Sunday, May 27, 2018

Harvard Classics Prof Pulls Back the Curtain to Reveal New Insights on Dylan's Art

Prof Richard F. Thomas
Yesterday afternoon, May 26, more than 100 people crammed into Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum to hear Dr. Richard F. Thomas deliver a lecture on Bob Dylan and the Classics. Whether you were a lifetime fan or a relatively new follower of Dylan's art, the Harvard professor's hour-long talk offered much to chew on. In return he likewise relished the opportunity to make this pilgrimage to the Northland to see points of interest in Hibbing and Duluth as well as experience the power of these places that were formative in making Dylan the poet he grew to become.

Phil Fitzpatrick, a local writer/teacher and Harvard grad, introduced Dr. Thomas after briefly reading a tribute to John Bushey, founder/host of KUMD's Highway 61 Revisited and for whom the John Bushey Memorial Lecture Series has been named. Phil welcomed everyone on behalf of Duluth Dylan Fest, Karpeles and the City of Duluth. He then noted that Dr. Thomas received his Bachelors and Masters in Auckland, New Zealand, his Ph.D. in classics at the University of Michigan. He's published more than 100 article and reviews and ten books, including this most recent Why Bob Dylan Matters. And incidentally, in addition to teaching classic literature he also teaches a class on Bob Dylan.


This was not his first visit to Minnesota. He gave a lecture in the Twin Cities in 2006.

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Dr. Thomas began by noting that Dylan may not be here in 50 years but “I believe his art will be. I hope that in 200 years people will be studying Dylan like they do Virgil."

In the initial portion of the lecture he laid out some of Dylan's early influences. The Hematite, Hibbing High's Yearbook (which archivist Bill Pagel has on display in his "Einstein Disguised As Robin Hood" exhibit), shows that Dylan was not only a fan of Little Richard, but was also a member of the Latin Club and the Social Studies Club, indicators that his later interests had early roots.


His uncle owned the movie house in Hibbing and the young Bob Zimmerman no doubt saw films like The Robe and Demetrius & the Gladiators which were released in the early 1950s. Due to this being the McCarthy era, Hollywood produced quite a few films in which the Roman Empire became a metaphor for unjust power, the contemporary reality of the American '50s.*

Dr. Thomas showed ways in which this early influence re-emerges later. First example: Chronicles, Volume 1. After noting that chapters 2 & 4 are mostly made up, he underscored the beautiful writing of chapters 1, 3 and 5 and showed that "the idea of Rome mattered to him."

Some examples from Dylan's songs were then identified, including the obscure “Goin’ Back to Rome” that he played once at Gerde’s Folk City.

In August 1962 he sang Long Ago, Far Away
"Gladiators killed themselves
It was during the Roman times,
People cheered with bloodshot grins
As eyes and minds went blind"

During the Rolling Thunder Revue Dylan opened his shows with "When I Paint My Masterpiece," which includes this reference:
“Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere”

Other examples were cited, and then we began the deeper dive into Dylan's use of intertextuality, a major theme in Why Bob Dylan Matters.

Love & Theft, released Sept 11, 2001 is "an album of songs addressing antiquity" in which Dylan begins to draw from Virgil.

He then cited T S Eliot:: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

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Signing a book for local musician Tom O'Keefe.
We were then treated to a deeper analysis of "Lonesome Day Blues" in which Dylan literally replicates passages from Confessions of a Yakuza, Huckleberry Finn and Virgil's Aeneid.

With this pattern of looking back to the classics set in motion, Dylan began drawing from Ovid for the album Modern Times.

Dr. Thomas' enthusiasm for his topic was palpable. (You never knew the classics could be this exciting, did you?) “This recent stuff is just miraculous,” he said regarding Dylan’s albums from Time Out of Mind to Tempest.

He then began identifying as many as 30 Dylan lines that are directly parallel to or identical with lines from Ovid’s exile poems.

"Getting a linear meaning out of a Dylan song is never easy or sometimes even possible," he said, and yet the manner in which Dylan reconstructs this passages is nothing short of amazing. "Dylan is unlike any other," he said. "Especially in performance.

In 2010 Dylan began drawing from yet another classic source, passages from Homer. He "began a process of becoming Odysseus, the Trickster."

And yes, afterwards we had more birthday cake.
While here this week he had the opportunity to be inside the Armory where Dylan saw Buddy Holly. As many of us know, Dylan began his Nobel Speech with this story from that encounter at the Armory. Dr. Thomas then cited a line from another Dylan speech, from 2015: “Character always mattered to me.”

The Odyssey has themes that appear vividly in Dylan's last album of original music, Tempest. What Dylan is doing is "bringing life to history." After detailing the story of Odysseus killing the Cyclops, he underscored the greatness of Bob Dylan. Dylan's themes are all there in the Classics, and it makes sense that a Classics professor would be among the first to comprehend the genius behind Bob Dylan's borrowings.

Much more can be said, but for now the best advice I can give is: Read the Book.

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Photos courtesy Michael Anderson

Related Link
Interview with Richard F. Thomas earlier this spring.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Engage it.

*Some Bible scholars have suggested that the Book of Revelations, which circulated during the first century, was written using assorted symbols that could only be interpreted by "People of the Book" for the same reason. Only those who understood the symbols would "get it."

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