“World of Bob Dylan 2023.” June 1-4, 2023, Hyatt Regency, Tulsa, OK.
REVIEW by Harold Lepidus
The second in-person World of Bob Dylan symposium took place over four days at the beginning of June. The first one occurred in late May, 2019. There have been other meetings both physical and virtual in between, but this was similar in scope and presentation to the 2019 gathering, with a couple of significant differences.
During the 2019 symposium, there was more to it than just Dylan-related panels and a guest musician – in this case, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. This was the first real chance for fans to see and hear some examples of the deep, secret archives of the work of Bob Dylan, which were purchased on behalf of the University of Tulsa. The 500 attendees had the privilege of experiencing such never before known treasures as the three-chord outtake version of “New Pony” from 1978’s Street-Legal, unseen rehearsal footage from the New Morning sessions, and unreleased songs from the 1976 Hard Rain Rolling Thunder Revue TV special which were left on the cutting room floor. There was also a demonstration of the restoration of footage from the 1966 tour, which was made a priority by the BDC team. At the time, the Bob Dylan Center had yet to be built.
In 2019, it appeared that the Center and the University were working together as one team, but that no longer appears to be the case. Last year, there was the Grand Opening of the Center, with a star-studded pre-Grand Opening celebration for the media. This year, The World of Bob Dylan was part of a separate, multi-cultural event, known as Switchyard, which ran from May 30 to June 4. The Dylan panels only took place from June 1-4.
From Tuesday, May 30 through to the morning of Thursday, June 1, there were a dozen panels, mostly addressing various forms of marginalization, persecution, and censorship. Speakers ranged from Maus author Art Spiegelman to Dylan scholar Danny Fingerouth and others exploring the X-Men comic as a metaphor for marginalized people. While I did not arrive in Tulsa in time to attend any of these panels, one can see the connection with Dylan and his socially conscious topical songs.
To set the scene for this year’s festivities, all of the Dylan panels took place at the Tulsa Hyatt. There were a few conference rooms on the lower lobby level, and another one on the upper lobby level, where there were also merch tables for Switchyard and Magic City Books. Attendees were given a program and a laminate, with different levels of accessibility, allowing people into certain (or all) events. There was also food and/or refreshments provided there between some of the panels. Each night, there were also shows at the legendary Cain’s Ballroom – “The Home of Bob Wills” – with bus transportation provided to and from the venue. Night one was a great set by Rodney Crowell, with Bob Ickes and Trey Hensley; night two was John Fulbright, who covered “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”; and the final night was a doubleheader, with former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and his wife, Teresa Williams (they covered two Rev. Gary Davis songs, and Dylan’s “Wallflower”), and Robbie Fulks, whose recent “vanity project” is a double album reinterpretation of Dylan’s Street-Legal, titled 16, and he gave “Changing Of The Guard” a rare, and beautifully stripped down, outing.
For the symposium, participants were asked to submit proposals in advance, and if chosen, you’d be given a slot at the same time as two or three other panels. One did not have to be a scholar or have a PhD to participate. Some panels featured stray presenters grouped together by category, while others were already submitted as a fixed group with its panelists listed. These panels were sometimes designed as “roundtable” discussions, while the others usually had three or four people giving presentations of about twenty minutes each, with a question and answer section as time allowed.
The panels ranged from academic to historical, analytical to irreverent. There were also a few Keynote Speakers – noted authors, critics, and musicians, discussing the works of Bob Dylan. What follows are selected highlights of panels and events I observed, including three presentations I gave while I was there.
I participated in one of the first three Dylan panels, at 1pm on Thursday, June 1. I was asked to participate by Danny Fingeroth, author of a biography of Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame, and the soon to be published biography of Jack Ruby, the man who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald. This most likely explains why Fingeroth chose as a panel session, Murder Most Foul: Bob Dylan and the JFK Assassination.
