of oral performance and how, in the words of Professor Daniel Karlin of University College, London, Dylan ‘has given more memorable phrases to our language than any comparable figure since Kipling’: if the Nobel rubric includes the criteria that the recipient must have produced work of an ‘idealistic tendency’ and have conferred a major benefit on humanity, Dylan’s output, Gordon Ball believes, unquestionably qualifies. Richard Thomas, Professor of Classics at Harvard University, explored links and analogies between Dylan and the Greco-Roman literary tradition, from the oral delivery associated with Homer and the Roman ‘rhapsodes’ to the references to Virgil on ‘"Love and Theft"’, Dylan’s album of 2001. Professor Thomas predicted that in two hundred years’ time Dylan will be considered a classic and a part of high-register literature. France-based translator, literary editor and critic Dr Christopher Rollason further broadened out the discussion with an overview of Dylan’s relations with the Spanish-speaking world, examining the reception of his work in Spain and Latin America and its translation into Spanish, and suggesting parallels with a number of Spanish-language poets and a very probable direct influence of the poetry of Federico García Lorca. ** The ethnological and the musicological fused in a number of contributions. Catharine Mason provided insight into Dylan’s creative use of blues conventions, focusing on his cover of blues singer Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Broke Down Engine’; Rob Bowman, Professor of Music at York University, Toronto and a widely experienced musicologist, also examined the African-American dimension, comparing Dylan’s version of ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’ with bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson’s original and arguing that the early Dylan was far more under the African-American influence than is commonly realised. In impressive scholarly detail, Todd Harvey, specialist at the American Folklife Centre at the Library of Congress and author of the study ‘The Formative Dylan’, traced the complex history of the song ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ in its pre-Dylan versions. ** Music is where it all starts, and the colloquium’s strong academic side was no obstacle to the presence of two excellent musicians. Georgia-born singer-songwriter Steve Young, best-known for his beautiful song ‘Seven Bridges Road’ as covered by Joan Baez and the Eagles, played extracts from the traditional repertoire, his own and Dylan’s; and the conference wound up on a high note with the appearance in person of onetime Dylan associate Charlie McCoy. Charlie told an entranced public how he played guitar on Dylan’s song ‘Desolation Row’ and harmonica on his ‘Obviously Five Believers’, how all of the ‘John Wesley Harding’ album was recorded in nine and a half hours, and much more from the annals of Dylan lore, some of which was unknown to even the most hardcore fans present. The challenge will now be for Dylan scholars to build further on the success of this colloquium and help make wider sections of the public aware of the enormous interest and potential, right across the disciplinary range, of Bob Dylan’s work as a subject of academic study.
** Note: The colloquium website is at: http://www.unicaen.fr/musa/bob_dylan. Those interested in the scholarly analysis of Dylan’s work may also wish to visit the Bob Dylan Critical Corner site at: http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/CAENREPORT.pdf ** A FULLER VERSION OF THIS REVIEW MAY BE FOUND AT THAT SITE. The review has also been published in full in ‘The Bridge’ (Gateshead, UK), No. 22, Summer 2005, pp. 99-102.
Conference photos by Gordon Ball and Christopher Rollason are at: http://nicolamenicacci.com/bdcc/Caen_photos.pdf** Here below is a small selection of those photos. You can see: the Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines, venue of the conference; Steve Young playing (with Catharine Mason to his right); Gordon Ball reading his paper (Todd Harvey to his left); and Christopher Rollason reading his paper, flanked by Rob Bowman (left) and Richard Thomas (right). All are by Christopher Rollason except for the last-mentioned, which is by Gordon Ball. Elsewhere on this blog (in my Biography entry, near the very beginning) is another photo by Gordon Ball, featuring Charlie McCoy.