Bob Dylan Scholar Sean Latham Discusses His New Book, “The World of Dylan”

Just in time for Dylan's 80th birthday, the book features 27 essays from people across all fields examining his legacy

May 24, 2021 9:18 am
Bob Dylan
Why shouldn't we study Dylan the same way we study fine art?
Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images

After decades of analyzing, listening and re-listening, what is perhaps most interesting about Bob Dylan is that Bob Dylan doesn’t exist. Robert Zimmerman turns 80 today (May 24) — some 60 years now in the public eye — and he’s still changing masks, swapping wigs, disappearing stage left.

Critics, scholars and fans want to analyze him, categorize him, finalize him, advertise him — he eludes them all. Think you got him —  Christian zealot! Folk hero! Rock rebel! — and he sinks beneath the water only to resurface, nearly unrecognizable, somewhere down the coast: a Nashville crooner, underwear salesman, one-man Sinatra cover band, reluctant Nobel Laureate. He’s the kid from Minnesota who dreamed of joining Little Richard , but Bob Dylan is the role he was born to play. And he’s kept us guessing and mesmerized for more than half a century.

“I don’t think Dylan has a great deal of interest in us ever knowing who the real  Dylan is — not because he doesn’t know, but because what makes him such an interesting artist is that he can play the role of Bob Dylan in such interesting ways,” Sean Latham, English Professor at the University of Tulsa and director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies, tells InsideHook.

Latham edited The World of Bob Dylan, out now, in time for its subject’s 80th birthday. Through 27 essays, including one from Latham himself, writers analyze Dylan through lenses of folk music, the blues, theater, Judaism, the counterculture, gender and sexuality and more.

As the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies hosts a virtual symposium May 22-24 — “Dylan@80,” featuring some 50 scholars, journalists and musicians — we caught up with Latham to talk all things Bob.

So did you always have the idea to publish this book for Dylan’s 80th?

Sean Latham: The 80th was a happy circumstance. We saw the book as one of the initial outputs from the Dylan Institute. There’s a Bob Dylan Center [in Tulsa, opening next May], which is the pubic access point to the Dylan archives. Then there’s the research institute at the University of Tulsa. We’re in charge of building up a scholarly research program around the riches of the archive. We saw this book as an initial attempt to take broad critical stock of the state of what we know about Dylan.

There are so many Dylan books out there. What was your goal for this book?

I want it to stand at the moment of transition between fandom and scholarship. We’ve got people from all different fields — philosophers, marketing professors, folklorists — tasked with thinking of what Dylan means to their area. I want to manage the transition of how we’re going to talk about Dylan. Because when you think about the long history of culture, we’re going to have one or two pop music figures from the second half of the 20th century who will stand in for pop music during that era. Dylan’s probably going to be that guy, maybe The Beatles.

What interests you about Dylan?

I came to the University of Tulsa because it was the world headquarters for James Joyce. I edit the James Joyce Quarterly . I’m interested in these singular figures who reshape the culture. It’s an amazing accident that the Bob Dylan archive arrived and I have the ability to do something similar around Joyce’s analogue, who I think is Bob Dylan. I don’t think there’s any artist in the second half of the 20th century who’s been more influential — not just in music but the idea of what art is, what it can be, what it should do, its role in culture and politics and so on.

I grew up listening to Dylan. How did you come to him?

Dylan came to me rather than me coming to Dylan. I was born in 1971, so my musical tastes in high school were being shaped in the mid-’80s, early ’90s. Dylan was not a musical presence for me when my tastes were forming. When the Dylan Archives came here, the then-University president called me into his office and said, “You seem to be the guy on campus who’s really good at looking at just one person.”

[laughs] Right.

It’s when I began looking at the material, teaching courses on Dylan, that it consumed my life. And I’m utterly convinced by the claim for his genius and influence.

I’m intrigued by the myth he’s built around himself, how he mindfully changes into these different Dylans. What intrigues you?

There’s so much to be fascinated about. There are many Dylans to be interested in. His consistent ability to reinvent himself is one of the things I love about Joyce. He only wrote a small number of books — each one was fundamentally different than the one that came before it. There’s an interesting parallel with Dylan. Dylan didn’t just find a genre and start working in it; he would get tired of it pretty fast and move on to something else. Recombine the flasks he has in his musical laboratory. What happens when I pour country music into rock? What happens if I pour gospel into folk? What comes out the other side?

That’s true.

And once you have access to the archive, the most fascinating thing about Dylan is he’s an incredibly hard-working songwriter. Looking through the notebooks and drafts, seeing the hundreds or thousands of unpublished songs, or parts of songs, lyrics. He’s constantly working, constantly writing, observing the world around him. You can see he’s working and reworking ideas and songs and sounds.

