Deconstructing Bob Dylan

Dylan exhibition
The Dylan exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

(AP) - They call themselves Dylanologists, and in the words of one of their leaders, there's something wrong with you if you're not "intrigued, enthralled and obsessed" with Bob Dylan.

These scholars and writers, most with prestigious university posts, are more likely to compare the music legend to Walt Whitman than to Bruce Springsteen.

On Tuesday, a whole crowd of them were wrapping up a four-day symposium, billed as the largest ever of its kind, at the University of Minnesota in the state where Dylan was born.

Kevin Dettmar
Kevin Dettmar is an English professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He's editing "The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan," and came to the conference to get a sense of the place from which Dylan hails.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

"Dylan has entered my day job," said Richard Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin at Harvard University who lectured on Dylan's similarity to epic poets like Ovid and Virgil. "I've come to see him as someone as worthy as the great poets on whom I've been fortunate enough to work."

The symposium - titled "Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World" - drew about 250 participants from as far away as Italy and Japan. It coincided with a traveling exhibit on Dylan at the school's Weisman Art Museum.

Eminent Dylanologists discoursed on all that followed in the ensuing five decades, with lectures and panel discussions on everything from Dylan's parallels to the pop artist Andy Warhol, to his influence on "International Social Movements of the Cold War."

"Dylan, he's just so vast," said Colleen Sheehy, the symposium organizer and a curator at the Weisman. "There's so many perspectives to take on him. There are so many points of entry to his work, and it leads you to so many aspects of American history and culture."

A French Dylanologist
Christoph Liebold came to the Dylan conference from Strasbourg, France where he is on the faculty of the university there. He compares Dylan's body of work to that of Shakespeare and Picasso. "He's a giant of our time," he says.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

Dylan's lyrics have become popular texts in college-level poetry classes, said Kevin Dettmar, an English professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

"It's sort of the classic bait and switch," Dettmar said. "They try to reel in the students with Dylan and then sneak in some Keats."

Some people in academic circles are still skeptical about including Dylan in the canon, Dettmar said. "They wonder if he has lasting power, which I think is ridiculous."

Dettmar is putting his money where his mouth is, as editor of the upcoming "Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan," which will serve as an all-purpose academic resource for students of Dylan and put him alongside such past Cambridge subjects as William Shakespeare and James Joyce.

And what does the cryptic singer think of this kind of attention? Well, he once famously derided Dylanologists who "dissect my songs like rabbits."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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