2017, HarperCollins, 358 pages
Classics professor and renowned Dylanologist Richard F. Thomas makes a compelling case for moving the iconic singer-songwriter out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and into the pantheon of classical poets, based on his wildly popular Bob Dylan seminar at Harvard.
Richard F. Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard University, a Bob Dylan expert, and the creator of a freshman seminar at Harvard on Bob Dylan. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
Dylan and Transfiguration
In a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore, Dylan says: “I went to a library in Rome and I found a book on transfiguration.” This is one of the most interesting points in the book, as Dylan never makes it clear what transfiguration actually is. The dictionary definition of transfiguration reads:
transfiguration: 1) The dazzling change in the appearance of Jesus when on a mountain with three of his disciples (Matthew: 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36); a picture or representation of this. Also, the church festival commemorating this event, observed on 6 August. 2) The action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.
Dylan tells Gilmore that he’s been transfigured, but when asked what he means by transfiguration, Dylan is characteristically recalcitrant. Instead, he gets Gilmore to read some passages out of Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s book–cowritten by Keith and Kent Zimmerman–Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The pages Dylan has Gilmore read concern the motorcycle death of a Bobby Zimmerman.
The interesting thing is that Bob Dylan was born Bob Zimmerman. And like the Bobby Zimmerman of the book, Dylan too had a horrific motorcycle accident in Woodstock. A puzzled Gilmore then asks Dylan: “Are you saying that you really can’t be known?” Dylan replies enigmatically:
Nobody knows nothing [of course Dylan is a fan of the double negative]. Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.
Gilmore presses further, and, like Iago in the Shakespeare play, all Dylan says in response is: “I only know what I told you. You’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.”
If I were to hazard a guess, Dylan has a powerful imagination. Most people, when they listen to a folk song, they don’t hear or understand the words. They just like the music. Then they’re those people who are more analytic. They hear and understand the words. On the next level up, there are the people like Thomas, Harvard professors who analyze the words and their meaning. Then there are the few who become part of the tradition. Their imaginations are so powerful, they enter and live out and are part of the songs they sing. Transfiguration, if I were to hazard a guess, is Dylan taking on the personae of the people and places he sings about. It’s a process of metamorphosis.
If you ask Dylan, he wasn’t born in Minnesota. He was born in Rome. And he had the wrong parents. What is more, he wasn’t born Bob Dylan. He was born Robert Zimmerman. One of his favourite lines from Rimbaud is: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). In a Halloween performance, he tells the audience that he’s wearing his Bob Dylan mask. He has a fluid personality that he reinvents. Perhaps “he” even is too concrete a word for a man who sings, in a song released a few weeks ago, that “I contain multitudes.”
When Dylan saw Buddy Holly a few days before the plane crash, he recalled that:
Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.
Compare this to what Dylan said decades later in 1997, after the release of his comeback album Time out of Mind: “On some night when lightning strikes, the gift was given back to me and I knew it … the essence was back.” And then compare that to how he describes his songs as something “that has been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it.” There is no Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a conduit, a lightning rod for the Muse of song that sometimes comes to him and sometimes deserts him. When Dylan says “transfiguration,” he means that the Muse has come to him, inspiring him to take on the spirit that once moved Homer, Virgil, Dante, Woody Guthrie, and the other singer of tales.
The songs that Dylan sings have a life of their own. Through the centuries, they find different hosts: one time they would find expression through Ovid, another time through Dante. In these modern times, they speak through Dylan. When Dylan says he’s transfigured, I take it to mean that he’s taken on the persona through which the tradition can speak out. In the 60s he was the folk singer, the original hobo. In the 70s he became the rock star. In the 80s he became the preacher. In the 90s he went back to his storytelling roots. And most recently, he’s been the mouthpiece of the Great American Songbook. Each time he changes, that’s when he’s transfigured and infused with a new jolt of energy just like that time when Buddy Holly zapped him in the 60s or in the 90s when lightning struck and the gift was given back.
I say all this about transfiguration because I’ve experienced it as well, once. I was in my early twenties. I found a book about transfiguration. There actually is no such book. But there are books that can transfigure you, and I think that that’s what happened to Dylan in Rome: he found a book he felt such an affinity towards it changed his life. The book that transfigured me was Homer’s Iliad.
I read the book in three days. Skipped out of my college classes. Didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. Everything in it made sense to me. I grasped it all at once, and intuitively. Homer relates in the book how everything happens over and over, how the heroes duel again and again in an eerily similar sequence. I got it all: the power of fate, even over the gods. It all clicked: the fatalistic heroes who were caught in the hierarchical power of the heroic code, a zero-sum game. “When my time comes,” they say, “I’ll breathe my last. But until that time comes, I am.” I was struck by the theodicy of the poem: we suffer to become a song for the singers of the future. I was transfigured, transported into a heroic world that had more sense than today’s wild world.
