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Bob Dylan On The Road To Damascus

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize lecture was pretty good.  [1] I was first struck by his account of his artistic epiphany, his own Road to Damascus moment. It happened at a Buddy Holly concert:

He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.

This is a religious story, don’t you see? Dylan then talks about how he entered into an artistic apprenticeship, teaching himself the folk and the blues canon. These songs gave him a framework for understanding his calling and expressing it. Once he mastered contemporary music, he didn’t stop there:

I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.

He goes on to discuss those three novels, and how they affected his understanding of the world, and in turn, his music. One of the greatest popular musicians of the 20th century, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, got his start in what we now call classical education — one that gives the student “a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by.”

Here’s part of his description of The Odyssey. He makes it sound like a folk song. He makes it sound like real life:

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.

Let me not take away from you the delight of reading the whole thing. [1]

Again, I read this as Dylan’s mingling religion with art. What is this story but a retelling of St. Paul on the Damascus Road, then after his conversion, using his deep knowledge of Hebrew religion to both break with the tradition and extend it in new and revolutionary ways?

Isn’t this what all serious religious pilgrims and truth seekers do? After their epiphany, they submit to tradition — not just the more recent tradition, but big-T Tradition. They know that books and works of art and teachings that have survived for so long must in some way speak truth about the human experience. You know my own story: how I found my own troubled life 21st century life, and the way out of the dark wood, in the 14th century Commedia of Dante Alighieri. Not a week goes by in which I don’t think in some way about how our own life today is in some profound ways a repetition of events in the Commedia. Because that’s what real art does.

In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have been thrown out of your community for things you didn’t do. You too have made an idol of a woman, and suffered because of it. You too have been spellbound by the voice of a charismatic teacher who led you wrong. You too have faced a wall you could not break through, until divine assistance came. You have seen the hard faces of the damned, and heard the sweet consolations of those grateful for mercy. You learned that things you used to believe were important actually don’t matter. You have won hard wisdom, and faced the temptation to rest too early, before your journey’s proper end. And that’s still not all of it.

This is also the journey of the religious believer. There are those who wrongly believe that the Damascus Road moment is the end of the journey, and that they do not have to submit themselves to any tradition, or root themselves in any commitment. For them, their religious journey is a lifelong attempt to recapture the thrill of the Damascus Road. But notice: St. Paul’s journey only began on that road. He had incredible adventures ahead of him, in the service of the Lord he met on the road to Damascus. In truth, if you are to understand the meaning and purpose of Damascus Road, you need to start listening to those who have walked it before you — and even those who sought the light but never found it there, and those who found it but veered off into a dark wood.

If you do, maybe you will be able to receive the grace from the Creator that allows you to participate in His creation through making great art. And the greatest art is the artwork that is your life.

76 Comments (Open | Close)

76 Comments To "Bob Dylan On The Road To Damascus"

#1 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On June 6, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

Rod writes: “Isn’t this what all serious religious pilgrims and truth seekers do? After their epiphany, they submit to tradition — not just the more recent tradition, but big-T Tradition. They know that books and works of art and teachings that have survived for so long must in some way speak truth about the human experience.”

The teachings of the Buddha have survived since the first century BCE (and for me “speak truth about the human experience”), but I cannot imagine (and probably this indicates a lack on my part) how to submit to them. I do embrace, follow, ally myself with, and transmit them. To submit to them would make it feel to me as if the teachings/traditions were cudgels with which to beat oneself (and others) or a burden that must be borne, whereas I feel joy in the teachings and traditions (and their attendant wisdom), and which I use to guide my life and also share with others.

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On June 6, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

“I read the “Illustrated Classics” comic books as a child.”

So did I. I still have them in my collection.

#3 Comment By LisaInFL On June 6, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

Regarding what Adamant said to Michelle regarding Melville, Conrad, Dickens, and Orwell as supplements to 6th grade reading:

Just a word on that – I was assigned Melville and Hawthorne and Orwell in high school. I recall dutifully writing A+ essays about Billy Budd, The Scarlet Letter and 1984, but I honestly did not fully appreciate these novels until I became an adult. (Although 1984 plunged me as a teen into pitch black depression for some weeks, what a downer that novel is!) Not to say that these works should not have been taught in high school, only that I lacked the maturity to really grasp what I was reading. In 6th grade? Forget it! I think having to read those novels at that time would have killed my love of reading for life!

