Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Visit with Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas, Author of Why Bob Dylan Matters

2017 was yet another good year for Dylan literature. Late fall as I began reading a friend's copy of Richard F. Thomas' Why Bob Dylan Matters, I put it aside till I could acquire my own copy so I could underline passages and write notes in the margins. Every four year the author, a George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard, teaches a class on Dylan which is nicknamed "Dylan 101" and called the "the coolest class on campus."

How this came about and what he learned from writing this book is part of what you will read here. It is a privilege to be able to announce that Professor Thomas will be one of the featured speakers at this year's 2018 Duluth Dylan Fest. Details at the end of this interview.

EN: Your interactions with the songs of Bob Dylan were filtered through the lens of one who has been immersed in classic literature for five decades. How did you come to take an interest in the writings of ancient Greek and Roman poets?

Richard F. Thomas: I started Latin at the age of 9, Greek at 13, in New Zealand, over five decades ago. I liked the challenge of the languages, and eventually came to appreciate the literature of these two old worlds. I was also attracted to movies back then that brought the Greeks and Romans to life, Ben Hur, Spartacus, Last Days of Pompeii, The Robe. These were the same movies that Bob Zimmerman was seeing in his uncle’s movie house in Hibbing, where Dylan also did a year or two of Latin and had contact with Roman history in the Latin Club at Hibbing High. Those ancient civilizations speak, and have always spoken, to the imagination of curious minds across the centuries.

EN: When did you first take an interest in Dylan? What were his first songs that spoke to you?

The author in his youth.
RFT: I’ve followed Dylan from the beginning, since my teens. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ of course, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin'', for different causes in a different time and place, as they worked in Washington DC last week when Jennifer Hudson sang the second of these songs at the March for Our Lives rally to 800,000 people. Then as I got older the songs about love won and love lost, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’, everything else.

EN: You've been teaching the classics, but then started teaching a class on Dylan. This was while you were at Harvard, right? How did that come about?

RFT: My Harvard dean asked me to teach a freshman seminar in the early 2000s. I had for years been thinking the lyric genius of Dylan was pretty much in the same stream that would eventually flow down to Dylan. When he started incorporating my favorite Roman poet Virgil into his song, specifically into ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ on Love and Theft in 2001, I thought ‘Why not a seminar on Bob Dylan?’ Since 2004 I’ve taught it every four years, fourth time around in the fall of 2016, including a meeting on the day of the Nobel Prize announcement on October 13 of that year.

EN: What were your biggest takeaways from writing Why Bob Dylan Matters?

RFT: As I wrote the book, I came to grasp in a broader sense what genius is, and to understand in a more deliberate way that Dylan’s genius is, at the end of the day, like any literary, musical, artistic genius. To have lived in the time of Bob Dylan is a gift. I have spent much of my life as a scholar and teacher explaining why the greatest poets of the last two or three millennia have continued to appeal to those who have ears to hear and eyes to read. I see Why Bob Dylan Matters as a book that is completely at home with the books and articles I have written on the great classical poets of the past

EN: I personally believe Dylan will still be studied in a hundred years. What do you think? Are there any other contemporary songwriters who will be looked back on as a significant voice for the 20th century?

RFT: This is a tough one. Each time I teach the seminar three or four of the twelve 18-year-olds are as knowledgeable about Dylan, all of Dylan, as you or I are. They know why songs written before their parents were born are here to stay--at least for them. So that’s promising as we think about Dylan’s legacy. In my field the death of the Classics (Homer, Virgil, the rest of them) has been predicted across the ages, but they stay with those who discover them and are enriched by the discovery. Dylan will be the same, however small the community of those who understand what happened may get. Other contemporary songwriters? That’s invidious. Songs last forever once they’re written down. The question is what songwriter/performers will have the same longevity. There are a few. I’d just add Leonard Cohen for now. Blonde on Blonde and Songs of Leonard Cohen were the two albums I took from New Zealand to the US back in 1974.

EN: Of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero... do you have a favorite? (or some other contemporary of these writers)?

RFT: I love them all, but Virgil is my favorite. Next week I’ll see Dylan perform in Mantova (Mantua) in Italy, the hometown of Virgil. The English poet Tennyson wrote a poem for the people of Mantua in 1881, celebrating the 1900th anniversary of the death of their poet in 19 BC:

I salute thee Mantovano, I that loved thee since my day began
Wielder of the stateliest measure ever molded by the lips of man.

That goes for Virgil, but would also go for Dylan. You could even keep the same meter by replacing “Mantovano” with “Minnesotan”.

* * * *
The schedule for this year's 2018 Duluth Dylan Fest has been established beginning with the first of two John Bushey Memorial Lectures featuring author David Pichaske, Saturday May 19. His lecture will be on the theme Songs of the North Country: A Midwest Framework to the Songs of Bob Dylan.

Prof. Thomas will be presenting his lecture from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. Saturday May 26 at Karpeles Manuscript Museum Library, also as part of the John Bushey Memorial Lecture Series. His theme, Why Bob Dylan Matters, likewise promises to be enlightening, informative and engaging.

