By Josh Wagner
This edition of Glam Grads features two graduate students in English, Jesse Nathan and Jessica Jordan, recently honored in an American Studies Program essay contest which asked students to reflect on the significance of Bob Dylan after he won the 2016 Nobel Prize. Nathan, Jordan and other contest winners will read from their essays at a public event this Thursday evening at 5 p.m. at Margaret Jacks Hall.
Nathan is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in poetry and poetics and received first prize in the contest. Jordan, who received an honorable mention, has not yet defined her area of research as a Ph.D., although she is interested in narrative cultures, cultures of reading, book ownership and literary narrative theory. The Daily discussed the significance of Dylan today with both winners.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What sparked your interest in Bob Dylan?
Jessica Jordan (JJ): I first started listening to Bob Dylan in high school. I’m from Tennessee, so it’s a very conservative area. As a high schooler, these countercultural themes of the 1960s were speaking to me because I was not conservative, and I was living in a very conservative place. So, it did not take long to come across Bob Dylan and his anthems of the time. I feel like the first Bob Dylan song I heard was “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which is just not a protest song, but I liked it.
Jesse Nathan (JN): Everything about Dylan interests me. His poetry seems to boil with life. Smart, funny, revelatory. I find him powerfully humane. He often takes up the personas of so-called losers, the down-and-out, the homeless, the slave, the failures, the poor, the maligned, the outcast. His rural roots, his Jewish roots — these surely speak to me. He seems to see through a lot of the games people play — he’s searingly honest. His sound I find unforgettable. It cuts through you. People skeptical of Dylan often complain he can’t sing. So in my essay I wanted to write not so much about his poetry, but about the poetry of his singular voice.
TSD: How long have you been listening to Dylan? Is it a continuous listening or do you go through phases?
JN: Sometimes I go months or maybe years without listening to him in any substantial way, but he’s always there. And then, inevitably, I’ll become newly obsessed with this or that album, and I’ll be listening to him again for days, weeks. I get a hunger for his voice, his poetry. Not sure what precisely brings him back up, but for me it’s reliably cyclical. His music is now collaged into my personal history. Even when I’m not actively listening to his works, I hear Dylan’s lines — they enmesh with my own thoughts — like I hear great lines by all the many poets I’ve loved. But few other artists have for me this kind of consistent and constant presence and effect. Shakespeare and Radiohead. Picasso. Beethoven. Also probably Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hass, A.R. Ammons, Roland Barthes… They travel with me.
TSD: What was the first Dylan song you listened to?
JN: It was probably in junior high, and I think it might have been “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The first Dylan song that really took me apart was probably “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I first saw him in concert in 2000. Saw him again in 2003 with Willie Nelson on their tour of minor league baseball parks. To wake us up on school days, my dad used to belt out a version of “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35,” only he changed the phrase “everybody must get stoned” to “everybody must wake up.” So that was probably my first contact with Dylan, though I didn’t know it at the time.
TSD: Why did you decide to submit to the Dylan essay writing contest?
JJ: One, because it was just a good writing prompt. I’m always looking for writing prompts to do. And two, because Bob Dylan meant a lot to me as a teenager, and I had all of these experiences with his music. My mom was a Bob Dylan man in the 1960s and saw him in concert in Knoxville, and we took a trip together to see him when I was in high school. So, there were lots of experiences I could draw upon and it was a good prompt, so I could connect lots of interesting pieces together.
TSD: What inspired your submission?
JJ: It is more a creative essay. The prompt is very broad… But I decided to run with what I know about Bob Dylan and why I think he’s important. I started with living in this repressive, conservative place and feeling like I didn’t have an outlet for the things that I believed. I hated Bush [and] Cheney as a 15-year-old; my main ideological stance at that point was that these people are evil. I guess through Bob Dylan I made a T-shirt with lyrics from one of his songs: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died.” And it’s just this ridiculous T-shirt. Nobody ever knew what it said. It had a picture of Bob Dylan, overlaid with illegible red text. But I felt like it was this important statement that I was making. That developed into this naive, but very passionate political stance which was all wrapped up in Dylan.
