Bob Dylan Scholar Sean Latham discusses his new book, “The World of Dylan”


After decades of analyzing, listening, and re-listening, perhaps the most interesting thing about Bob Dylan is that Bob Dylan doesn’t exist. Robert Zimmerman turns 80 today (May 24) – some 60 now in the public eye – and he always changes masks, swaps wigs, disappears from the scene on the left.

Critics, academics, and fans want to analyze it, categorize it, finalize it, publicize it – it escapes them all. Think you got it – Christian fanatic! Folk hero! Rebel rock! –and he only sinks underwater to resurface, almost unrecognizable, somewhere on the coast: a Nashville crooner, an underwear salesman, a Sinatra blanket group, a reluctant Nobel Prize winner. This is the kid from Minnesota who dreamed of join Little Richard , but Bob Dylan is the role he was born to be. And it has left us guessing and mesmerized for over half a century.

“I don’t think Dylan is very interested in our knowing who real Dylan is – not because he doesn’t know, but because what makes him such an interesting artist is that he can play the part of Bob Dylan in such an interesting way ”, Sean Latham, professor of ‘English at the University of Tulsa and director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, says InsideHook.

Latham modified Bob Dylan’s world, now available, in time for the subject’s 80th birthday. Through 27 essays, including one by Latham himself, the writers analyze Dylan through the lenses of folk music, blues, theater, Judaism, counterculture, gender and sexuality and more. .

While the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies is hosting a virtual symposium May 22-24 – “Dylan at 80With about 50 academics, journalists and musicians – we caught up with Latham to talk about all things Bob.

So, did you always have the idea of ​​publishing this book for Dylan’s 80th birthday?

Sean latham: The 80th was a happy occasion. We saw the book as one of the first results from the Dylan Institute. There is a Bob Dylan Center [in Tulsa, opening next May], which is the public access point to the Dylan Archives. Then there is the research Institute at the University of Tulsa. We are in charge of building a scientific research program around the richness of the archives. We saw this book as a first attempt to take a broad critical assessment of the state of what we know about Dylan.

There are so many Dylan books out there. What was your goal for this book?

I want it to hold up as it transitions from fandom to stock market. We have people from all walks of life – philosophers, marketing professors, folklorists – tasked with thinking about what Dylan means for their region. I want to manage the transition of how we’re going to talk about Dylan. Because when you think about the long history of culture, we’re going to have a pop music figure or two from the second half of the 20th century to replace pop music at this time. Dylan will probably be that guy, maybe the Beatles.

What interests you about Dylan?

I came to Tulsa University because it was the world headquarters of James Joyce. I modify the James Joyce Quarterly . I am interested in these unique characters who reshape culture. It’s an amazing accident that the Bob Dylan archives have arrived and I have the ability to do something similar around the analogue of Joyce, who I think is Bob Dylan. I don’t think there was an artist in the second half of the 20th century who was more influential – not just in music, but the idea of ​​what art is, what it can be, what he should do, his role in culture and politics and soon.

I grew up listening to Dylan. How did you come to him?

Dylan came to me rather than me to Dylan. I was born in 1971, so my musical tastes in high school were shaped in the mid 80s, early 90s. Dylan was not a musical presence for me when my tastes were forming. When the Dylan Archives got here, the then university president called me into his office and said, “You seem like the guy on campus who’s really good at looking at one person. “

[laughs] Right.

It was when I started looking at the material, teaching Dylan lessons, that it consumed my life. And I am quite convinced by the claim of his genius and his influence.

I am intrigued by the myth he has built around himself, how he consciously transforms into these different Dylans. What are you intrigued by?

There is so much to fascinate. There are a lot of Dylans to be interested in. Her constant ability to reinvent herself is one of the things I love about Joyce. He wrote only a small number of books – each one was fundamentally different from the one that came before him. There is an interesting parallel with Dylan. Dylan didn’t just find a genre and started working on it; he would get bored of it pretty quickly and move on. Recombine the bottles he has in his music lab. What happens when I turn country music into rock? What happens if I pour gospel into folk? What’s coming out on the other side?

That is true.

And once you gain access to the archives, the most fascinating thing about Dylan is that he’s an incredibly hard-working songwriter. Going through notebooks and drafts, seeing the hundreds or thousands of unpublished songs, or parts of songs, lyrics. He works constantly, writes constantly, observes the world around him. You can see that he is working and reworking ideas, songs and sounds.

You wrote on his handwriting for the book. What’s your favorite album?