When we are transfigured, we enter into the world of literature or the world of the song. But there is no point explaining the experience of transfiguration to the non-believers. The non-believers will say we cannot experience what has happened so long ago: the long ago was stranger than we think. We can only experience what we thought it was like. But Dylan, I argue, would say different. At the end of the song “Duquesne Whistle,” he tells us that we come back again and again in an eternal recurrence:
The lights of my native land are glowin’
I wonder if they’ll know me next time around
I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing
That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.
I’ll see you down the road, the next time you come around. It could be tomorrow or a thousand years from now. Homer, Achilles, Dylan, Catullus, and the Jack of Hearts are all incarnations of their underlying forms and archetypes. They have been, and will be, again and again, transfiguring and metamorphosing in an unbroken dance.
Why Bob Dylan Matters
“Why Classics matter” has been a rallying cry in Classics departments for some time now, so it’s of little surprise that a classicist would call his book on Bob Dylan Why Bob Dylan Matters. In the words of Thomas:
This is also a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities. We live in a world and an age in which the humanities–the study of the best that the human mind has risen to in art, music, writing, and performance–are being asked to justify their existence, are losing funding, or are in danger of losing funding. At the same time, those arts seem more vital than ever in terms of what they can teach us about how to live meaningful lives.
I’ve always been of two minds when I see the question framed in this way: “Why the Classics matter,” “Why religion matters,” “Why the humanities are important,” and so on. In one way, I see that it’s a natural question to ask, and one that will draw viewers. But in another way, I don’t like the question, because it’s asked from a standpoint of weakness. In ages where the Classics, religion, and the humanities were strong, no one would frame the question that way. Their importance would be axiomatic. No justification required. So the book title, while appealing in one way, is distasteful in another in that it presupposes that Bob Dylan–like the Classics, religion, and other institutions under fire of late–needed the help of academics. Bob Dylan is just doing fine.
Painting Blood on the Tracks
There isn’t enough material on Bob Dylan’s affinity with the Classics to fill an entire volume. Thomas gets around this by integrating his own growing fascination with Dylan over the years into the book’s narrative. Thomas was born in 1950. Dylan, born in 1941, was nine years his senior, the right age to have influenced young Thomas. For example, Dylan’s first original album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would have come out when Thomas was thirteen. That’s about the right age when your ears are alert for brave new songs to follow.
Some of these non-Classical asides are gems. When talking about Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Thomas quotes Dylan giving props to a painting teacher he had found in New York in 1974:
I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt . . . when I started doing it the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks.
To illustrate the principles of fine arts in songwriting, Thomas quotes the lyrics of “Simple Twist of Fate:”
A saxophone someplace far off played
As she was walkin’ by the arcade
As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up
She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.
The Hibbing High Years
Did you know Dylan, then called Robert Zimmerman, grew up in small town Minnesota? He was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing, where he attended Hibbing High. As you would expect, Thomas covers Dylan’s membership in the Hibbing High Latin club as well as the escapist sword and sandal movies popular at this time. While Hibbing lacked many of the cultural perquisites of future world-historical figures, it gave Dylan two things: a performance venue at the Hibbing High auditorium–a gorgeous 1805 capacity facility where he would play with his band The Shadow Blasters–and a desire to get out. Dylan would later capture his boyhood memories in song:
They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers
They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers.
The Mesabi iron range–one of the world’s largest open pit mines–was a source of wealth in Minnesota, and one of the reasons why Hibbing High had such a grand auditorium. The mine must be awe-inspiring: it is also a topic in one of Springsteen’s songs of desolation “Youngstown.”
Dylan and Catullus
One of Thomas’ aims is to discuss not so much Dylan’s direct allusions to the writers of antiquity but rather the techniques of storytelling Dylan uses that go back to the ancient writers. One of my favourite points of discussion was how the Roman poet Catullus and Dylan use similar techniques. Thomas compares, for example Catullus poem 11:
You who are ready to try out
whatever the will of the gods will bring
Take a brief message to my old girlfriend
words that she won’t like.
Let her live and be well with her three hundred lovers,
Not really truly loving them
but screwing them again and again.
to Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello:”
If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier
She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear
Say for me that I’m alright though things get kind of slow
She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.
From the 1st century BC to 1975, the poem is a messenger. The more things change the more they stay the same.
The aim of the book was to connect Dylan with the pantheon of classical poets. One question the book left me with: does Harvard Classics professor Richard F. Thomas perhaps enjoy Dylan even more than the classical poets? Perhaps…
There’s more to Thomas’ book than what I’ve described. He goes into Dylan’s set lists, Dylan’s affinity with the road-weary Greek hero Odysseus, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize. This is a book that I’ll be rereading down the road. Would that all books by Harvard professors were such a delight.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.