Related Links
Professor Thomas' Why Bob Dylan Matters is available here at Amazon.
Professor Pichaske's books can be found at this link.


krewechief said...

Enjoyed the book. Found some errors that should be corrected for the next issue. Here's a list I made up on the fly.
Pg 22 With quotes, he refers to Blonde On Blonde as having achieved Dylan's goal of being "thin, wild, mercury music". Dylan spoke of attaining "a thin, wild, mercury sound".

Pg. 67 Talking about Dylan using the pain of Suze's absence (she was in Italy) to write Don't Think Twice, She's Alright, Boots of Spanish Leather, Tomorrow Is A Long Time, One Too Many Mornings and Girl Of the North Country. I think it is pretty well accepted that GOTNC is primarily a memory of Echo Helstrom, a Hibbing girlfriend.

Pg. 79 Again in quotes from Bob Dylan's Dream he writes, "Ridin' on a train headin' west..." This is easily found on record or at and it's "Ridin' on a train goin' west..." Ironically on Page 141 he quotes the whole verse and gets it right. (Remember: When in doubt, cut-and-paste).

Pg.151 He attributes Sara Dylan as the subject/muse for the Blood on the Tracks song You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. I believe it was Clinton Heylin who brought to light Dylan's dalliance with Ellen Bernstein (A&R Columbia), a young lady who stopped in for a cup of coffee before Dylan hit the road and finished disassembling his marriage. Her own recollections are as specific as teaching Dylan what the flower Queen Anne's lace looked like. She also has a connection with the geographic locations in the song (Honolulu, San Fransisco, Ashtabulah etc)

Pg. 230 Quotes Not Dark Yet as "I was born here and I'll die here/ Against my choice" That should be "against my will" as "choice" does not rhyme with the rest of the verse.

I saved the most egregious for last so now we are going back to Pg.93 where the authors boner for the Rome-Dylan connection fails him.
In November 2013 Dylan played two shows in Rome where he diverged extremely from what had been a very static set list showcasing material from the most recent albums. This along is worthy of discussion and expansion. However the author overshot his goal by trying to inject the very "Rome related" song When I Paint My Masterpiece into the narrative. WIPMM opens with "Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,/Ancient footprints are everywhere./You can almost think that you're seein' double/On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs" ... perfect for this segment.
The author tells us that : "Dylan opened the two nights in Rome, and each performance of the European Tour of 2013, with "When I Paint My Masterpiece"...". That is categorically incorrect. Unless he played an instrumental opener that everyone kept secret there is no record of this. Not at Pagel's Bob Dates page, not at set list fm. In fact Masterpiece was not played once in 2013 yet the author asserts : "I would venture to say he used the song as opener throughout the tour because he knew what he would be doing in Rome." This attribution is wrong. It would have fit the books theme nicely but it didn't happen.

The reason that troubles me is that I know very little about ancient Greek and Roman writers so I have to take the authors words on what he tells me about those subjects. What if he was just as wrong?

Later in the book the author correctly identifies Things Have Changed as the song that opened all the 2013 shows.

These just came to me while reading and except for confirming the Masterpiece issue I didn't have to do any I could be wrong. You are free to tell me if I am.

I'll leave you with a caveat straight out of the book that was attributed to Dylan's Chronicles and could apply to this book and my review: "This too could be a lot of bullshit, but it makes for good reading."

Richard Thomas said...

Many thanks to krewechief for his corrections, which I've indeed taken onboard for future printings and editions, I don't agree with all of them, e.g. the necessity of seeing the Girl of/from the North Country as Echo, or anyone else.

But he/she is absolutely right in correcting my sentence

"Dylan opened the two nights in Rome, and each performance of the European Tour of 2013, with "When I Paint My Masterpiece"...". That is categorically incorrect.

I don't know where that came from and it's gone from future editions. But Rome still matters!

Ed Newman said...

Thank you krewechief for the corrections, and Richard, for your response. I have never had a "second edition" or reprinting of any of my books, but if I did I see a few corrections I would make in a couple of them. Would you call this a variation on crowd-sourcing?

Richard Thomas said...

Yes, indeed, Ed, and if you have corrections do let me have them. They will also go into the paperback which comes out in the fall.

I have no idea where my sentence about "When I Paint my Masterpiece" and the Fall 2013 tour came from. I think I somehow transferred the Fall 1975 Rolling Thunder setlists, which opened with this song. So mea culpa there, and thanks again too both.

krewechief said...

Thanks for your replies. I will pick up that paperback too. Highly recommend this book because it has a unique theme and covers a period of Dylan's art that is sadly under analyzed, if not under valued. And the author is right...those two shows in Rome were remarkable on their own and especially so in context of the tour. I would point the readers out to one other unique set of shows I had the pleasure of attending. In Boston, on 15-17 of 2005 Dylan played 44 songs in 3 nights; 42 unique. Much like the Rome shows in 2003 these stood out from the rest of the tour.