Recap: Bob Dylan Conference at UMSL, March 19 -- All Along the Ivory Tower
On Saturday, March 19, about 30 people - a mix of middle-aged-and-older Dylanheads, Hellenic Studies and Classics scholars, and a couple of students - gathered at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a conference exploring connections between Bob Dylan and ancient Greece. Titled "Bob Dylan at 70: Immigrants, Wanderers, Exiles and Hard Travelers in the Poems, Songs and Culture of Ancient Greece and Modern America," the all-day event featured five guest speakers -- four scholars and one poet, Stephen Scobie -- and emphasized Dylan's as the poetry of the human search for home.
Barry Powell of the University of Wisconsin-Madison was introduced by Michael Cosmopoulos as having written the gold-standard textbook on classical mythology. Wearing a brown leather vest, Powell began by calling Dylan the "greatest lyric poet that's written in any language," then launched into his presentation, "Freewheelin' with Bob Dylan" - less a lecture than a free-flow stream-of-consciousness, during which he read Dylan's lyrics aloud with colorful interjections. Some of the interjections provided historical context, such as when he debunked the strictly black-and-white stance Dylan took in "The Hurricane" by providing details of the Rubin Carter case. Like Dylan, Powell is 70-years-old, so he threw in personal perspective: on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," he mentioned being "roughed up by cops for having long curly locks." Other times, he pondered aloud line-by-line, questions crescendoing to the same conclusion of so many late-night, substance- and music-stoked discussions: "It doesn't matter, because man, what a song!"
Next up was "Must Be the Jack of Hearts in the Great North Woods," by Richard Thomas of Harvard University. In this cohesive and engaging talk, Thomas discussed "exile" via Ovid and Odysseus, and demonstrated similar themes of "romantic and spiritual abandonment" and the "trickster" persona in Dylan's work, as well as "the genius of Dylan's plagiarism." A lovely moment occurred when Thomas played "Boots of Spanish Leather" (a 1963 composition widely believed to be written for Suze Rotolo, who passed away February 25, 2011), to illustrate Dylan's use of the traditional lovers' song format, with "verses alternating between voices of persuasion and resistance."
During his concise presentation, "In Search of Penelope: Dylan as Wanderer," John Miles Foley of the University of Missouri-Columbia fleshed out an analogy between character-types used in Dylan's lyrics and Indo-European "return epics" like the Odyssey: the traveler and the sought-after lover. Foley used songs like "Sara" and "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" to illustrate how the woman - a stand-in for the goal and home - and her fidelity ultimately determine the outcome of these stories.
The more formal talks concluded with Thomas Palaima's "Songs of the 'Hard Traveler': from Odysseus to the Never-Ending Tourist." Cosmopoulos credited the formation of the conference to his conversations with avid Dylanologist Palaima, a University of Texas-Austin professor and MacArthur fellowship winner. Palaima put forth the idea that humanity's general condition is one of loneliness, that we are born and die alone; then discussed what it meant to be away from home for Greek society, where polis pride was so integral to identity. He then tied this to Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and its famous refrain: "How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?"