The one I put on for fun is Highway 61 revisited. The album I love to teach is Love and flight because it’s so dense and complicated.

You are mentionning Storm a lot in the introduction.

Yes. [laughs] I probably shouldn’t say this: when I wrote that, Rough and turbulent ways hadn’t come out yet, and I thought I was writing on Dylan’s last song. I think he intended this to be his last song. I probably cannot be convinced of this fact.

He’s about the Carter family – their last song, or one of them, was about the sinking of the Titanic. The title comes from Shakespeare’s last play. Everything there shows that Dylan writes his Shakespeare Storm – this last burial of the wand. And to do it through the sinking of the Titanic, which takes us through the Carter family, I feel like it was Dylan who was telescoping: how to end a career? You do it by looking at so many other ways to finish.

If I had a favorite track, it would be “Desolation Row”. What do you think of this one?

I think it was Dylan who discovered his poetic sensibility. This is the moment when he goes from topical songwriter status to [when he’s] start thinking about what other types of songs can do. What makes Dylan interesting as a poet, his poetry uses very simple language to tell complex truths and truly rich images. At the same time, the rest of American poetry becomes more and more dense and complex. Dylan clings to this old version of the poet as someone who talks to people.

It’s age-old debate, but do you see him more as a poet or a musician?

It can be a lot of different things. I think he’s a great poet. I think his poetry gets great because of the way he plays it, the personalities he interprets around the poem – like we said earlier, the many different Dylans. Because I’m a scholar, I think Dylan lives powerfully on the page. Dylan in his Nobel speech said, “I want to live in the performance, not on the page.” This is why it was perhaps ambivalent to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature. There isn’t really a Nobel Prize for what he does. It’s our problem, not his. We haven’t found the right way to describe the richness of what he does.

Going back to what you said earlier, how are Joyce and Dylan similar?

Joyce said – and this is perhaps one of the more interesting parallels between them – that he is not really an artist. He said, “I’m a scissors and dough man.” Because he wrote so many Odysseus and Finnegans Wake and Dubliners literally writing what he heard someone say in the street, what he read in magazines, newspapers. He writes these little passages and remixes them in what was to become Odysseus. And we can actually track that – you can see it moving it from one draft to another.

Their techniques are the same. They are so in tune with the world around them as a source of creativity. They are both men in scissors and in dough. Their ability is to come together and come together in surprising ways.

It’s so interesting, because in Chronicles: Volume One, [Dylan’s 2004 memoir] people love to browse and find where it took certain lines. Chronicles is scissors and dough.

Absolutely. And that’s where you get that kind of charges, like “Oh, Dylan is a plagiarist.” This is largely misunderstanding the technique. Joyce built it all Odysseus on Homer’s Odyssey. No one said, “Joyce stole the Odyssey. “

Looking back, on his 80th birthday, how do you see his legacy shaping up from a scientific point of view?

There are a lot of Renaissance playwrights – we study Shakespeare. There are a lot of early 20th century novelists – you can probably point out 10 or 12 that we keep. I think Dylan is going to take the place of this moment when pop music has become a serious form of expressive art.

Do you see anyone else at Dylan’s level?

It’s a good question. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. I think there is a tendency and a risk of missing male singer-songwriters. Carole King.

Did you hand-select who you wanted to write essays for the book?

I was lucky, almost without exception, the first person I wrote to was eager to write the essay. I think Ann Powers’ essay on Dylan and the Genre is just a model of what good writing can be. She made us see Dylan’s body – the way his body has changed over the years. She talks about his folk body and how he tried to be a Woody Guthrie-like character and then all of a sudden he’s the late ’60s mod Dylan and then the county gentleman.

It reminds me of when Cate Blanchett played it I am not here.

And the fact that she might suggest something about the sexist nature of Dylan’s body in the ’60s.

Are there other trials that stood out?

James English has written about Dylan and the Nobel Prize, and prizes in general – what are they for? Why do we need them? Why do we care that someone wins a Grammy? One of the things he explores is not what the price does for the artist, but what does the artist do for the price? What does it mean for Dylan to accept the Nobel Prize? Why does the Nobel Prize want to give himself to Dylan? Is it just to get some fame? Who helps who?

What did you think about Rough and turbulent ways?

I liked it. Maybe because of my time, I don’t find Kennedy’s song “Murder Most Foul” as moving as the others. I think the other songs are pretty good. More so, the fact that Dylan could produce this at almost 80, still had so much to do. I suggest [with Tempest] he may have reached the end of his need to write songs – but of course I was wrong. I should have known I was going to be wrong.


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