Bob Dylan and the Classics: An Interview with Professor Richard F. Thomas

From Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 2016

Richard F. Thomas is Harvard University's George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics.  He has served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Director of Graduate Studies, and Department Chair in the Department of the Classics. He is Co-chair of the Seminar on "The Civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome," in Harvard's Mahindra Humanities Center. He has served as Director of the American Philological Association and as Trustee and Director of the Vergilian Society of America, of which he is currently President. Since 2001, he has been a Trustee of the Loeb Classical Library, and is currently serving as Editor of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology.

He has written and taught extensively about Bob Dylan and the Classics. The following interview was conducted in reference to Professor Thomas' article, "The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan," published in Oral Tradition 22/1 (2007):30-56.

Persephone: Do you remember the first Bob Dylan song you ever heard?

Richard F. Thomas: Yes. Dylan is nine years older than I am and he started putting out music when I was 12 or so. “Blowin’ in the Wind” I guess is the obvious one, so powerful in the context of 1963 and the civil rights movement. I remember singing that in my school chorus, I think in 1964, as we were watching from afar what was happening with civil rights in the US.

 P: So this was in New Zealand?

 RFT: Yeah. Things usually arrived in New Zealand about a year late back then.The same album had “Masters of War,” which is generally acknowledged as the greatest song of the anti-war period. That wasn’t about Vietnam, though, which was just starting at that point, it was about the military-industrial complex in a more generic way. The thing about Dylan’s performative essence is that he keeps singing these old songs as well as the new songs, and the old songs become new with new arrangements and new contexts as time goes by. After 2003, after we went into Iraq, Dylan was singing this forty-year-old song but with new meanings, new applications. He tends not to have geographical or chronological markers that tie a song to any specific context, so they stay alive, stay relevant.

 P: When did you first begin to notice intertextuality between Bob Dylan and classical authors?

RFT: It really wasn’t until 9/11. Dylan had an album that came out on that morning called “Love and Theft.” Now I had noticed intertextuality of a similar sort in 1997 with the song “Highlands” from the album Time Out of Mind, a very long, narrative song that has the refrain “My Heart’s in the Highlands.” So that was from Robert Burns, as were other bits of the lyrics, though integrated into a song whose singer wants to get away from it all, from New York City maybe, to a highlands of the mind. But it wasn’t really until the 2001 album “Love and Theft” that I noticed more intense intertextuality, including with a classical author, Virgil, in the song “Lonesome Day Blues” —“I’m gonna spare the defeated … I’m gonna tame the proud.” As others came to see, there are other intertexts on that song, Huck Finn and the American Civil War maybe , a Japanese gangster novel with reflections on the Sino-Japanese Wars, and the Aeneid! Now if the intertexts are activated in the mind of the listener, the song’s not just lamenting the damages and loss caused by Vietnam, the war of Dylan’s youth, it also brings in all of these other literary wars, including the Roman wars of Aeneas and the Civil Wars for which they in some way stand.

 P: You write quite a lot about Dylan’s lyrics. For you, is his appeal primarily textual, or would you say that the music plays as important a role in your listening experience as his lyrics?

 RFT: That’s a great question. I think the latter; there are some singer-songwriters who start out as poets. So someone like Leonard Cohen wrote and published poetry in the early 60s, but then started writing songs. Dylan’s a poet in the sense of bard, aoidos or vates. He truly is a poet whose song is part of the poetry. You need the song in his case, though he writes beautiful, but different, prose which is brilliant and works without the music, especially his “autobiography” Chronicles, Volume 1 from 2004.

 P: In your article “The Streets of Rome: the Classical Dylan,” you mention T.S. Eliot’s maxim “immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.” And you’ve found that his lyrics consist of a mélange of intertexts -- “stolen” words from other authors. Does he engage in the same sort of “theft” in his music?

