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I never was a Dylan-man. Yet, having received a copy of his autobiography, Chronicles (2004), as a birthday present I eventually decided to give it a try during Christmas. A friend of mine who is indeed a connoisseur with regard to everything that is dylanish, has been giving me hints over the years, throwing in quotes in conversations, off-handedly mentioning a rare album he purchased “the other day”. Still, it never really made an impact on me. The amount of books and albums is unlimited, not so with the amount of time on our hands. However, when it was announced that Bob Dylan was to receive the Nobel Prize in literature my senses were seriously awakened – I am, after all, an English teacher.
When moreover one of my students in year 3 recently revealed he has a playlist on Spotify with Dylan’s songs that is a mile long, while knowingly and confidently assuring me I would love the lyrics, given its richness of metaphorical language, I was beginning to get the message. Previous years (but far from every year, to be honest) I have been giving a number of laureates a fair chance – now, I decided, I was going to be equally open to this year’s champion. Perhaps there could indeed be a new world waiting for me there?
Having now read Chronicles I am not surprised to learn that Dylan might well have embarked on a teacher’s career, had he not become an artist (Daily Mail, see list of references). Teachers come in many shapes and colours, and Dylan most likely would have proved to be a fine one. On top of that, I now believe we who are in the teaching profession can in fact learn a lot from his legacy.
In this article I will point out three things I believe we as teachers can learn from him. Assuming no position nor learnedness with regard to his musical production over the years, I will not be delving into deep interpretations of what Bob Dylan might really be saying. There will be no looking for hidden messages or psychoanalytical insights. Instead my reading will be at a rather basic level, taking his words at face value, allowing him to be as iconic as he is while not ascribing to him a role he never wished for, that of a Messiah.
Teaching as performing art
“Not everyone can sing these songs convincingly. The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing and Joan [Baez, that is] did that … You have to believe. Folk music, if nothing else, makes a believer out of you” (Chronicles, p. 256).
In his heart Dylan subscribes to a long tradition of folk music which in its turn has always been very much an oral culture. As Walter Ong has famously spelled it out (Ong 1996), in oral cultures the spoken word is in itself considered an event (the Hebrew word for “word” is dabar which also means “event/act”). The notion of presence thus bears much weight: It is not only what de facto is said, according to some Western minded logical interpretation of words and texts, but also how it is being said that determines meaning. As such, ancient bards far from our cultural longitudes earned their reputation based on performance.
As part of the argument why Dylan should receive the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy referred to Homer (Engdahl 2016). That, of course, was to give credit to the idea of poets mediating their texts by means of music. There is more to it than that, though. Ong pointed out how early story tellers would tell a story in quite different ways on different occasions. The leading characters would be the same, and so would the plot. Still, improvisation was not only allowed but indeed expected from the audience. Thus the audience was expected to play an active role as well, and the performer – although monologuing – should prove able to dialoguing as well, adapting to reactions from the audience on the spur of the moment, elaborating and emphasizing whatever appeared important right there and then. Similarly, Olle Holmgren in his Åtta skäl varför Bo Dylan borde tilldelas Nobelpriset i litteratur points out how Dylan would change his songs from time to time (Holmgren 2016).
A true artist, to Dylan’s mind, would be a great entertainer. Within that context a core quality would be that of actually having something real, however trivial, to convey. Dylan repeatedly talks about the fire he feels within, and he readily recognizes it in others when he sees it, among these Joan Baez who obviously made a lasting impression on him. She was only one in a long row of people to do that, however. They would come from all directions in life, far from being shaped in the same pattern: Men and women, young and old, some have “what people call charisma”, all being originals.