And also, the whole family history with my mom’s having been a fan of his in the 1960s, but she was totally removed from any countercultural stuff. She just liked his folk music because we’re from East Tennessee, and that’s what you do. And then, I transitioned from 1968 to 2008-09, when most of this was taking place. Dylan himself said not to look to him to have the answers — he’s just a guy singing songs who doesn’t like people lifting him up. Dylan’s music still does have an influence, especially on young people.
TSD: [Jesse], what was your inspiration for connecting Dylan to Whitman and Picasso?
JN: It’s a good question. I don’t know. Writing the essay, I was just trying to follow where the words led me. Whitman and Picasso did things and said things that feel to me, in the very specific instances I cite in my piece, comparable or illuminating, as far as what Dylan has done and said and striven for.
TSD: Do you feel that there is a divide between millennials and Dylan? Can he speak to a younger generation?
JN: Are you counting me in the “younger generation”? I can only speak for myself. I listen to Elvis, Lead Belly, Buddy Holly, Woody Guthrie — and they were dead long before I was born. But something about their music feels fresh to me. On the other hand, have you ever heard of Rod McKuen? Going purely on the numbers, he was a superstar poet. Sold sixty million books. That was only a few decades ago. But young people today have never heard of him. I think the best art tends to transcend generations. I’m betting that if human beings are around in five hundred years, someone will still be listening to Dylan sing “Like a Rolling Stone.”
JJ: I think that the reason why his music has endured — not just his 1960s counter cultural stuff, but also his later songwriting greats like “If You Feel my Love” — is because he’s very talented. That’s always going to be relevant because he’s able to access something that’s vital. He says things about resistance, which I think is important. Obviously, lots of things have changed since the 60s. There used to be a lot of people saying that they were listening to Dylan and fighting the man but weren’t doing much beyond that. Not that that was everyone, but that it was the popular understanding. I think that our understanding of what resistance can and should be has changed. So I don’t think that Dylan stands as this savior figure that we follow to social change. But I think it is still good music to listen to. And even Dylan himself, through his actions and statement, certainly feels the same way. He is not the person who is going to lead the revolution for social changes that we need; he’s just a guy who writes songs. I think that you can still find value in his music, but he’s not the leader of the future.
TSD: What are your thoughts on Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize? Should he have won?
JJ: On the one hand, I think it’s cool that he won because I think he has been a great contributor to American culture — again, a wonderful songwriter. I think it’s nice for the winner to be in this popular medium. It’s equalizing. It’s interesting to think about whether or not it counts as literature because then we get into philosophical debates about what literature is. I think that there are probably other authors who deserved to win who also write books. Particularly, American authors of color are overlooked time and time again. So, on the one hand, while it’s democratizing to give the award to a popular artist, they still chose an old white guy. You didn’t choose him to be a Nobel Prize winner in the 60s; you chose him in 2016. So, some of the meaning, I think, is lost.
JN: I think it’s fine that he was chosen. Dylan is one of the greatest poets of our time. Who cares whether he sings his poems? The original lyric poets in the western tradition were troubadours who sung their poems while playing a lute. Denying Dylan’s art the status of “literature” seems like nitpicking. Honestly, what’s the point of that conversation? At a fancy dinner in New York last November, I was seated next to an editor from a small literary press, and he was incensed by Dylan’s selection. Didn’t seem worth the energy to argue with him… His press, it turned out, was publishing a great novelist, one he thought more clearly merited the Nobel. The fact is, these grand honors are always a bit capricious, there are always too many people in the world — too many talented, deserving people — to think too much about who ultimately gets named. Hopefully the human race is the winner when a voice like Dylan’s gets celebrated. I was glad to see Dylan took his time accepting the award.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, Nathan stated that the author who his acquaintance’s press thought deserved the Nobel was foreign. The author was not foreign, and his statement has been corrected.