  RFT: Yes, absolutely, that’s how folk and blues work. He put out an album in 1993 called “World Gone Wrong.” That one’s an album of blues covers, but elsewhere there are lots of his own, original songs  in which the melody, and parts of the lyrics, are stolen. Stealing like that is just a metaphor for being in a tradition. Who do the blues belong to anyway? Blues songs, like folk songs, are a continuous stream, and catching the continuities and thefts is part of what puts meaning and complexity into it—also part of the fun of it all.

 P: Every author wants to claim that he or she was the progenitor of some creative movement, although it might be said that nothing can ever be truly “original” because our inspiration has to come from somewhere. Do you think that intertextuality is an inherent component of any literary genre and its reception, whether that intertextuality is intentional or not?

 RFT: Sure—Look at the song “Fourth Time Around,” released in 1966, which came out soon after the Beatles released “Norwegian wood” (which becomes “Jamaican rum” in Dylan) and compare the songs side by side. The Beatles sing: “isn't it good, Norwegian wood?” But let’s look at it with Dylan who outdoes, accentuates, and on one level parodies (an aspect of intertextuality) the simple rhyme: “I stood there and hummed / I tapped on her drum and asked her how come /And she buttoned her boot /And straightened her suit” and so on, with the bathetic ending “And gallantly handed her /My very last piece of gum.” Also think about the last verse: “I never asked for your crutch / Now don’t ask for mine.”  But who is the “you” here? Is it John Lennon, whom Dylan is turning on / turning  on in these years?

 P: So in a song like “Fourth Time Around” it seems as though the intertext is intentional, but do you think there are other songs where he’s less conscious of the authors whom he is alluding to or incorporating? Are there songs where intertexts emerge organically?

 RFT: I think the process and the composing is mostly pretty conscious. But during a 60 Minutes interview in 2004, Ed Bradley asked where Dylan’s amazing 1960s  lyrics came from. And Dylan said he didn’t know, mentioning the “wellspring of creativity,” adding “I don’t know how I got to write those songs,” quoting from “It’s Alright Ma,” with it’s surreal mid-1960s lyrics, as he lingers on the ultimate rhyming syllables: “Darkness at the break of noon / Shadows even the silver spoon / The handmade blade, the child’s balloon / Eclipses both the sun and moon / To understand you know too soon / There is no sense in trying.” He listened to a lot of folk music, researched Americana of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he read and reads a lot, and he’s always read eclectically as opposed to canonically. Dylan told Bradley he could however “do other things.” One of the things he discovered was the evoking of other literature, including Ovid’s exile poetry or Timrod’s Confederate poetry. Lines of these two authors turn up in some songs together, actually. Dylan’s always been interested in the Civil War, which perhaps led to his interest in Rome. There are a few songs from the 2006 album Modern Times with altogether around 20 lines of Ovid.

 P: Just to play devil’s advocate, do you think those lines represent a conscious intertext? Is there any way that these similarities could be coincidental?

 RFT: No, no, these lines, almost word for word, can be nailed specifically to Peter Green’s translation of Ovid. And that’s part of the effect. In the first song of that album, “Thunder on the Mountain,” Dylan sings “I’ve been sitting down studying the Art of Love / I think it will fit me like a glove.” Of course, the Ars Amatoria isn’t explicitly there, but as you listen,  you’re thinking of Ovid. So on one song “Ain’t Talkin’”, the last line of the last song of what seemed at the time might be the last album from the 65-year old, the singer is walking up the road “In the last outback, at the world’s end” a direct quote from Peter Green’s Penguin translation of Ovid’s exile poetry [Ex Ponto 2.7.66]. In case you think this is accidental, the same song has three or four other Ovidian lines or significant phases, including: “Every nook an cranny/cormer has its tears” … “loyal and much loved companions” … “make the most of one last extra hour”, all on one song from Tristia 1.3 [24, 65, 68], Ovid’s night of exile poem. I wrote about this in that article. What I didn’t yet know emerged in 2008 on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8, Tell Tale Signs. There’s an outtake of “Ain’t Talkin’” on that album, certainly an earlier version, that has different verses, and has no Ovid, zero Ovid lines. I think Dylan started reading Ovid around the time he was working on Modern Times (get the title?), and he includes the Ovidless version in the outtake—one of the album’s telltale signs about how he writes. So yes, all very conscious!

