Jukebox poet

Publication Date: Friday Jan 16, 1998

Jukebox poet

Stanford University hosts the country's first Bob Dylan conference, focusing on the man who "brought poetry to the jukebox"

by Jim Harrington

Millions of music lovers have known it for decades. Now academia is beginning to catch on.

On Saturday, Stanford University will host a day-long Bob Dylan conference, exploring the work and cultural legacy of one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. This is the first such event to be held in the United States.

The conference organizers are Stanford faculty members Tino Markworth, a Whiting Fellow in the department of German studies, and Rush Rehm, associate professor of drama. That same duo was responsible for a recent Continuing Studies Class also focusing on Dylan's career. The class proved quite popular and, likewise, the conference has drawn much attention.

"I thought it was time to do it," Markworth said of focusing academic attention on Dylan's work. "I saw there were classes on Star Trek and Madonna and said, 'Why don't we do (a class) on something that has a real quality of work.' I mean, if we do popular culture, let's do some popular culture that is worthwhile."

Although never a mega-seller in comparison to the likes of Michael Jackson and U2, Dylan is certainly one of the most critically acclaimed and durable artists in popular music history. Since his self-titled Columbia Records debut in 1962, Dylan has released an impressive number of albums that easily rank as rock 'n' roll classics. Still, Dylan will likely always be remembered foremost for his individual songs. "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (from 1973's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"), "Blowin' in the Wind" (from 1962's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"), "All Along the Watchtower" (from 1968's "John Wesley Harding") and, of course, "Like a Rolling Stone" (from "Highway 61 Revisited") are true pop anthems.

And that's just for starters.

"The most significant American rocker since Elvis, Bob Dylan ranks alongside the Beatles as a '60s cultural revolutionary, transforming the world not only musically, but politically and spiritually," reviewer Paul Evans wrote in The Rolling Stone Album Guide.

Discussions on Dylan more often than not center around his masterful lyrics. But, while Dylan's words factor heavily into the Stanford conference, the day-long event is certainly not limited to just that topic.

"The interesting thing about this conference is that we approach Bob Dylan from different disciplines," Markworth said. "This is really new. This hasn't been done before."

The organizers of the conference invited Dylan to attend, but he declined because he's playing a concert with Van Morrison this weekend in New York City.

Conference topics include:

Interpretations of Dylan's lyrics, presented by leading Dylan scholar Christopher Ricks, professor of English at Boston University.

The political views expressed in Dylan's songs, analyzed by Rush Rehm, associate professor of drama at Stanford.

Allen Ginsberg's artistic involvement with Dylan, described by Stephan Scobie, professor of English at University of Victoria, Canada.

A comparison of Dylan's work to that of writers Arthur Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac, presented by Stephan Ronan, Berkeley-based writer and assistant producer of "The Jack Kerouac Collection."

The musical roots of Bob Dylan's songs, presented by Maria Johnson, lecturer of music at Southern Illinois University.

The radical swings in Dylan's popularity, including the positive reception of his recent album, "Time Out of Mind," discussed by Dylan specialist Paul Williams, author of the critically acclaimed book "Bob Dylan: Performing Artist."

Dylan's first public impression--that of a skinny young folksinger, back in the 1960s, strumming a guitar with a harmonica strapped around his neck--has been the most lasting. Yet, Markworth said, Dylan's artistic contributions are definitely not limited to that decade.

"Bob Dylan's work is not just '60s work," he said. "He put out really good works in the '70s, '80s and '90s."

To prove the point, Markworth brings up Dylan's current release, "Time Out of Mind," the artist's best-received disc in quite some time. The work topped many publications' and critics' best-of-1997 lists, including that of Rolling Stone Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Still, "Time Out of Mind" likely won't sell anywhere near as many copies as the Wallflower's "Bringing Down the Horse." The Wallflowers, led by Dylan's son Jakob, scored one of the biggest hits of the year, selling millions of copies, and outdistancing the sales figures posted by the elder singers' best albums.

But sales figures and Billboard chart rankings don't tell the whole story. The big sellers don't always turn out to be the ones that make a truly lasting impact (think Milli Vanilli from the late '80s).

"I would say that (Dylan) is the one that brought poetry to the jukebox," Markworth said.

People know this.

That's why Dylan was the one rock singer recently nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature and honored, alongside the likes of Charlton Heston, by the Kennedy Center. Conversely, that's also why we probably won't see a Spice Girls conference held at Stanford anytime in the near future.

What: Bob Dylan conference

When: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17

Where: Kresge Auditorium, Stanford University

How much: Tickets are $14 general public; $6 students

Information: Call 723-4317 or 725-ARTS 

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