Archive for June, 2018

GREEN PASTURES AND ANCIENT FOOTSTEPS: Review of Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters

Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters
London: William Collins, 2017, ISBN 978-0-00-824549-8, vi + 358 pp.

Back in 1962 on his very first album, Bob Dylan spoke of ‘the green pastures of Harvard University’ (it was there, he says, that he met folksinger Eric Von Schmidt, who introduced him to the song ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’). Across the endlessly a-changing times, writers and critics have produced no lack of rigorous and serious studies focusing on Dylan’s songwriting and poetic achievement: among the best are the successive editions of Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man and Stephen Scobie’s Alias Bob Dylan, but neither has advanced beyond, respectively, their third and second avatar (Gray 2000, Scobie 2004). Much water has flowed under the Dylan bridge in recent years, but there has been a dearth of updated, textually oriented critical work that would take due account of more recent developments. That gap is now filled, by this excellent and wide-ranging volume signed by Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at, appropriately, Harvard.

Apart from his teaching and research in ancient Greco-Roman literature, Richard Thomas also teaches, every four years and also at Harvard, a course for freshers on … Bob Dylan. He believes the singer-songwriter is ‘the genius of my lifetime in his artistic use of the English language’ (15), and shows in this book an encyclopaedic knowledge of Dylan’s work. In recent years – let us say since the late 1990s/early 2000s – Dylan’s followers have had the task of assimilating a whole artillery of new developments: ‘all that and more and then some’, to quote Dylan from 2001, indeed! This includes: the publication in 2004 of Chronicles, Volume One, with all the reliability issues that memoir raises; the Theme Time Radio Hour programme that ran from 2006 to 2009 with Bob Dylan as DJ; the fixed (or all but fixed) setlist phenomenon that has characterised recent tours; the evidence of Dylan’s composition methods revealed in the work-in-progress material on various Bootleg Series releases, and notably for 1965-1966 on the Cutting Edge set; the debate over the literary borrowings on “Love and Theft” and Modern Times; the creation in 2016 of the Bob Dylan archive at the University of Tulsa; the variorum volume of the lyrics prepared by Christopher Ricks in 2014; the unexpected retro turn to Great American Songbook covers starting with 2015’s Shadows in the Night; and, last but not least, the award in 2016 of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the resultant polemic. There was indeed a pressing need for a new study that would take on board all this, and Richard Thomas has risen to the challenge. His study ranges across Dylan’s career from the first album to 2017’s Triplicate, and includes discussion, to a greater or lesser extent, of each and every one of the ‘new’ Dylan facets I have enumerated.

Priority goes to the textual dimension – Dylan’s songs as sung poetry, as words on the page but also words in performance – as is only fitting for one now a Nobel laureate. In that framework, it makes sense that the author, given his academic interests, should lay primary stress on Dylan’s links with the classical Greco-Roman authors, though other literary connections are not ignored (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Anglo-Scottish ballads, and, in the 21st century, Dylan’s controversial use of the till then obscure Junichi Saga, Japanese writer, and Henry Timrod, Confederate poet). Thomas has, rightly, little time for the plagiarism argument, placing his bets on intertextuality (and reminding us that Virgil too borrowed from Homer). As he puts it, ‘plagiarism is about passing off as your own what belongs to others’, while ‘intertextuality [enriches] a work precisely because when the reader or listener notices the layered text and recognises what the artist is reusing, that recognition activates the content of the stolen object, thereby deepening meaning in the new text’ (131-132). There is also a fascinating discussion of the sequence in Chronicles where Dylan inventorises the library, real or imaginary, of the New York apartment of his acquaintances Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel – a couple who ‘some readers and reviewers believe are fictional’ (101). In a task which needed doing, Thomas dissects this library in all its Borgesian complexity, clarifying which books actually exist and which (like, say, the ‘lectures and letters’ attributed by Dylan to the historian Tacitus) are non-existent titles, even if ascribed to real authors (110-116).

The Dylan songs examined in detail are for the most part either early-period (intertextuality and sources for ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ or ‘Masters of War’) or from the last two decades, i.e. from 1997’s Time out of Mind on (close readings of the likes of ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ or ‘Early Roman Kings’). There is little on the intervening period, Blood on the Tracks apart – thus, nothing or virtually nothing on the basement tapes, or the religious period, or the underrated gem that is Oh Mercy. However, others have written up that material – as in, for instance, Michael Gray’s masterly analyses in Song and Dance Man III of mid-period songs like ‘Dignity’ or ‘Caribbean Wind’ – and what Thomas concentrates on does have the advantage of broadly corresponding period-wise to the contents of Dylan’s more recent setlists.

The core of this book consists of the material assembled by the classical scholar on Dylan’s debt to the Greco-Roman world, and the evidence marshalled is indeed impressive. Notably and for Dylan’s later work, Thomas’ textual comparisons take in Virgil (‘Lonesome Day Blues’ from “Love and Theft”, where the tenth stanza is a clear rewrite of lines from Book VI of the Aeneid (193-195)), Ovid (whose poems of exile, via multiple textual echoes, lie behind two songs from Modern Times, ‘Ain’t Talkin” and ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ (240-245)), and Homer, proven as present in various songs from Tempest, notably ‘Tin Angel’ (258-259). For these and other allusions, the author is also to be congratulated on identifying the translations Dylan has read (Robert Fagles for Homer, Peter Green for Ovid), thus pointing up the role of translation, alas often rendered invisible, in the intertextual process.

Going back in time, Thomas also registers Dylan’s interest in things Roman from earlier in his career, as in the 1971 song ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, which begins: ‘Oh, the streets of Rome / Are filled with rubble / Ancient footprints are everywhere’. Thomas meanwhile admits that Dylan’s ‘early Roman kings’ have nothing to do with Rome and are an eminently American gang from the Bronx. His analysis misses some of Dylan’s earlier classical references – the song titles ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ and ‘Open the Door, Homer’, the mention of Nero in ‘Desolation Row’ – and for the later work, omits the possible Homeric allusions in the “Love and Theft” song ‘Honest With Me’, in which the song’s ‘stark naked’ protagonist ‘came ashore in the dead of the night’, as if the shipwrecked Odysseus arriving among the Phaeacians. Even so, such absent references also serve to prove the author’s general point and further underscore the presence of the classical in Dylan’s songwriting.

The book’s final chapter is devoted to the story of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, and may be considered a highly useful, even definitive, account of the vicissitudes of that award. Thomas chronicles such key aspects as: the initial nomination back in 1996 by US academic Gordon Ball; Patti Smith’s Stockholm performance, deputising for Dylan, of ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’; the address by Nobel grandee Horace Engdahl, in which he recalled that ‘in a distant past, all poetry was sung’ (295); and Dylan’s own eleventh-hour Nobel lecture, in which he gloriously confirms the Harvard professor’s argument by naming and evoking Homer’s Odyssey as one of his three key books of all time.

For Richard Thomas, the 2016 award has finally validated the work of decades by Dylan scholars, himself included, striving, against the prejudice attaching to ‘popular’ genres, to secure official recognition for Bob Dylan’s work as ‘literature of the highest order’ (295). The successful outcome of that process is wholly to be welcomed, and this book, with its argument stretching across time between the Greco-Roman classics and our own day, is both a vital work of Dylanological reference and an eminently valuable tribute to the timeless creative energy of Bob Dylan.

Note: Why Dylan Matters is the UK title. The US version (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), is entitled Why Bob Dylan Matters.