Editor's note: On October 13, 2016, it was announced that Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. Below, AU scholar in residence Michelle Engert discusses Dylan's cutlural impact. Engert has written and lectured about Dylan's legacy. The story below, originally titled "Shakespeare in the Alley," was published on November 24, 2014.
Keep on Keepin' On
"Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." That was Bob Dylan, on his celebrated 1997 comeback album Time Out of Mind. But despite his own ominous lyrics, rumors of Dylan's demise are often premature. More than 52 years since his self-titled debut, he's still touring and producing albums. On November 25, he returned to Washington, D.C. for a concert at DAR Constitution Hall.
Michelle Engert has written and lectured about the cultural impact of Dylan. In an interview, she offered some thoughts on the musician's legacy and longevity. "I suppose if he was still playing the acoustic guitar and the harmonica, and stuck with those themes of the early 1960s, it wouldn't last. It would be dated. But he changed," says Engert, an American University scholar in residence at the School of Public Affairs.
Engert characterizes Dylan's career as one of constant reinvention. "He went from his early days when no one knew him as a Woody Guthrie imitator, to writing his own songs in the folk tradition, to using an electric guitar and leaving the folk tradition, to entering rock 'n' roll with really interesting music. Then we had the country music phase, so then we had the Americana phase. And this was all before 1970," she explains.
The Many Sides of Bob Dylan
1970 probably marked a turning point, as the consensus surrounding Dylan's brilliance started to unravel. After reeling off a string of classic albums that included Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Harding, Dylan released the critically-reviled Self Portrait. Dylan expert and supporter Greil Marcus used an expletive to describe it in Rolling Stone. (The comment was tame by today's Internet standards, but it's still one of the most memorable album reviews ever written.)
Aside from masterpieces like 1975's Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's 1970s and 1980s recordings were often polarizing. But Engert says this part of Dylan's catalog—which included synthesizers, saxophones, gospel-oriented female vocals, and the controversial "Christian" period—should be embraced. She mentions Street-Legal (1978) and Oh Mercy (1989) as particularly underrated albums.
"Even when he's made us angry by being different, it's a really diverse, important, ingenious body of work," Engert says.
This is related to how people first experienced Dylan in the 1960s. With protest songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "Chimes of Freedom," Dylan was dubbed a generational spokesperson for the growing counterculture. But he's spent much of his career running away from that label, and most of his songs are not especially political.
"We all go through these phases of what might be important to us at a given time. But when Dylan wanted to move out of that phase, the others didn't want to let him. They tried to hold him in that box," Engert says. "And had he listened, can you imagine all of the songs that the world wouldn't have been able to hear?"
His lyrics delve into love and relationships, God and the Bible, and the entire human experience, she adds.
Dylan is still on his Never Ending Tour that began in 1988. Though he's less experimental these days, Dylan is known for speeding up his ballads and slowing down his up-tempo tracks. In concert, even the most die-hard Dylaniacs can have trouble singing along with him.
"I think the re-arrangements for him were to keep it fresh," says Engert, who has written about his live performances. "He had multiple interpretations of the songs." She says you can see those songs re-imagined in his paintings, another art form he's explored.
In the 1980s, Engert was a teenager living in the Chicago suburbs. Around that time, Dylan had hit the MTV generation, with the video for "Sweetheart Like You" from Infidels running on the network's regular rotation. With the rise of compact discs, people were trading in their vinyl records—making them suddenly more affordable for Engert. "I went to a used record store with $20 and came out with half the catalog," she recalls. "So I got this huge volume of material, and I would just sit in my room and listen to it on vinyl."
A lifelong passion was born. Among other activities, she taught a class on Dylan in Munich, Germany.
Artist of the Century
Compared to other art forms, popular music is still a relatively young medium. Thus, Dylan's name might get excluded from the traditional pantheon of creative geniuses. Yet Engert considers Dylan the artist of the 20th century.
"I think that in universities people will look at Dylan's work, as a whole, on the level that they do Walt Whitman, on the level that they do Shakespeare," she says.
His voluminous and varied contributions, she says, set him apart from his contemporaries. "[Academics] are not going to study Neil Young. They're not going to study Van Morrison. With Dylan, we've got the books, we've got the films, we've got the paintings, we've got the sculptures. It's this whole creative output of more than 50 years, and it tells the story of America."