A couple of weeks before the symposium, the other panelists – Salvatore J. Fallica, Jeff Fallis, Fingeroth, and I – met via Zoom to discuss how we would handle our presentations. Originally planned as a roundtable discussion, it was decided that the most traditional panel of individual essays of about twenty minutes each, usually with visual, and sometimes audio, aids would work best. Mr. Fallis could not attend the early sessions due to a scheduling conflict, so he sent a video presentation instead.
To give some idea of what a presentation might be like to experience, here’s what I prepared. I decided to focus on Dylan’s connections to JFK, mostly through quotes, and tie them into a larger context by linking other artists, such as the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Paul Simon, and how their lives, and art, were affected by the events of November 22, 1963.
A highlight of the second day was Rebecca Slaman, with her presentation, “Come Writers and Critics,” part of the Fame and Fandom panel. Slaman (a.k.a. @ithrewtheglass on Twitter) is one of the bright new stars of Dylanology, which is all the more impressive considering she really only got into Dylan during lockdown. Her presentation was a mix of sociological studies of fan behavior, the differences of gender fandom, and how Dylan was perceived critically, with a mixture of expertise, insight, and humor.
This was followed by a keynote speech by Cass Sunstein, titled Museums are Vulgar: Bob Dylan and Dishabituation, which was basically a study of busy being born instead of dying. It was about how Dylan regularly changing gears throughout his career led to an increase in his creative juices by exploring different artistic avenues.
The next panel I attended was The Philosophy of Modern Song and the Ambi-Modernist Impulse. It featured my future co-panelists Erin C. Callahan (“‘Lame as Hell and a Big Trick’: Dylan’s Comment on the Commodification of Art in The Philosophy of Modern Song”, and Court Carney (“‘The Laws of Time Didn’t Apply To You’: The Philosophy of Modern Song and the Zeitgeist of the Discontent”), as well as Jim Salvucci, host of the Dylantantes podcast. Callahan and Carney, both PhD professors from Houston, gave detailed explorations of the themes of Dylan’s most recent book, while Salvucci explored how Dylan is fascinated by a bygone world – not a perfect world, but one he appears to, if not miss, at least chronicle.
The third and final panel that day that I attended was Talking Dylan – The Bob Dylan Podcasters. It featured four Dylan-centric podcast hosts – Craig Danuloff (Dylan.FM a.k.a. “Freak Music Dylan”), Rob Kelly (PodDylan), Laura Tenschert (Definitely Dylan), and Daniel MacKay (Hard Rain and Slow Trains) – all of whom I was familiar with, and I have even appeared on Rob Kelly’s program. Each panelist discussed their own unique format, and Danuloff explained how they were pooling their resources to create their own network.
Certainly a highlight was “An Evening with Margo Price – In Conversation with Jeff Slate,” a keynote address. Reminiscent of his 2019 interview with Roger McGuinn, Slate interviewed Price for about fifty minutes before he accompanied her on three songs – her own “Lydia,” then two-and-a-half Dylan covers, “Oh Sister” and “Meet Me in the Morning/Call Letter Blues.” The questions alternated between her love of Dylan’s music, and her own career. When Margo said she was influenced by Dylan, she wasn’t kidding – she even named her daughter Ramona.
On Saturday, I was once again part of the day’s first panel. Titled Collaborations, I shared the panel with Scott Bunn of Recliner Notes fame (“Recitations on Waitresses & Art Within Terry Allen’s ‘The Beautiful Waitress’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Highlands’”); Ray Padgett, with a preview his new book of interviews, – Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members; and my presentation, “Dylan & The Dead Reconsidered: Goin’ Down The Road, Feelin’ Rad.”
