Joanna: Two summers ago, I was part of a "learning cohort" at Athens Technical College, where I created a new themed class--mine on Bob Dylan and American Music--along with several other professors who approached their disciplines through the lens of a particular subject. The students of the different summer classes joined together for community events, like film screenings of related televisions shows and films. For my class, I screened Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home, giving an oral presentation before the screening. If you haven't seen this wonderful film, go watch it now!
As I was looking for one of my favorite Dylan quotes, I stumbled on the essay I wrote, a kind of public musicology essay as it was intended for students across all disciplines. And with all of the wonderful attention on Dylan now, I thought it would be fun to share it here.
Why do we keep listening to Bob Dylan? Why do performers continue to cover his songs? Why are library shelves bowing under the weight of books on Dylan, with new ones pouring out every year? And why do film and television soundtracks continue to incorporate his songs? And what about the new albums, remastering of older albums, and the endless stream of bootleg series albums? What is it that draws people back? In our class, we’ve already started to wrestle with the elements of Dylan that can be off-putting. His vocal production is often seen as the most difficult element. And despite this, people return again and again. As Kevin Dettmar writes, "In an era when pop (and even folk) stars were, as today, meant to sing like the nightingale, Dylan instead sang as the crow. But that croak, it seemed, contained a depth of feeling and passion and anger and wisdom and disillusionment not hinted at by the songbirds; it came as a revelation. And it sounded like the voice of Truth."
Anyone who writes about Dylan or creates a film about him has to wrestle with four dimensions: the music and lyrics of the songs themselves, the mythology around him, his carefully and sometimes cagily protected personal life, and his wider cultural influence. We can already see in the opening moments of No Direction Home that director Martin Scorsese skillfully interrogates all four dimensions of Dylan, and intricately overlaps them. It weaves together interviews by Jeff Rosen with Dylan and his musical and cultural contemporaries, and personal friends, along with film footage and photographs from across Dylan’s career, and an endless stream of songs. Watch the images carefully. Listen to the endless variety of music sounding throughout. Absorb the contemporary audience responses to Dylan’s transition to rock and roll. Ponder along with poets and musicians who consider Dylan’s wider influence on American culture. Consider the ways in which music not only reflected the issues of its day, like Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, but also became an agent of change.
Through his kaleidoscopic approach, Scorsese urges us as the viewers to connect the dots ourselves. How might Dylan’s experiences of the dramatic possibilities of a rural carnival influence the kinds of lyrics he writes, the bizarre and mythical characters strung together in stream-of-consciousness songs like “Desolation Row”? What about the imaginative possibilities in sci-fi novels and childhood trips to the local cinema? How might the narrative style of country and western singers of the 30s and 40s have influenced Dylan’s story songs? What about the sonic possibilities in blues performances by musicians like Muddy Waters? Early R&B and rock? Folk musicians like John Jacob Niles? Odetta? Joan Baez? Irish musicians like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers? Protest songs by Billie Holliday and Pete Seeger? What about the fragile and heartbreaking connections between Woody Guthrie at the end of his life and Bob Dylan as the beginning of his career, Dylan’s very first song written in homage to Woody?
When we hear and see the influences that Dylan imbibed and blended, then we can understand the transition from his acoustic folk era of the early 1960s into electric rock-and-roll not just as a radical break in sound that angered much of his audience during the time, but as simply another way to delve into the compendium of American music sounding behind and beside him. The title of the film--No Direction Home—is taken from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But listening to these performers speak out and hearing his covers of their works and their covers of his works, we realize that Dylan’s music has a home in the tapestry of American song making. And for many of us, we return again and again to his work because in some profound way, his songs feel like coming home.
Joanna & Tim
Welcome to our blog!