Bob and the Bard

At last, Bob Dylan has finally received the recognition he deserves. Up there with the literary greats. Not that he cares.

There is no better time to ask the question, “Is it time to ditch Shakespeare and study Dylan?” 

You see, I went to two high schools. I started at Wollongong High in ’64, the year the Beatles toured Australia. I remember this because I took a sickie so I could stay at home and watch them on TV as they landed at Mascot. 

I graduated from Chatswood High in ’69, the year ‘a man named Armstrong walked upon the moon.’ Another sickie was in order for this history-making day.

So now I get to go to two school reunions every decade and reflect on the legacy of my education and wasted years twice as often.

One of the things I never could get about high school was Shakespeare. I did okay in English. In fact, it was my best subject. This may say more about my inability at every other subject than my ability at English. But, at least, whatever I wrote in those exams about Shakespeare didn’t drag me down. 

But what was the point? What was it about the Bard that was so important?

About the only Shakespeare I can remember was something about a kingdom and a horse. Although I’m sure if you held me over a cliff by the ankles and shook vigorously you could get a bit more out of me than that. 

And I’m the first to admit that the thing about the kingdom and the horse was very clever. The irony was not lost on me. The spectre of a man who had everything pleading for a dumb farm animal from the very peasant farmers he exploited had me thinking. Even a faint echo of Jesus’ words about the fat lot of good it is to gain everything but forfeit your very life.

Dylan, on the other hand, was an extracurricular activity. His music was even considered, in some circles, to be subversive, although he can now be heard on mild-mannered, middle of the road, easy listening stations.

He was hard to access back in the sixties. No google to fall back on to get the lyrics. No downloads. Not even an earpiece. I just had to put that bulky old transistor radio up to my ears and strain as hard as I could to decipher the lyrics when his songs were on the playlist. Or save my pocket money for weeks to buy a single or an EP – or months to buy an LP.

I may have learnt a little from Shakespeare, but I learnt a whole lot from Dylan. I recall being mesmerised by his music from about ’65, as he kept hammering away at issues I later came to understand to be the consequences of a world flawed by sin, such as; loneliness, apathy, injustice and hypocrisy.

What do you make of these Dylan words, from the early 60’s, 

    What did you see my blue-eyed son? 
    What did you see my darling young one? 
    I saw guns and sharp swords 
    in the hands of small children.

No satellite global communications then. This was a day when it was illegal to show pictures of dead bodies on TV. Was Dylan being prophetic? Were child soldiers around then? How could Dylan have known? Or was he just describing life in the Bronx or on the Lower East Side? Whatever we conclude, his words were a warning to a world in free-fall.

Or what about these searching questions,

    How many deaths will it take till he knows, 
    that too many people have died? 

    And how many ears must one man have, 
    before he can hear people cry? 

    How many times can a man turn his head 
    and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Dylan did me another favour as well. Over 25 years ago when my son was about 13 and heavily into heavy metal music, and an odd assortment of stuff with anti-social and self-destructive lyrics, I bought home a CD box set of Dylan’ Greatest Hits. Steve had a serious listen to Dylan for the first time and his taste in music took a radical turn. We went to a Dylan concert together, a singularly regrettable experience but par for Bob on stage, I am reliably informed. He eventually got more into Dylan than I ever did.

Dylan asked questions that need to be put before us, again and again, generation after generation, from high schools English classes to happy valley nursing homes. Perhaps, then, questions will be asked, hearts will be softened, consciences quickened, sin recognised and the source of forgiveness searched for. 

I’m not suggesting for a moment that he is any substitute for the convicting work of Spirit of God through the Word of God. For we only need one pair of ears. Ears that are made to hear again by the sovereign grace of God. Ears that hear the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus – a better sound than the most sublime music and more powerful than the words of any play.

Dylan, I am glad to say, started me off on that search a lot quicker than Shakespeare. 

By the way, when our blue-eyed son (his eyes aren’t really blue) was ten and struggled to spell, read, construct sentences or write legibly, we were advised to help him find an apprenticeship by the time he was fifteen. 

However, a very fine remedial English teacher in our congregation at Kiama turned all that around within a few months of after-school tuition. He now has a Doctorate in Modern Australian Literature from Sydney University and teaches Shakespeare with a passion to match his unwavering love for Dylan.

Is it time to ditch the Bard and study Bob? My son would rise up in outrage and want to hang, draw and quarter me for even asking the question! 

I’d better find me a horse, even a chrome one, because (sorry Bob) when you ain’t got nothin’ you got everything to lose . . . . 



Feature photo: Dena Flows