It has taken a couple of days to digest this news. Not that I had a problem with the award to Dylan for his years of creativity, but rather, it has allowed me to reflect on my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of his work.
I first learnt of Bob Dylan through my senior English teacher, Graeme McGuinness. We studied his poetry and I recall developing a respect for a voice that didn’t fit with my idea of a singer and a perspective that didn’t fit my idea of a poet. He was a songwriter who spoke against the establishment, and wrote lovingly about Sara. My memory is full of words and phrases, rather than context and social action. We were encouraged to think about Dylan’s lyrics for ourselves, rather than study an historical period and place Dylan and his work within this prism. It was this kind of inspired teaching that has stayed with me into my own career.
It was the tradition at our school that seniors would begin their celebration of leaving school by driving to our teacher’s homes for a progressive dinner (a different course at each house) or perhaps a drink, and share memories. Things were a little more liberal in 1980 – with only a quarter of students continuing onto the HSC, there was a different sense of community between students and teachers. When we arrived at Mr McGuinnesses’ house, which is now a Thai restaurant in Shellharbour, I prompted the playing of Dylan’s Desire album. It remains my favourite: Black Diamond Bay and the plaintiff Sara, with the mournful Joey and strident Hurricane beautifully offset by Emmylou Harris, while Romance in Durango still sings of the ultimate Western denouement.
Sara and Bob, farmhouse near Woodstock, 1965
After school, I read Dylan’s Tarantula and probably spent way too much time pondering his thoughts. Now, it feels like an early zine with it’s hand-drawn images and ideas floating across the pages. The naive style is it’s most endearing quality – a documentation of thought processes from a man unafraid of sharing those ideas.
By 1985 I was living in Orange and studying to be a psychiatric nurse when Geldof’s Live Aid was televised. A cynic among sceptics, we still watched the performances late into the night, and woke with the telly still blaring. When Dylan began speaking and suggested that some of the money raised be used to help American farmers, I was disgusted, thinking he had missed the point entirely. Now, it seems like just another moment when someone speaks out, like a performer who takes the opportunity to share their views with a wide audience at an award ceremony.
In April this year, the school where I teach toured New York and briefly stopped in LA. I was ecstatic to find the Bob Dylan: photographs by Daniel Kramer exhibition when we visited the Grammy Museum. So much came flooding back, even though these images were from the period of 1964 and 1965. Apart from stills, there were film exhibits from early performances, and a theatrette playing movies from folk festivals. There was also footage of the infamous early electric Dylan with disappointed crowds. Towards the back, I found a small recording booth inviting us to share our thoughts on Bob Dylan and the impact he made on our lives. I wandered the exhibit before deciding that I had a contribution to make and returned to the booth to share some of the ideas I have written here.
Of course, when the opportunity arises, I also take the time to introduce my students to the lyrics of Bob Dylan.
Read more about the Grammy Museum exhibition, with images by Rebecca Sapp
Read the ABC News online report of Dylan’s award
View NME’s morphing slide show of Dylan over time
Tarantula book cover image by Greg Stevenson