There is much to be learnt from this for every English teacher who wishes to pass on concrete knowledge, skills, a vision of new worlds. Following the lead of Dylan while describing Baez’ impact on him, however grand it may sound, “making believers” has to happen. We may have a plan for what a lecture should focus on, and we have given thought to the classic didactics: what, how and when? It is not that mechanical, though. Teachers do not have to be great singers or stand-up comedians, but what we have in common with those trades is standing on a platform, being truly present, growing in appreciation of the concept of timing, monologuing yet dialoguing, speaking yet listening – all at the same time.
“Tricked once more. The speaker could have said many things, he could have emphasized a few things about my music. When he said to the crowd that I preferred isolation from the world, it was like he told them that I preferred being in an iron tomb with my food shoved in on a tray” (Chronicles, p. 133).
On a superficial level Dylan had already been celebrating huge success for a number of years. Approaching the age of 30 and selling big time his music and his persona was craved for almost hysterically by the crowds. At Woodstock and similar festivals which were later to earn of reputation of semi-mythical proportions he quickly became an object of corporate projections, being referred to as an “authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned of Young America”. Still, others would refer to him as nothing more than a “money-hungry capitalist”. Being awarded an Honorary Doctorate degree at Princeton, New Jersey this could perhaps somehow help him achieve a more stable position in the eye of the public? Standing in the front at the ceremony while listening to the presentation of himself he had to bite his tongue. Downright hysteria, as he perceived it, was still the order of the day.
Reputedly, Plato, followed by Aristotle and Cicero as well as later a band of Christian theologians, gave much thought to the idea of virtues. Among the quartet of the so called cardinal virtues was courage (or fortitude, from Latin “fortitude”), the other three being wisdom (prudential), fairness (iustitia) and restraint (temperantia). According to Wikipedia courage is: “fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation”. Defining himself and his music over the years Dylan obviously has needed a lot of courage. Having visions is one thing, fighting for them in public is quite another thing. Curiously, according to Holmgren, Dylan is actually a boxer, having his own boxing gym in Santa Monica (Holmgren, p. 116). Metaphorically he has gone many rounds, with others around him, and not the least with himself.
Teachers, likewise, need courage. A lot of courage. Being nice to others is a fine quality, but being nice cannot stand alone. Being incorporated in a cobweb of relations a teacher has to act wisely in articulating goals and defining limits. Among a group of pupils, young or older, the teacher has to accept the role of being the formal leader. If the teacher does not do that, informal leaders who may be less friendly will inevitably rise, mostly to benefit themselves, bringing damnation upon the heads of the weaker ones in the group. In love, teachers will have to stand up as leaders, at all times accepting all but love from those he or she is leading. Leading by example teachers will have to try ideas, stand up for them in the long run while also being able to evaluate and eventually abandon or at least readjust them if necessary. Being humble and admitting faults also require courage, and mistakes we are bound to make.
Remaining a student
“I read a lot of the pages aloud and liked the sound of the words, the language. Milton’s protest poem, Massacre in Piedmont. A political poem about the murder of innocents by the Duke of Savoy in Italy. It was like the folk song lyrics, even more elegant” (Chronicles, p. 38).
Embarking on a life changing journey in his late teens, from a small community in the Midwest to the huge magnet of New York City, was all about drawing closer to where the real action was. He wanted to meet the “big cheese”, the “cats”. Thus, young Robert Allen Zimmerman brought his guitar with him and simply hit the road, hitchhiking and submitting himself to the goodwill of other people. He would eventually end up in NY and somewhere along the lines, he even metamorphosed into Bob Dylan (Chronicles, p. 78).
Metaphorically this change of names was significant. It was all about carving out his new identity, playfully and ingeniously: Which name had the best ring to it, producing most music to the ear? Dylan recounts how over the years his consciousness would change and stretch. Of paramount importance was all the people he met, in books and in real life. Indeed, if one’s perception of Dylan is that of an alpha male subscribing to some romantic notion of the artist being a genius in his own right, creating things merely by adapting his creative powers to it, one will have to rethink. In his autobiography Dylan again and again expresses admiration for other people whom he meets and learns from. Not only is he dearly indebted to a host of giants in the past but also to all those who rub off on him in the present. When he goes through the crisis of his life it is a visit paid to a bar that helps him back on track again. An astute student of life and music Dylan observes how the unknown musician on the small stage has a way with his guitar that he has never seen before. A vision is born.
