Bob Dylan, by John Hughes

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On 17th May 2016 I gave a talk on Bob Dylan in the Oxfam bookshop for the Cheltenham Poetry Festival. I began by apologizing that this wouldn’t be a talk about Dylan the poet or his songs as poetry, because I believed the best or primary way to approach his poetry was not through the literary critical lens of ‘what does it mean?’ but through trying to account for its power to attract and even inspire the listener. So, the question was rather, to coin a phrase: ‘how does it feel?’. And proceeding in this way, I said, was also my way of connecting with one kind of ideal reader that I had in mind when I wrote my book – my teenage self who was crazily enthusiastic about Dylan’s songs, and the cultural and personal attitudes he expressed, and about the words, but who was more concerned with what the words did than what they meant, and the intensity and power of the responses they produced.

As a way of exploring this, the talk began by rehearsing the core idea in my book on Dylan: that his work obeys a temporal dynamic, of a particularly American kind, involving a transitional subjectivity, caught between a prior inexpressive version of whom he has been, and a future self he has not yet become. Bound up in this, I argued, we can describe so many otherwise diverse aspects of his work: such as, for instance, his attitudes to politics or love; the values of his voice and his singing; the ways he appears in photographs; his comic encounters with the press; the iconoclastic facets and structure of his career; and the scenarios of his songs, too, so often involving as they do ideas of travelling, of protest, conflict, of gambling, or keeping on keeping on…

The talk then narrowed to identify the different ways in which Dylan’s voice worked in the 1960s to call out its society and to call out otherwise inarticulated dimensions of experience, first recruiting the listener to participate in changing times, to fight racial oppression; then exploring different more inward ideas of constraint and freedom in the mid-60s. I used various well-known songs to exemplify the case and then played some snatches of lesser-known songs, and fielded questions. As this suggested the talk was mostly about the 60s, but the q and a went much wider, thankfully.

So finally, what has all this to do with being human? I suppose my simple reply would be that 1960s Dylan was an artist whose work was inspirational because it was not so much an art of self-expression as an art of coming- to-expression, which set itself against what was limiting in available social scripts of identity and gambled on departing from them in pursuit of some real, but as yet unachieved, version of the self. As such it exemplified through its own practice and content what it still produces in its listeners, the sense that through it they can become different from themselves, be themselves in some new way. Is anything more human than that?

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