As the legendary singer Bob Dylan approaches a milestone birthday, a Leeds Metropolitan University academic comments on why Dylan’s appeal transcends generations and his music and films continue to captivate new audiences.

Dr James McGrath, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at Leeds Met can explain why Dylan has always confounded people’s expectations and shares his thoughts on the impact the singer has made over the last six decades.

Dylan in China, spring 2011

Bob Dylan’s live performances have always sparked controversy, for various reasons. He’s familiar with being heckled, and he knows how to heckle back.

This month, Dylan has been criticised for not performing his most obvious ‘protest’ songs in China and Vietnam on his ongoing world tour. There were reports that his set list had to be approved by authorities. While it might have been good to have heard, say, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, in a way, Dylan doesn’t need to perform his classic protest songs: his very name and presence bring them to mind.

So instead of playing political anthems in China and Vietnam, he opened these controversial shows with a song beginning ‘Gonna change my way of thinking / Make myself a different set of rules… And stop being influenced by fools.’ He released the song in 1979, but it could apply to any moment in his 50-year career.

In some ways, EVERY song Dylan plays is a protest song – a protest against anyone who wants to him to conform to expectations, including politicians but also including fans who love him, as well as the people who distrust him.

Dylan has always confounded people’s expectations, showing us in continually fresh ways that it’s unfair and unwise to place too many expectations on another human being. He’s been criticised for not joining organised protest movements – maybe that should be a reminder that if we want the world to change, we have to look to ourselves rather than to others.

Millions of words have been written on Dylan, and my favourite comment about him comes from John Lennon. When Dylan’s songs began preaching evangelical Christianity in the late 70s, Lennon said he was surprised, and didn’t share Dylan’s viewpoint, but he added that those who, like himself, admired Dylan shouldn’t be distressed at Dylan doing what Dylan wants to do.

Dylan as survivor

Alongside his continued writing, performing and recording, there’s another reason to celebrate Dylan turning 70: he’s had some high profile encounters with mortality.

Public opinion on Dylan seemed to change dramatically in 1997. In the 1990s, he’d released only two albums, and many found these disappointing. But then in 1997 two things happened.

That spring, Dylan was hospitalised with a heart infection. As ever with Dylan, there was great media attention, but also much confusion. The front pages the next morning wrote of him as if he’d no longer be here when we read the news. And that day, perhaps for the first time, many people really thought about just how important Dylan was. Thankfully, he recovered, and that autumn, released one of his most gripping albums, Time Out of Mind. Since 1997, Dylan’s every public act, including issuing older, previously unreleased material, has had critics spellbound.

Dylan’s lyrics

Dylan’s early songs carry some of the most startling political observations ever placed before a mass audience. ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God On Our Side’ are still devastatingly accurate to today’s world. But then with songs like ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, Dylan expanded the meaning of the term ‘protest’.

One of Dylan’s greatest gifts is that he has NEVER underestimated the intelligence and imaginations of a mass audience. His songs can start us thinking, but then leave it up to us. Many of his lyrics are stunningly vivid, and many are hauntingly enigmatic. At his best, in just a phrase, like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, Dylan can sum up , even summon up, a feeling that might take psychologists whole books to get us to understand.

Dylan sang ‘The answer is blowin’ in the wind’; it’s there for everyone who wants to listen, and it’s probably a different answer for every listener. Some people are scornful of those of us who find meanings in Dylan’s songs. But those songs can show us that ‘meaning’ is about opening up your mind, not closing it down. Listening to a Dylan recording like ‘Sara’ three times is like listening to three different songs.

Dylan deserves all the praise he gets for his lyrics, but of course he wasn’t the first post-Rock & Roll artist to couple great songs with amazing words. For example, he continued ways of writing songs pioneered by Chuck Berry, who was massively influential not just on Dylan but on Lennon and Jagger, too.

A theory on Dylan’s myth and how we connect with it

The period in Dylan’s 70 years which seems to have most captivated people in the 21st century so far is that of 1966. Effortlessly enigmatic though Dylan appeared then, as also now, there’s something about that stage in his life to which many people can seemingly relate.

Firstly, Dylan was being heckled by audiences for moving away from more obvious folk song. At the time, it was probably not so easy to see that he was actually reinventing folk music – which is in essence part of the folk tradition. But he persisted with what he did, saw it through, and then moved on once again. I think his actions and attitude there are equal to his wisest songs in simply reminding us that it’s natural and important to follow your own way, regardless of detractors.

The second thing about Dylan’s iconic 1966 image was the pressure he was under from record companies. Yes, he was paid more than most people, but was still being exploited. Innumerable images of him on his 1966 tour show him disturbingly pale and gaunt; he seldom slept. These images have surfaced on the covers of the music press almost every year this century – they’re more recognisable and widely-distributed now than they were in the 60s.

It’s intriguing that at present, one of the most iconic images of the 1960s is that of an individual, Bob Dylan, under enormous pressure. Dylan of course survived that – by prioritising his creativity in a purer form, spending more time writing songs than following up on million-dollar deals.

So a third reason why Dylan’s crisis year of 1966 seems to draw us in is the knowledge that he went on to find something that seems to have been more personally fulfilling.

Dylan’s appeal to different generations

For lecturers such as myself, there’s always a slight distance between the cultural reference points we know and those that students know – and that’s how it should be. But I know many lecturers in all sorts of disciplines who are great Dylan fans, and there’s always a good number of students who are enthralled by Dylan in every year group. For most academics now, as well as most students, it’s often the songs and films of Dylan made before any of us were born that are most engaging. Dylan’s appeal transcends generations.

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