Padgett expertly used audio clips of varying quality to illustrate the contents of the book. While some of these interviews have appeared in his Flagging Down the Double E newsletter, including the hilarious and touching story of drummer Winston Watson, his daughter, and her “Uncle Bob,” many others have not. Having these stories by people ranging from Martin Carthy and Happy Traum (more on him later), to Scarlet Rivera and Regina McCrary, to Jeff Bridges and Larry Campbell, make this a fascinating and illuminating read, and dispels a lot of rumors and assumptions about our Bob.
My talk centered around when I attended the first Dylan & the Dead show on July 4, 1987, at Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, as a lead-in to discussing the unfairly dismissed 1989 live album of the tour. I gave my interpretation of why Dylan may have chosen the seven songs he did after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia compiled a much more accessible version, which Dylan rejected.
After another coffee break, it was time for a Keynote Presentation by legendary music (and Dylan) critic and journalist, Greil Marcus. Bob Dylan is quoted as saying, “The purpose of art is to stop time,” and Mr. Marcus does this with his presentations. In this current era of the short attention span, he’s not afraid to slowly build his case, beginning without any direct connections to Dylan, giving it breadth and depth and context, and lead us into a world most of us never knew existed.
Marcus’ talk was called “The Only Thing Missing Was Gloria Grahame: Noir Tomes in 21st-Century Dylan.” As the title suggests, Marcus explored the connections between the old movies Dylan obviously admires and has always been a source of inspiration in his art, and its connection to Dylan’s most recent works, including not only his art and music, but his promotional videos.
The next panel was simply titled Humor. It featured The Daily Show’s Daniel Radosh (“It Takes A Lot To Laugh: Bob Dylan as Humorist”), Harrison Hewitt a.k.a. Harry Hew (“How Long Can We Falsify and Deny What Is Real: Bob Dylan is the Funniest Person Alive, and Why We Need To Talk About It”), and my “Murder Most Foul” co-panelist, Danny Fingeroth (“The Comic Book and Me: Bob Dylan and Comics.”)
Radosh focused on Dylan’s funny lyrical content. This left Harrison room to apparently semi-improvise his talk, focusing on other aspects of Dylan’s humor. The basis of Hewitt’s presentation was about how Bob’s sense of humor is completely misunderstood. At the risk of embarrassing him, Harrison’s passionate, insightful, bold, and, well, humorous interpretation of the misinterpretation of Dylan’s international humor (often described as unintentional), was a highlight of the symposium. Harry had everyone in the room in stitches, including Radosh and Greil Marcus.
Mr. Hewitt talked about how people used to laugh at the humorous lines in “Desolation Row” until Dylan had his motorcycle accident, and since then, everything was so reverential that the jokes were no longer considered funny. He defended the “sick joke” lines in “Lenny Bruce,” pointing out that of all the lyrics Dylan has changed over the years, those lines were never altered. As Hewitt argued, what could be more appropriate than some sick humor in a song about the “sick comic” Lenny Bruce? Complete with nods to Rodney Dangerfield and even bits of humor from an interview with Dylan’s parents, the whole talk was hilarious.
Danny Fingeroth was next, with an entertaining collection of cartoon comics and graphic novels throughout the decades, featuring either Dylan, a Dylanesque character, or a song lyric or title. He also observed something about the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s legendary appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. When they performed “Like A Rolling Stone,” Hendrix introduced it as a song by Bob Dylan, then followed it by saying, “That’s his grandma over there.” I always thought it was just some off-the-cuff remark, but Mr. Fingeroth observed that he was probably looking at bassist Noel Redding and his frizzy afro, and that’s to whom Jimi was referring!
During a lull in the Q&A after the presentations, Harrison Hewitt mentioned something about being amazed that someone like Greil Marcus, whose work he had devoured (with a special shout out to his review of Street-Legal), would be sitting there, listening to a “goofball” like him. Marcus was among the first to speak with, and congratulate, Harry after the panel had finished.
