The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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