You wrote about his songwriting for the book. What’s your favorite album?

The one I put on for fun is Highway 61 Revisited. The album I love to teach is Love and Theft because it’s so dense and complicated.

You mention Tempest a lot in the introduction.

Yes. [laughs] I probably shouldn’t say this: When I wrote that, Rough and Rowdy Ways hadn’t come out yet, and I thought I was writing about Dylan’s last song. I think he intended for it to be his last song. I probably can’t be unconvinced of that fact. 

He talks about the Carter family — their last song, or one of them, was about the sinking of the Titanic. The title comes from Shakespeare’s last play. Everything there is pointing to Dylan writing his Shakespeare’s Tempest — that last burying of the wand. And to do it through the sinking of the Titanic, which takes us through the Carter family, I feel it was Dylan telescoping: How do you bring a career to an end? You do it by looking at so many other ways of ending.

If I had a pick a favorite song, it would be “Desolation Row.” What do you think of that one?

I think that was Dylan discovering his poetic sensibility. That’s the moment where he shifts over from being a topical songwriter to [when he’s] starting to think about what other sorts of things songs can do. What makes Dylan interesting as a poet, his poetry uses very simple language to tell complex truths and really rich images. At the same moment, the rest of American poetry is becoming increasingly dense and complex. Dylan’s clinging to this older version of the poet as someone who speaks to the people.

This is the age-old debate, but do you see him more as a poet or musician?

He can be lots of different things. I think he’s a great poet. I think his poetry becomes great because of the way that he performs it, the personalities that he performs around the poem— as we were saying the earlier, the many different Dylans. Because I’m a scholar, I think Dylan lives powerfully on the page. Dylan in his Nobel address says, “I want to live in performance, not on the page.” That’s why he was maybe ambivalent about accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s not really a Nobel Prize for what he does. That’s our problem, not his. We haven’t figured out the right way to describe the richness of what he does.

Going back to what you said earlier, in what ways are Joyce and Dylan similar?

Joyce said — and this is maybe one of the most interesting parallels between them — that he’s not really an artist. He said, “I’m a scissors and paste man.” Because he wrote so much of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and Dubliners by writing down literally what he heard someone saying on the street, what he read in magazines, newspapers. He’s writing these little passages down and remixing them into what would become Ulysses. And we can actually track this — you can see him move it from one draft to another.

Their techniques are the same. They’re so attuned to the world around them as a source of creativity. They’re both scissors-and-paste men. Their ability is to gather and assemble in surprising ways.

That’s so interesting, because in Chronicles: Volume One, [Dylan’s 2004 memoir] people love going through and finding where he took certain lines. Chronicles is scissors and paste.

Absolutely. And that’s where you get those kind of charges, like “Oh, Dylan’s a plagiarist.” It’s misunderstanding the technique in large part. Joyce built all of Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey. Nobody was like, “Joyce stole the Odyssey.”

Looking back, on his 80th, how do you see his legacy shaping up from a scholarly side?

There are a lot of Renaissance playwrights — we study Shakespeare. There are a lot of early 20th century novelists — you can probably rattle off 10 or 12 that we keep around. I think Dylan is going to come to stand in for that moment of how pop music became a serious form of expressive art. 

Do you see anyone else on Dylan’s level?

That’s a good question. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. I think there’s a tendency and hazard of defaulting to male singer-songwriters. Carole King.

Did you handpick who you wanted to write essays for the book?

I was fortunate, almost without exception the first person I wrote to was eager to write the essay. I think Ann Powers’s essay on Dylan and gender is just a model of what great writing can be. She made us see Dylan’s body — the way his body changed over the years. She talks about his folk body and the way he tried to be a Woody Guthrie-like character, and then all of the sudden he’s the elbows and edges mod Dylan of the late ‘60s, and then the county gentleman.

It makes me think of when Cate Blanchett played him in I’m Not There.

And the fact that she could suggests something about the gender-bending nature of Dylan’s body in the ’60s.

Are there other essays that stood out?

James English wrote about Dylan and the Nobel Prize, and prizes in general — what are they for? Why do we need them? Why do we care if someone won a Grammy? One of the things he’s exploring is not what the prize does for the artist, but what does the artist do for the prize? What does it mean for Dylan to accept the Nobel? Why does the Nobel Prize want to give itself to Dylan? Is it just to get some fame of its own? Who’s helping who?

What did you think of Rough and Rowdy Ways?

I loved it. Maybe because of my era, I don’t find the Kennedy song, “Murder Most Foul,” as emotional as other people. I think the other songs on there are quite beautiful. Even more, the fact that Dylan could produce that at almost 80, had so much material still. I suggested [with Tempest] he may have reached the end of his need to write songs — but of course I was wrong. I should’ve known I was going to be wrong.

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