KARACHI, Aug 1: Iconic American singer/song-writer and musician Bob Dylan’s poetry has always been about change and the artist has, throughout his lengthy career, challenged the audience’s expectations of him.
This was the main thrust of Dr Graeme Cane’s lecture titled ‘Knocking on heaven’s door: the poetry of Bob Dylan,’ held on Friday at one of the Aga Khan University’s lecture halls. Dr Cane heads the Centre of English Language at the institute.
The speaker talked about the various themes that pervade Dylan’s work as well as the ways his landmark songs have been interpreted over the years. Dr Cane played several of the American bard’s songs during the presentation.
“Dylan’s poetry has always been about change. He’s there to change the audience. He’s always one step ahead of the audience. At times this has made him extremely unpopular,” said the speaker.
Born with the very un-rock and roll moniker of Robert Allen Zimmerman in the middle American state of Minnesota in 1941 Dylan, who started performing in the early sixties and is still going strong, has influenced countless musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, U2, Bruce Springsteen and many others who are today considered legends in their own right. Dylan is also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize as well as the Academy Award and has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature.
Dr Cane said some people took exception to Dylan’s voice, adding that in the early days he used to sing in quite a sweet voice; however, influenced by his musical idol American folk singer Woody Guthrie, Dylan adopted Guthrie’s style and Oklahoman accent.
Tackling Bob Dylan chronologically, the speaker said that the tune Blowin’ in the Wind, taken from the 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, became a symbol for the American civil rights movement. A memorable cover of the tune was performed by Joan Baez, who also performed a version at 1969’s Woodstock festival. As for The Times They are a-Changin’, released in 1964 on the album of the same name, Dr Cane said it addressed groups within the establishment and was full of Biblical allusions, which ran right through the artist’s body of work.
The speaker said that in the beginning, the ‘I’ in Dylan’s work represented himself; however, later on it became more difficult to decipher who the ‘I’ was.
When Bob Dylan opted to experiment with electric instruments, he came in for a lot of flak from folk music purists. The most memorable and controversial event in this respect was his performance of the kinetic Subterranean Homesick Blues, from 1965’s Bringing it all Back Home, at the Newport Folk Festival. The speaker said the event changed popular music as song-writing was never the same again, as Dylan had paired serious poetry with rock, whereas previously rock and roll artists had mostly concentrated on rhythm heavy, light on substance dance-floor fillers.
With 1965’s Mr Tambourine Man, Dylan also explored new lyrical territory, though the Byrds recorded a magnificent cover, anchored by Roger McGuinn’s shimmering 12-string guitar. Dr Cane compared the song to English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic Kubla Khan, said to be written under the influence of opium, but was of the opinion that in the song, Dylan was invoking his muse. “It’s difficult to put a meaning to the song. He’s looking for inspiration and has seemed to have found it. To say it’s just about drugs is very superficial. It’s great poetry.”
Coming to 1967’s John Wesley Harding, the first record released after Dylan’s mysterious motorcycle crash, Dr Cane said it was a “mystical album,” containing All Along the Watchtower, probably the definitive Dylan tune which was also recorded by guitar ace Jimi Hendrix; ironically, it was Hendrix’s searing version that truly immortalized the tune. He said it also contained various possible Biblical references, specifically from the Book of Isaiah.—QAM