 P: You mention briefly that you’ve come close to meeting Dylan, but you’ve never actually met him. Would getting answers immediately ruin the joy of interpreting his music, and does this distance speak to an ideal relationship between a poet and scholar?

 RFT: I’ve met people from his office, including Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan’s representative on earth as someone once called him, whom I’ll see in spring break. Jeff is very supportive of Dylanography, to a point. But Dylan’s a different matter. Some artists respond to critics’ questions about their art. I think Dylan would alwys refuse to respond to questions of that sort, he always has. He tells interviewers what he wants to tell them, not what they necessarily want to know. His responses are really part of the art, and often have a relationship to the songs that have just come out or are about to come out. The timing of interviews is strategic. They’re rarely direct or open responses about meaning or mode of composition. Think about the movie Don’t Look Back. It portrays musical critics trying to understand the phenomenon of Dylan’s popularity, which they don’t approve of because they dislike his music, don't understand what is happenening, and Dylan is playfully contemptuous of all of them. Dylan has always been in the business of persona maintain that distance. Afterall, Bob Dylan is itself a non-name. [He was born Robert Zimmerman]. There’s one famous song– on Halloween in 1964 – where he says “I’ve got my Bob Dylan Mask on” the adds “I’m masquerading.”

 P: Do you believe that Dylan is aware that classicists are interested in him?

 RFT: Yeah, I have reason to think that those of  us who have written about Classics have showed up on his radar... Dylan has a line in the song “Nettie Moore” from Modern Times. He sings, “The world of research has gone berserk / Too much paper work.” Some of us thought he might be referring to the excessive amount of writing about his music. Moreover, look at the song “Early Roman Kings” off the outstanding 2012 album Tempest. At a superficial glance, it sounds Roman, and there are a couple of lines that work with that: “All the early Roman kings in the early, early morn, / Coming down the mountain, distributing the corn.” So classicists were excited when the title was first announced, coming off the Ovid of Modern Times. But then, initially, we were deflated. The Roman Kings actually turned out to be a 1960s Latino gang in New York, “In their sharkskin suits”, the second line of the song. He’s playing with his audience, because the title is much more Latin than the other titles of songs that actually have Ovid in them. The play continues when the voice of the singer, no longer in Rome or New York, becomes verbatim that of Fagle’s Odysseus taunting the Cyclops at the end of Odyssey 9: “I can strip you of life / Strip you of death / Ship you down / To the house of death.” As with his  Ovid lines, so with Homer, Dylan has an eye or ear for the poetry of translations which then fit his music, tunes and melody, in this case via a Muddy Waters style blues.  So he steals effectively from Fagles.  The song also has a bit of Juvenal’s Satires, from Susannah Braund’s excellent Loeb – plug from yours truly, the Loeb trustee there. What I think hasn’t been noticed is the song’s continuing after the direct Homeric quote with creative allusion that can’t be caught by the computer programs that some people out there are feeding Dylan’s lyrics into. After the verbatim quotes, the singer continues “One day / You will ask for me / There’ll be no one else / That you’ll wanna see.” “No one” is of course the Homeric speaker, and the Homeric addressee will not be seeing anyone.

So yes, I think Dylan is aware of our interest, and even interacting. In the bigger picture, isn’t this the case with Roman intertextuality too, with its having a relationship in which there is a dialogue, synchronic or diachronic, between text and song, and reader and hearer? Didn’t Virgil or Ovid expect their readers to constantly be thinking about intertext and past precedent and their interacting with the new setting? Consider Horace’s line in the Epistles: “cum lamentamur  non apparere labores, etc.” [2.1.224] – when we lament that our efforts and the allusivity of our poetry don’t get noticed.  I’m hoping to get some budding classicists and Dylanologists explore these themes in my quadrennial freshman seminar next fall, my fourth time around.