Bob Dylan: A Renaissance scholar explores a Renaissance man
Mark Rasmussen leads students through a deep dive into the iconic singer-songwriter, poet, political activist and social critic.
During his immersive three-week CentreTerm English course, Mark Rasmussen, Charles J. Luellen Professor of English, led students through the myriad layers of the man hailed as America's greatest singer-songwriter, winner of the Nobel prize for literature and, as Rasmussen described him in a description of the course, the “words-drunk spawn of Ginsberg and Rimbaud.”
“I am a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature,” said Ramussen, “but for many years I have longed to teach a course on Bob Dylan, and this CentreTerm the time was right. I've been listening to Dylan since the 1960s, and I have been right there throughout his various phases and incarnations: the balladeer of the American folk tradition; the country crooner; the angry Christian prophet; the lonesome hobo drifter unlucky in love.”
Students listened intently to all these Dylans and talked about what his songs made them think and feel. They watched films based on his music, such as “Don't Look Back,” “No Direction Home,” “Masked and Anonymous” and “I'm Not There.” Students also were required to create a final project for the course.
English major Jayden Blanton ’23 did a research paper on why Dylan should be considered a precursor to the rap genre for his final project.
“Before I took the class, I didn’t know exactly who Bob Dylan was, but I had heard of him,” Blanton says. “After taking this CentreTerm course with Dr. Rasmussen, I’ve gotten to see his true musical talent from an in-depth lyrical perspective. [Rasmussen] has gotten us to break down the lyrics that form the plethora of Dylan albums spanning the genres of folk, electric and rock.”
Rasmussen believes that guiding students’ scrutiny of Dylan’s intricate storytelling, and listening to and analyzing complex songs from a variety of genres, builds critical-thinking skills.
“Dylan's music is intensely involved with the conflicts of his day and ours,” Rasmussen said, “and it is illuminating for students to experience those contexts through his work.”
The connection Blanton made during the course inspired his research topic and may have added yet another musical genre to the Dylan debate.
“The way he rhymes his lyrics and tackles racial and oppressive issues that are systematically brought on by the government suggests that his art could be accepted into the rap category,” Blanton says. “Our dissection of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Blues” allowed me to make a connection that I thought I wouldn’t have been able to make prior to this class.
“And the thing that I will take away from this course is being able to take lyrics and find out hidden messages and possible meanings that delve into different avenues away from its literal meaning,” he said.
Rasmussen’s students also attended a workshop with NEH Professor of Music Nathan Link's Songwriting class to give them insight into how musicians shape their songs and the stories they tell.
“My students come from many academic disciplines and seek to follow many career paths,” Rasmussen says. “But we all can learn from Dylan's heroic openness to change, recognizing that each of us is a work in progress, and that any belief that we have figured everything out will always be premature. Humility and a willingness to learn must be part of any well-lived life.
“Dylan, often an exasperating person in real life, is also a model to us all as human beings,” Rasmussen continues. “The epigraph for the course is a line from one of Dylan's songs: ‘He not busy being born is busy dying.’ Throughout his career, Dylan has been busy being born, reinventing and redirecting his art up through his most recent album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” which came out in 2020, during the singer/songwriter's 80th year — four years after he had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature.”
Jack Mileham ’26 transcribed "Blowing in the Wind" for banjo and played it as a duet with a fellow student on guitar in his dorm room:
Jack Roth ’26 wrote a song based on one of Dylan's favorite song structures and made a video. It is the first song that Jack has ever composed:
Davis Pingleton ’26, who plays guitar in a Berea-based band, recorded a note-for-note performance of Jimi Hendrix's version of Dylan's song "All Along the Watchtower:”
Kameron Jones ’26 sang his own arrangement of the Dylan song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door:”