Bob Dylan: Electric, a new exhibit curated by author Alan Light at the American Writers Museum in Chicago, features as its centerpiece the sunburst Fender Stratocaster electric guitar that Dylan controversially played at the largely acoustic Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965.
In March of 1965, Dylan had released Bringing It All Back Home, foreshadowing what was soon to come with its electric Side 1 and acoustic Side 2. In May, his shows in England were filmed for D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back documentary. And that summer, he recorded and released Highway 61 Revisited.
Light says 1965 was “the great leap forward” for Dylan. In studying the artifacts for the exhibit, he says, “It became clear how radical the shift is that’s happening day to day in a matter of months in his career.”
Dylan archivist and collector Mitch Blank, who provided several artifacts for the exhibit, was in attendance that year at Newport.
The electrified “Like A Rolling Stone,” which would soon open Side 1 of Highway 61 Revisited, was released as a single just a few days before Dylan’s electric Newport performance.
“People weren’t that aware of what was going on,” says Blank about the closeness of the “Like A Rolling Stone” single release with Newport. Blank contrasts the insular mid-’60s folk scene with the overly tuned-in world of today, but also adds that it didn’t feel like a shock at the time, echoing others who have debunked the grandeur of the Newport myth.
Light says the exhibit took shape around Dylan’s electric transition because that’s when Dylan’s writing showed “the limitless possibilities, the shedding of expectations and rules.
“His writing comes fully into its own, with unique and unprecedented and groundbreaking use of language and imagery,” continues Light. “He doesn’t shed the folk tradition, but he transforms the folk and blues and rock stuff into something that is this really distinctive style and voice that becomes Bob Dylan music.”
While its main focus is on Dylan’s output in 1965, the American Writers Museum exhibit also addresses Dylan’s impact on American literature, with an emphasis on his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, and his accompanying Nobel Lecture.
In the lecture, Dylan unpacks his songwriting process, sharing that early on he took his “vernacular” from folk songs and his “themes” from great literature like Moby Dick and The Odyssey.
On the opening night of Bob Dylan: Electric in Chicago, Light hosted a Q&A with Richard F. Thomas, a Harvard classics professor and Dylan scholar whose recent book, Why Bob Dylan Matters, delves into the intertextuality and classical allusions in Dylan’s songs.
Thomas agrees that 1965 was a turning point for Dylan’s writing. If he borrowed the vernacular of folk songs for his earlier work, there was a new language beginning to develop around Bringing It All Back Home.
“I think partly when he departed from the expectations of the urban folk tradition of [Pete] Seeger and others there was a conscious pulling back from people like [Woody] Guthrie,” says Thomas.
Thomas says Dylan’s language was “more modern, more painterly” on Highway 61 Revisited and 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, and continuing up through his 1975 masterpiece, Blood On The Tracks.
Was it this new and groundbreaking use of language in 1965 that made Dylan worthy of the prestigious literary prize in the Nobel committee’s eyes?
Light won’t go that far. “To say [1963’s ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’] doesn’t stand next to what came later is a tough argument to make,” he says. The curator used a quote from Allen Ginsberg in the exhibit, recounting how the Beat poet wept when he first heard “Hard Rain” because he felt the Beats’ “torch had been passed to another generation.”
But Dylan himself appears conflicted about calling his songs literature. In his Nobel lecture, he ultimately arrives at the conclusion that songs are distinct from literature because “lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page.”
In a speech upon receiving the award for the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2015, Dylan further complicates the issue: “These songs of mine, I think of as mystery plays, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far.”
Light says the debate of songwriting vs. literature is “often impossible to untangle,” but adds that a definition of literature, for him, is art that “communicates ideas and images, and language that inspires people.”
Thomas points to the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns. “Is he a poet or a folk singer? He’s both of course. That’s a tradition that shows the artificiality of separating song from poetry.”
Surely there is little debate though about Dylan’s impact on modern literature, especially as scholars like Thomas — who in addition to his classics studies also teaches a freshman class at Harvard on Dylan — have begun dedicating their time to his work. Thomas says Dylan is “the most complex writer, not just songwriter, of our time.”
While he has laced his songs with literary references, one wonders what Dylan thinks of the scholarly analysis?
“I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it — what it all means,” he says in the Nobel lecture.
Thomas says Dylan has poked fun at professors in interviews and songs like “My Back Pages” and “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”
“A lot of professors that he would have encountered in 1959 at the University of Minnesota, I probably wouldn’t have liked either,” quips Thomas. “He’s playing with those of us who write about him.”
Thomas has carved out a special niche studying the literary references from classical writers like Ovid, Virgil and Homer, with specific emphasis on three of Dylan’s post-2000 albums, “Love And Theft,” Modern Times and Tempest.
He believes in Dylan’s later period the songwriter has embraced a new vernacular of sorts in classical allusions. “It’s only in this millenium that he sees literature as a fertile source for his own songwriting.”
Dylan ends his Nobel lecture with the first line from Homer’s Odyssey: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Thomas views the Nobel lecture and Dylan’s last album of original material, 2012’s Tempest, as an end of sorts. “Dylan has become Odysseus,” says Thomas. “He gets back to the beginning of time, and literary time, at the end of his original songwriting [period]. We hope there will be another [album], but that has seemed like the end to many people.”
(Dylan’s three studio albums since Tempest comprise only American standards.)
“I see Dylan as a continuum,” says Thomas, from Greek and Roman writers to Dante and beyond.
In his book, Thomas analyzes the ways in which Dylan has drawn from these writers who came before him. “In the process Dylan becomes part of the stream that flows from Homer on into the present,” Thomas writes.
“I’ve known Dylan is important for 50 years,” Thomas says in our interview. “I’ve also known that Virgil and Homer and Ovid are important for the same amount, maybe a little longer. They’re important because they capture in their art what it is to be human.”
The exhibit runs from November 16, 2018 — April 30, 2019.