Richard Thomas (Department of the Classics)
Freshman Seminar 37U 4 credits (fall term) Enrollment: Limited to 15
“’Twas a dark day in Dallas.” So begins the nearly 17-minute song Bob Dylan delivered on March 27, 2020, a gift to a world in the grip of Covid-19. With its Shakespearean title “Murder Most Foul” is, in part, about the assassination of JFK, and about the music that he and many of us have been listening to across the decades since that day. This seminar will examine Dylan as a musical, literary, and general cultural phenomenon, in the context of high and popular culture of the last 60 years, but also in the context of the much more long-lived poetic, literary, artistic and musical cultures of which he has played so demonstrably a leading role. Dylan has been at the center of popular culture ever since he arrived in New York City on 24 January 1961, from Hibbing MN, by way of Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago; and the longevity of his art defies the validity of the very term popular culture. The seminar will trace the evolution of his songs and lyrics from its early folk, blues, rock and roll, gospel, and protest roots, through the transition from acoustic to electric, also through the many evolutions, reinventions, and innovations that followed—and that continue to emerge. We will also focus on Dylan’s frustrations of audience expectation, from the anger evoked by his apparent abandonment of the serious protest and static urban folk traditions, to his apparent embracing of Christianity, to his change in musical arrangement in performance, to attacks focused on Dylan’s “plagiarism” which show a lack of understanding of the vital and original literary process of intertextuality. The seminar will also explore the multiple versions of many of Dylan’s songs that show him to be not unlike an oral poet in his ability to re-perform and recreate through performance, in the process often transforming utterly the original lyrics and meanings of his own songs. Attention will be given to the ways in which Dylan’s career builds up through periods of evolution and experimentation to productions that can only be called “classics” from a diachronic perspective, among others, Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), Blood on the Tracks (1975), “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), Tempest (2012), and the bootleg and outtakes from the 1990s to the astonishing Telltale Signs (2008) and the highly revealing The Cutting Edge (2015) and More Blood More Tracks (2018). The seminar will also consider Dylan’s role in film, particularly the brilliant commercial failure, Masked and Anonymous, from 2003, a work of high allegorical import. We will also look at Todd Haynes’ insightful 2007 movie, I’m Not There, which captures the essence of some of Dylan’s persona creation, even though it initially met with bafflement from many critics. We will also read Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, itself a work of genius, a sprawling Dylan prose song posing as an autobiography.