My daughter read the Hunger Games series on her own in middle school, along with many other YA novels. I think these novels helped pave the way to her current grappling with classic literature as an adult. I’m grateful for them.

I’m wondering if maybe it might be the same for me with Bob Dylan. Maybe I couldn’t appreciate his stuff as much because I was too young. I’m going to go listen to some of his stuff again.

#4 Comment By Major Wootton On June 6, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

People interested in Bob Dylan’s Gospel music period will want to know that in November of this year, it seems, that period will get the “Bootleg Series” treatment from Sony. A book by Dylan expert Clinton Heylin on the topic is due to be released at the same time.

[2]

“Serving as an invaluable companion to the latest Sony Bootleg Series (November 2017), Trouble in Mind….”

You heard it here first.

#5 Comment By Matt T On June 6, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

This is a wonderfully uplifting piece Rod. You are at you best talking about Dante and Dylan.

#6 Comment By Brendan from Oz On June 6, 2017 @ 8:22 pm

I like a couple of anecdotes that may or may not be true, just read somewhere and should be if they aren’t:

Jimi Hendrix was searching for a singer he could work with and couldn’t find anybody. He heard Dylan on the radio and thought to himself “If that guy is on the radio, I can sing better than that myself!” We have Dylan to thank for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Dylan heard The Animals version of The House of the Rising Sun and immediately went electric. We have Dylan to thank for The Band.

I mostly prefer covers, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” by Roxy Music, “Thunder on the Mountain” by Wanda Jackson, “Wanted Man” by Johhny Cash or Nick Cave, “Mr Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix …

I don’t see him or a modern wannabe protesting the current global world order, capital/corporatism, perpetual warfare etc. And he delivered this speech about tradition and art just in time to collect the million $$$.

#7 Comment By Peter Terranova On June 6, 2017 @ 8:37 pm

Great job, Rod! More of this, please!

#8 Comment By alicia On June 6, 2017 @ 9:30 pm

I never appreciated Dylan till I met my husband who knew his songs that I had never heard. Get the complete book of his lyrics and you will know why he deserves the Nobel. He is our great poet

#9 Comment By Lllurker On June 6, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

Great post Rod.

For me it’s Hurricane, Tangled Up and Blue, Hendrix with All Along The Watchtower…

Dylan is the Bard of Folk. “There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air…”

For me Dylan is best served in small portions but greatly appreciated all the same.

To the conversation about the classics and lack thereof in schools today, keep in mind that there have been a few good books written in the intervening years and centuries, many echoing the same themes. Your kids may not necessarily learn the phrase “tilting at windmills” but as long as they develop into readers they will experience the concepts from Don Quixote and the other classics many times over.

#10 Comment By Joan On June 7, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Calling it a religious story doesn’t go far enough. This was divine intervention, the hand of destiny making its selection, as it did in Liverpool for the Beatles, in London for The Rolling Stones, in Seattle for Hendrix, massively in Detroit to bring forth the many great soul performers of that city in that time, etc., so that the right voices would be out there, singing the right lyrics, when the time of change came. The Sixties could have turned out so much uglier than they did.

#11 Comment By mrscracker On June 7, 2017 @ 9:31 am

LisaInFL ,
I was really surprised at how dark & disturbing Orwell’s “1984” was. I’d only seen the old 1930’s movie years ago.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On June 7, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Sorry, I guess I was thinking of the 1950’s film version of 1984.

#13 Comment By G Harvey On June 7, 2017 @ 10:33 am

Caroline Nina in DC says:
June 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm
James: Loved your evocation of Dylan’s music. Blood on the Tracks is one of my top albums of all time.

And this kind of relates: There’s a line in “Idiot Wind” that goes “In the darkness of the riverbed, they waited on the ground/For one more member, who had business back in town,” that I think is taken from Faulkner’s The Hamlet.

Has anybody else ever seen this congruence? Just curious.”

Those lines are from the ballad “Lilly, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.” I just listened to that album again after a long while on a long car trip Monday.

