A class on Bob Dylan

Dr Richard F. Thomas has been teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan (above).
Dr Richard F. Thomas has been teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan (above).PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Dr Richard F. Thomas (above) has been teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan.
Dr Richard F. Thomas (above) has been teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan.PHOTO: NYTIMES

A Harvard classics professor has been teaching a course on the singer since 2004

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS • For the Harvard classics professor Richard F. Thomas, who has been gently teased by colleagues for teaching a freshman seminar about Bob Dylan - and for the students who sometimes get double takes for choosing the course - the announcement of the newest Nobel laureate in literature was hailed as vindication.

And cause to break out celebratory cupcakes at the fortuitously timed Thursday afternoon session.

Dr Thomas uses the course, simply called Bob Dylan, to put the artist in context of not just popular culture of the last half-century, but also the tradition of classical poets such as Virgil and Homer.

The class follows Dylan's career chronologically, listening to selections from most of his dozens and dozens of albums while also reading his memoir, Chronicles, which Dr Thomas calls in the course description "a work of genius, a sprawling Dylan prose song posing as an autobiography".

"One of the coolest things is learning about Dylan from a world expert on Virgil," said Mr Ethan McCollister, 18, a student from Vermont. "Both are poets and both are lyricists even more than that."

Each session features student presentations and, last Thursday, it was Mr Jake Suddleson's turn to go first after Dr Thomas played Diamonds And Rust, which recounts singer Joan Baez's memories of her romantic relationship with Dylan.

A discussion about the complicated relationship between the two segued into Mr Suddleson's presentation on Just Like A Woman. He described the lingering mystery over the subject of the song, Baez or perhaps model-heiress Edie Sedgwick. Or as Dr Thomas suggested, perhaps it was about both or neither.

Mr Suddleson, 18, from Los Angeles, asked his classmates if they thought the song was misogynistic, citing the chorus that includes the words "she aches just like a woman/But she breaks just like a little girl".

He said he thought they merely reflected Dylan's own heartbreak. But Mr Sam Puopolo, 19, from Manhattan, disagreed. "It seems like he is infantilising the woman," he argued.

Dr Thomas brought the discussion back to Baez's Diamond And Rust. It was a reminder, he suggested, of Dylan's genius at obfuscation, recalling the lyrics, "You who are so good with words/And at keeping things vague" .

But keeping things vague is not part of an academic's job description. Before class, The New York Times talked with Dr Thomas about the class, the inter-generational appeal of Dylan and how deep into Greek and Roman literature the latest Nobel laureate seems to have read. These are edited excerpts:

You've taught the class four times since 2004. What was the reaction from your Harvard colleagues initially?

The (course) committee at first didn't want to accept it, but they were eventually convinced. The process was like what the Nobel Prize committee must have gone through, realising just what Dylan is.

He's not just a protest singer or a pop singer, but a phenomenon who rolls into his art lots of disparate musical, literary and other strands.

You mentioned that one student just went with her father to Desert Trip, last weekend's concert in California featuring Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Who and other acts now in their 70s. What does Dylan mean to 18-year-olds like your students?

A lot of them obviously come to him through their parents, maybe even their grandparents. Each time I've taught the class, there have been a few students who know him pretty much as well as I do.

He's alive for them.

Others know him through something like the 1999 movie Hurricane (about boxer Rubin Carter, which includes Dylan's song of the same name). Others are taking it out of a curiosity to see why their parents have been so obsessed with him their entire lives.

Much has been said by scholars such as Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz about the way Dylan draws on English ballads, American folk music, minstrel songs, blues and the Bible. Your scholarly article Streets Of Rome: The Classical Dylan unpacks a less noted aspect of his lyrics - allusions to ancient Greek and Roman literature. What's your impression about how deeply he knows that literature?

He did Latin in school in Hibbing, I'm not sure how much. He's always read eclectically.

That's why I think in recent years, he's come to classics stuff. I started teaching the seminar after I noticed some of the classical layers, particularly since 2001, in songs such as Lonesome Day Blues.

What about Dylan just as a writer?

In his intertextuality, he's like Virgil or Ovid: Someone who came late enough in the tradition and has enough tradition behind him - T.S. Eliot wrote about this - that he can control it and also be part of it, recreating and refreshing it.

I don't see any difference between a poet such as Catullus or Virgil and Dylan. I think they are doing the same things.

It has to do with control of language, connecting of lyrics and melodies. That's what makes it timeless.

If I tried to teach a course on English band Herman's Hermits, no one would turn up.

You've never met Dylan. If you did, what would you ask him?

Whatever I ask him, he wouldn't tell me. Dylan is very careful at controlling what he gets asked.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2016, with the headline 'A class on Bob Dylan'. Print Edition | Subscribe