Kelly Writers House hosts Dylan Song Symposium

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 20, 2011

At 6 p.m. sharp, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House Al Filreis took the microphone. “Thing is, we start on time. Bob Dylan never started on time, but we start on time.”

There was appreciative laughter from the audience as Filreis introduced the Dylan Song Symposium — an event organized in honor of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday earlier this year.

Students, faculty and Philadelphians gathered to hear nine “Dylanologists” — three faculty, a few of their friends, two alumni and one current student — comment on one of the musician’s songs. Some even gave live renditions of their chosen song.

Though the speakers and audience members alike were all Dylan fans, the conversation revolved around some of what most would agree was the worst of Dylan’s work. As Alan Light, formerly a critic for Rolling Stone and editor-in-chief of both VIBE and Spin, put it, you know you’re a Dylan fan when you “leap to the defense of an album you know is really bad.”

Light chose “Where Are You Tonight?” the last song off of Dylan’s critically panned 1978 album Street-Legal, which a friend of his described as a “messed-up mariachi record.” Despite this, Light found that it was “impossible not to feel Dylan’s struggle” as the song reaches its apex. “Sometimes the imperfect moments are the ones where his myth becomes invisible, with no secrets to conceal,” he said.

For such a notoriously elusive artist, such moments of transparency are incredibly rare. English professor Anthony DeCurtis pointed out that the song he chose for the evening, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” has two different sets of official lyrics, as if Dylan wished for the audio and written versions each to be “just one interpretation” of the song. “So Dylan,” he added.

This desire to escape categorization has contributed to the richness of Dylan’s work, opening it up to endless discussion. “He morphs,” Filreis said. “He’s got a shifting identity.”

Even in the discussion of Bob Dylan’s more questionable works, the underlying tone was laudatory. As Classical Studies professor and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Ralph Rosen put it, “Who are we to second-guess the master?”