It has been many years since I read Faulkner’s The Hamlet. I have no idea if the Dylan lines echo something in that Faulkner work. I can’t recall anything in The Hamlet that would lend itself to such wording.

#14 Comment By Charlieford On June 7, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.”

#15 Comment By Smitty On June 7, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

I recently discovered the song “Farewell Angelina,” which Dylan never released on an album (although the demo came out many years later), but which has been recorded by many other artists. I particularly recommend the bluegrass-y version by Tim O’Brien on the album ‘Red on Blonde’.

#16 Comment By EarlyBird On June 7, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

What a great speech by Dylan. As for Rod’s comment:

“…using his deep knowledge of Hebrew religion to both break with the tradition and extend it in new and revolutionary ways?”

My mother used to teach art to high school kids. She taught perspective, shapes, shading, basic artist anatomy and the like. Inevitably (this was the early ’70s) some kid would say, “but I just want to be creative.” She would always answer. “By teaching you the basics that’s what I’m teaching you to do. You have to learn the rules before you can know how to break them.

#17 Comment By Sheree On June 7, 2017 @ 8:14 pm

The best thing I’ve read on your blog in a long time, Rod. This is why I still check in to see what you’re blogging about.

Thank you for a post that both enlightens and inspires.

#18 Comment By Michael Frawley On June 7, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

G. Harvey, that line is NOT from “Idiot Wind”. It is from “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”.

#19 Comment By Dale Matson On June 8, 2017 @ 7:46 am

Early Dylan was excellent. My preference was the 1963 “Freewheelin” Album. However, in one of the songs he railed against someone who protected his private property. Much later, Dylan would write that he hated those who intruded on his property. My favorite song that is even more relevant for me now from that album, now that I am in my 70’s is “Bob Dylans Dream”.

#20 Comment By Dave On June 8, 2017 @ 8:06 am

Rod, in all your writing about God and religion I have yet to discern a truly transforming encounter with the Living God. Bob Dylan is a great artist and very talented and avoided the self destruction of many of his contemporaries. But when knocked off his camel by Jesus Christ, he walked a little ways, got back on and kept on riding.

[NFR: You must not have read much of my stuff, then. I’ve written books, you know. — RD]

#21 Comment By Carl Eric Scott On June 8, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

I don’t see that anyone’s mentioned yet that the key Dylan line for Rod is the place in “Tangled up in Blue” where he sings,

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue.

For my recent essay on Dylan, “What Bob Dylan Means to Literature, and to Song” go here: [3] I’m proud to note that it was one of the last things the late Peter Augustine Lawler edited.

#22 Comment By Cullen On June 9, 2017 @ 1:25 am

Some of Dylan is good … but I’d rather a thousand times listen to such as “A Simple Desultory Philippic”. Or anything else by him than Dylan. Paul Simon is far more deserving an artist of such an award in my estimation.

#23 Comment By Cullen On June 9, 2017 @ 1:35 am

I realize that comment is tangential, but the wider point I mean by pointing at Paul Simon is that Simon (and Garfunkel) were willing to sing such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” etc. straight. But moreover, Simon’s lyrics are always to the point and understandable by the “common man” whereas Dylan goes for esoteric weirdness (who is the man “in the Chinese suit” in “I Want You”? Among all of Dylan’s bizarre references?–Which is what Simon lampoons in particular in “A Desultory Philippic.”)

Simon is clearly the better writer, and I think has a better general understanding of his own writing and themes, versus a general sense of stage-presence.

#24 Comment By Dave On June 9, 2017 @ 5:56 am

Omg, you read my comment! I’m in the middle of the Benedict Option; sorry for judging so quickly. (in modern grammar, do you capitalize O in omg at the beginning of a sentence?lol)

#25 Comment By Alex On June 13, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

Not to rain on Bob, but it looks like his speech was largely plagiarized from Spark Notes. [4]

#26 Comment By mrscracker On June 14, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

Alex ,
I just read about that on the BBC a few minutes ago:

“Bob Dylan may have plagiarised his Nobel Prize lecture from SparkNotes, an online version of CliffsNotes, it has been claimed.”

[5]