It is all about hard work, and inspiration is all about exposing oneself to various sorts of input. Early on his thirst for learning was unquenchable and he would immerse himself in the literary classics, among these Milton’s or Rimbaud’s poems. When deciding on his new name he was inspired by the poet Dylan Thomas. Moreover, hours on end he would listen to old 78s with Woodie Guthrie, Buddy Holly or Sonnyboy Williams. A supportive word coming from a music manager could mean all the difference in the world and so could the soothing voice on the radio late at night – the list of voices and input coming from outside himself is endless. Accordingly, Holmgren mentions the saying about “bad authors who borrow from other people, while good authors steal from them”. Dylan feels confident that he – now and then, at least – manages to create something unique, but he is well aware the material he is using comes from all sorts of places; in effect he does not create out of nothing, he synthesizes. Notably, others will point out that this is also what Shakespeare did.
The same principle of being always on the road of learning and listening to others applies to teachers. Well educated, yes. But following the tides one can never stand still for a longer while. Frustrations are part of the game and what proved fruitful a few years ago may no longer work. Teaching is a work of art and while the maps are given, with their outlined goals articulated in terms of curricula, landscapes may differ widely. It takes great skill and great creativity to discern which roads to take. Quite often it will appear there is no given road at all, and one will have to pave it instead. As such one may have to start with a path, checking with others how they do it, what proves viable and worthwhile. Again, leading by example may in this respect also entail demonstrating to the students that one has not fossilized?
Being a teacher implies playing a role within a politically managed institution with its strict framework of financial limitations. In this world reality as conjured by statistics tends to be considered objective truth. Since teachers in Sweden for decades have felt undervalued while being subjected to a heavier work load, yet, simultaneously, to more external control, it is no wonder teachers may feel a sting of cynicism at heart at times: “Please don’t give me that Florence Nightingale-crap, as if being a teacher was being in the vocation”. Today way too many teachers are way too tired, and that is a disgrace to the Swedish school. There are no doubt union related fights to be taken on the barricades, fights that should be taken.
Still, given the above, would it yet appear viable – or fair even – to talk about the teacher as being a performing artist, a courageous leader, as I have done in this text? Dylan’s reply, I believe, would be yes. A resounding – slightly naïve perhaps, yet at the same time realistic – yes. One will always be subject to external boundaries, imbedded in structures that are oscillating between being more or less generous and alleviating. Bob Dylan recounts in Chronicles how he early in his career would envision things: “The road out would be treacherous, and I didn’t know where it would lead but I followed it anyway. It was a strange world ahead that would unfold, a thunderhead of a world with jagged lightning edges. Many got it wrong and never did get it right … One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.” (Chronicles, p. 292-92). “Not by God, nor by the devil.” Within that spectrum, one could well argue, there are choices to be made, lessons to be learnt, classes to be held. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter” (Chronicles, p. 165). The same could be said about lessons.
Daily Mail, 150123: “Iconic musician Bob Dylan reveals that if he could have his time over again he would have been a school teacher”: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2924124/Bob-Dylan-reveals-school-teacher.html.
Dylan, Bob (2004), Chronicles – Volume One. Scribner, 2004.
Engdahl, Horace (2016), Nobel Prize presentation speech: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_ prizes/literature/laureates/2016/presentationspeech.html
Holmgren, Ola (2016). Åtta skäl varför Bob Dylan borde tilldelas Nobelpriset i litteratur. Carlsson Bokförlag.
Ong, Walter J. (1996), Muntlig och skriftlig kultur – teknologiseringen av ordet. Anthropos.Wikipedia article on ”Cardinal virtues”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_virtues