The Seven Ages of Dylan
Can Bob Dylan be considered a fine poet? According to Danny Karlin, Winterstoke Professor of English at Bristol University and a leading expert on Robert Browning, Bob Dylan’s songs were ultimately popular because they were sung rather than read. Bob Dylan could not be considered a fine poet; he was a singer and songwriter. However, other scholars at the conference organised, yesterday, at Bristol University analysed some of Dylan’s songs as they would have done a poem. Aidan Day, Professor of English at the University of Dundee compared the central character in Man in the Long Black Coat to Satan in William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Other speakers included Philip Horne (University College London), David Punter (University of Bristol), Neil Corcoran (University of Liverpool), Richard Brown (University of Leeds) and the critic and writer Michael Gray, who gave the keynote address. The scholars presented new academic papers on Bob Dylan’s work and life from different disciplinary perspectives and notably examined the artist’s various ‘re-inventions’ of himself, tracking these changes in his sense of himself and of his art, as well as the public’s responses to these changes.
At the time of the publication of Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan In America in September 2010, which provided one of the first in-depth studies of the historical nature of Bob Dylan’s work, Paul Lay argued: ‘one of Bob Dylan’s claims to greatness – made not by him but by many others – is that his enormous output of songs and recordings has a permanence and achievement far superior to those of other ‘popular’ artists’.
Richard Welch’s analysis of the American cultural revolution of the mid-1950s, of which Bob Dylan later became a part, in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll and Social Change’ (February 1990) is also particularly insightful. According to Welch it
‘swept aside prevailing notions of American popular music, blended black and white musical traditions and integrated black performers into the pantheon of musical superstars in an unprecedented fashion [...]. This revolution created a music which became the common property not only of two generations of Americans, but millions throughout the world, creating the most ubiquitous, and perhaps, most influential form of American popular culture. The revolution was rock 'n' roll.’
Was Dylan a poet or a performer? Watch this video from his 1965 song Subterranean Homesick Blues and judge for yourself.
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