The Harvard professor of Bob Dylan studies: 'My thesis is that he has become Odysseus'

He mentions Dylan in the same breath as Ovid, Virgil and Dante. Meet Richard F Thomas, the classics professor who has spent half a century decoding Bob’s imagery, sources and allusions

‘People who know Bob Dylan slightly, or know of him – the book is to help them to understand why he’s important.” With this mildly phrased description, Richard F Thomas, a classics professor at Harvard, originally from New Zealand, born in London, doesn’t quite do justice to Why Dylan Matters. It is a poignant blend of memoir, literary analysis through a classical lens, musicology and, above all, love. He loves Dylan with a passion so selfless and so intense that it’s impossible to emerge from the book, let alone meeting its author, untouched. And I was a fan already – I just didn’t realise until now how second-rate I was at it.

We meet at the Troubadour, in Earl’s Court, London, a cafe rich with the histories of scores of musicians – Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon – but truly a jewel in the folk revival scene for having hosted Dylan in 1962, when he played under the name of Blind Boy Grunt. Despite the poignancy of the venue, Thomas says it maddens him when people look to Dylan’s songs for autobiographical meaning. He cites a mid-60s press conference: “Dylan became almost angry, very hostile. The established press – their only models were the Beatles and Donovan – whom they didn’t really understand either. But you wouldn’t ask Picasso what his paintings were ‘about’.”

Nevertheless, Thomas is engaged in a decoding of his own, looking for imagery, biblical allusions in the early days, classical references in his later years, Woody Guthrie breaking into a song like a phantom, Ovid blasting into a love stanza. Other times, unable to fathom a source, Thomas gazes in admiration at the poetry. “Where did the music come from? In the 60s, these incredible lyrics, ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. The poetry of them, these lyrics, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ – ‘dance beneath the diamond sky, with one hand waving free./ Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands./ With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves’. Where does that come from?”

‘The New York Times was in my classroom’ … Richard F Thomas.
‘The New York Times was in my classroom’ … Richard F Thomas. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

In 2003, Thomas suggested that Harvard should start a Dylan module, and he recalls, with a victor’s grace, that some of his colleagues were against the idea, thinking it too trivial; by 2016, Dylanology was well-established. When news came of his Nobel prize, “the New York Times was in my classroom that afternoon, it was on the front of the arts section of the Times that Saturday, so I had the book contract by Monday”.

As much as Dylan has always resisted the quest for meaning, that’s nothing compared with how he has balked at being used as a poster boy for a political position, whether an anti-war stance or a civil rights agenda. But the fact is – Thomas is quite strict on this point – “he wrote the best civil rights song, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, and the best anti-war song, ‘Masters of War’, and all before he was 23 or 24 years old”.

“Masters of War” became a thorn in Dylan’s side, taken as the anthem of the movement against Vietnam. “So people just assumed he was a pacifist, although he never went on a march. My own view is that he’s fairly conservative, although he was against that war. He stopped touring in ’66 until ’74, which is really when Vietnam happened.”

Bob Dylan wins Nobel prize in literature

If you’re struggling to compute the idea of Dylan as a conservative, that’s not it exactly: “I think he’s a conservative in the best sense, he wants to conserve and save. What his politics are, nobody knows. But when Obama won, he did say elusively, ‘looks like things might be changing for the better’. So I don’t think he’s a Republican conservative.”

Dylan’s career breaks into segments, both musically and thematically: acoustic, then electric, then his Christian period, the unpopular mid-80s, then a rebirth in 1997; his recent work is the richest in classical imagery and according to Thomas as good – particularly Tempest – as anything he’s ever done. But each new phase alienated some of the most diehard fans of the last. “Do you know the Judas story? It was in Manchester Free Trade Hall in ’66, and he does the acoustic half and comes out completely different, wearing different clothes, with this electric band, and people booing, and he’s talking to them, and then there’s this one cry: Judas. To this Jewish singer. And Dylan says: ‘I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.’ And he turns to the band and says, ‘play fucking loud’. And it’s like a machine gun, the opening chords of ‘Rolling Stone’, this incredible electric sound. He knew where he was going, I think. And was always ahead of the fans.”

Fans who left for one reason or another – the Christian era where gigs would start with a full-on, ranting sermon sounds a bit special interest – sometimes never came back. “A lot of them probably think he’s dead.” Which is their loss, as his reinventions have often deepened what went before and, however well you know a song, how it will sound live is completely unpredictable. True Dylanologists listen to official bootlegs, by the way. The studio albums are only there for the copyright.