I caught part of a fascinating panel, Stevan Weine, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry From Madness – with Holly-George Warren. There was no direct connection to Dylan while I was there, other than the obvious (Dylan and Ginsberg were friends and collaborators), but the documentation about Ginsberg’s family history of mental illness, and the medieval practice of a lobotomy that was suggested for his mother, was as detailed as it was disturbing. Ginsberg was talked into approving it as a way to “cure” what his mother was going through, which had a lingering and damaging effect on his life.
The next keynote speaker, Greenwich Village folk legend Happy Traum, charmed the entire auditorium with his talk, “Coming Of Age in the Greenwich Village Folk Revival, 1954-1971.” He began with a mini-concert, playing “Careless Love,” Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” Dylan’s “Farewell,” and “He Was A Friend Of Mine” (all songs Dylan has played at some point), then mesmerized the assembled with tales of the early Greenwich Village folk scene, complete with photographic evidence of everything from old records (and record stores) to the arrests of folkies for the crime of gathering in the park. He talked about how Dylan had asked him to learn to play the bass, then invited him to the 1971 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 sessions. He felt he had disappointed Dylan with his accompaniment on the first song, “Only A Hobo,” since it was not included, although the three Basement Tapes remakes did make the cut. So he was pleasantly surprised to find out that ten years ago, “Only A Hobo” was to be included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). And to top it all off, he found a picture of himself with Larry Campbell from about forty years ago, which was not only touching, but appropriate, since we were about to head on over to Cain’s again, and Larry was one of the performers.
On Sunday morning, there were two sets of panels left to go. The first one I attended, Infinity On Trial, was chosen because I was particularly interested in hearing what Definitely Dylan’s Laura Tenschert had to say. Also on the panel were Susan Scarberry-Garcia, whose connection to Dylan goes way back, and her presentation, “A Vision of Wheels: Bob Dylan’s Rail Car and Leo Tolstoy’s Bicycle,” using Dylan’s iron sculptures as the point of comparison.
Raphael Falco was not able to make it to Tulsa to present his paper, “Unheard Melodies: Ekphrasis and the Possible Gaze in Dylan’s Lyrics,” so it was presented by Tom Palaima, exploring Dylan lyrics through warehouse eyes.
Tenschert’s talk explored the evolution of Dylan’s lyrics as updated in his Mondo Scripto (a nonsense term, she noted) series. Tenschert pointed out the irony of Dylan recently saying that the music is just as important as the words, yet here they are presented acapella, so to speak. At one point, she said she didn’t understand why Dylan had drawn a portrait of Barbra Streisand to illustrate the lyrics to his song, “Every Grain of Sand.” My interpretation was that it may have been a play on words – “Every. Grain. Of. Barbra. Strei. Sand.”
I participated in one of the final presentations, Roundtable: Where Beauty Goes Unrecognized: Reconsidering Bob Dylan in the 80s, along with Eric Callahan, Court Carney, and Jeff Fallis. During our pre-Tulsa Zoom meeting, it was decided that we would each give a short presentation, and then we’d open the floor for a Q&A period. I placed my essay in the context of the Bizarro World of how the rockers of the 60s and 70s fought to fit into the musical landscape of the 1980s. The decade began with a series of bummers, most significantly to many, the murder of John Lennon in December, 1980, which had a chilling effect on his peers, including Dylan, Neil Young, and the remaining Beatles.
There was a heated discussion, with much participation from those in attendance. One example: Laura Tenschert said that to her and her peers, the 80s began not in 1980, but in 1983, with the release of Dylan’s Infidels album. I can understand that, as one could say that in America, the 60s as we (think we) know it, began in February, 1964, when the Beatles landed at JFK.
And then it was all over. All in all, a worthwhile trip. It felt like Switchyard is going through some growing pains, trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t. From my limited viewpoint, it seemed like the socially conscious part, and the Dylan part, of Switchyard, did not mix particularly well, mostly due to the time allowed. I don’t know why the Dylan Center was not a major part of the festivities, but unveiling even more rarities in future years would certainly add value to the proceedings.