‘He’s always hooking into poetic traditions’ … Dylan in Munich in 1984.
‘He’s always hooking into poetic traditions’ … Dylan in Munich in 1984. Photograph: Istvan Bajzat/AFP/Getty

Does Thomas ever hear a couplet that’s a little bit trite and panic that that’s the real Dylan and the genius is just an accident? Shaking his head confidently, he replies: “Too many accidents.” In a way, the classical allusions of Dylan’s later work bring him back to his earliest roots in blues and folk, albeit in a roundabout way. “Think about melancholy – the song ‘Not Dark Yet’ ends with the singer getting near the end. But it’s just such a beautiful song. The beauty of the song is compensation for the melancholy. We’re all going to die, so how do you deal with that fact? You can believe in an afterlife, or you can focus on the beauty that the human mind can produce through art. I think that’s why, like Eliot or Dante, or my guys, Virgil, Ovid, because of his genius, he’s always hooking into poetic traditions. Gospel, folk, always folk. There are folk traditions in ancient Greece and Rome, they’re what people sing, how they deal with mortality. Take someone like Virgil, whose Eclogues is really at the root of western pastoral poetry: he has these songs, which are shepherds competing with each other, it’s a cultural reality turned into high art. Dylan could hear a song and absorb it probably within a couple of hearings. When he gave the Nobel lecture, he talks about becoming all of these characters, from the ballads, from the folk songs.”

Dylan put the Nobel committee’s nose of out of joint, not replying to them for weeks when they told him he had won (the permanent secretary said, “we’ll give him as much time as he wants”). “I think the real Bob Dylan couldn’t see himself in that room with all of those people”. Then he declined to give the acceptance speech, which had to be delivered by the US ambassador to Sweden, but he did deliver the Nobel Lecture – the $900,000 depended on it – which is probably as full a rumination on his work and influences as he’s ever given. He talks about the books that were most important to him – Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey – which Thomas says “really confirmed my thesis that he has become Odysseus. He uses the pronoun ‘you’, ‘you’ve ended up in bed with the wrong woman’, which could be Odysseus and Calypso, or himself, but also could be you or me. It’s part of his genius that nothing is pinnable down but these connections can be made.”

Back in the day … Thomas starting out in Dylanology.
Back in the day … Thomas starting out in Dylanology. Photograph: -

Thomas has been to Dylan’s high school, met his 90-year-old English teacher, has ruminated on the singer’s few months at college surely more deeply than Dylan himself did, and has watched his live performances, often many times in a single tour, with devotional attentiveness. But he’s never met him, and isn’t sure that he’d want to. “First of all he wouldn’t say anything. But also, Virgil is the poet I’ve most worked on. We know where he was born, we know when he was born, we know when he died. There are a few other anecdotes about him but most in a life that was written 100 years after he died. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to know the poet. All I need is the poetry. Besides, what would I say?”

• Why Dylan Matters by Richard F Thomas is published by William Collins in hardback, £12.99.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bob Dylan at 80: in praise of a mighty and unbowed singer-songwriter
Prolific, resilient and endlessly creative … as Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday, Edward Docx assesses his artistic contribution to the human story

Edward Docx

22, May, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Testimony by Robbie Robertson review – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band
Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destruction

Richard Williams

08, Dec, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns review – Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin and the wonder of Woodstock
A kind of Lourdes for musicians – stories of songwriting brilliance, hipster shysters and extraordinary excess abound in this enjoyable study of the New York upstate village

James Lasdun

02, Mar, 2016 @4:05 PM

Article image
Voices by Nick Coleman review – an enthusiastic history of the best pop singers
This sharp history of pop music focuses on the lives and songs of the partially deaf journalist’s favourite singers, including Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin

Richard Williams

27, Jan, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
Me by Elton John review – hilariously self-lacerating
A memoir that is racy, pacy and crammed with scurrilous anecdotes – what more could you ask from the rocket man?

Hadley Freeman

16, Oct, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Once Upon a Time – The Lives of Bob Dylan by Ian Bell – review
Knotty, beguiling, contrary, infuriating and as ambitious as its subject, this could be the most vital Dylan biography yet, writes WB Gooderham

WB Gooderham

14, Jun, 2013 @3:26 PM

Article image
Bob Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature
The 1913 Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. His work, like Dylan’s, recreates tradition and crosses genres

Amit Chaudhuri

21, Oct, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel review – where have all the political musicians gone?
This is a triumphant oral history of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, a timely account of 1970s-80s musicians who fought against bigotry and Thatcherism

John Harris

28, Sep, 2016 @6:01 AM

Article image
1971 by David Hepworth review – the very best year in rock music?
The veteran music writer makes his case with reference to Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Doors and Carole King’s Tapestry. But what about the popular singles – and how can he dismiss T Rex?

Bob Stanley

12, May, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 by Greil Marcus – review

Mark Ford finds Greil Marcus's collection of pieces on Dylan both poetic and testy

Mark Ford

15, May, 2011 @5:30 AM