The Projector

Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski

Sounding Out Supplements: Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s Influences, Inspirations & Impersonations

I’ve been so invested in the History of Paper class, it recently occurred to me that there have been no posts here on another class I’m teaching this semester on Bob Dylan.  What a great experience, although sometimes tough to keep up with the schedule… What am I teaching this afternoon again? English? History? Art?  At the end of the day, it seems I’ve finally started to hit the sweet spot where all of these disciplines begin to collide.

Since I’ve reached a quarter of the way in, I wanted to offer a little progress report on at least the two upper division courses.  First, the Bob Dylan class . . .

Course Description

This course explores the astonishing body of songs written by Bob Dylan–over 600–and charts his evolution as a songwriter/performer from the early 1960s to the present day. We’ll historicize Dylan’s revolutionary engagement with the 60s acoustic folk movement and examine his lyrical and performative genius in the crucial electric albums later in the decade. The class traces Dylan’s career as the most influentially transformative musician of the rock era, who, at 75, continues to perform over one hundred dates a year and who received the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. We’ll also explore Dylan as a reluctant cultural icon, a unique poet, and a virtuoso performer, who remains a polarizing figure.

The big question is where do you even begin with this sort of course?  I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised (but I was!) students weren’t that familiar with Bob Dylan’s music career.  So to offer a little context in the early weeks, I offered outside “listening sessions” to try to provide some context to at least some early influences on Dylan’s songwriting and stlye, performance and persona.  These were intended to lead up to (and include) Dylan’s first two albums, Bob Dylan (1962) and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963). Enter the rabbit hole . . . An exercise in restraint.  The biggest challenge was to organize and limit the number of artists and songs.

So this is my essential list–divided into four weeks:

  1. Jazz and the Blues
  2. Bluegrass and Country
  3. Woody Guthrie
  4. Greenwich Village, Folk

My biggest hesitation may have been to schedule an entire week of Woody Guthrie, but this worked out well.  The biggest challenges were (1) finding balance in discussing the music and offering background (biographical and otherwise) to the artists and (2) explaining to students–with no musical background–music terminology.  And I’ll admit the latter required a little research and listening myself.

Overall, these sessions were generally very helpful to students (based on feedback), although again there was a lot of time added to refresh students on song’s/artist’s receptions (and, in the case of musicians like Robert Johnson, mythologies) and on American history.  For example, when discussing Woody Guthrie, I explained a little on the Dust Bowl and migrant workers, FDR’s New Deal, Communism in America in the 1940s, and the outbreak of World War II.  In addition, students’ initial impulse is to merely read the lyrics.  While there were some close readings like Guthrie’s “Lindbergh”, we spend a lot of time in early weeks reviewing elements like melody, harmony, rhythm, structure, etc.  Perhaps my favorite part, of course, was simply watching the students listen to many of these songs for the first time and hearing their initial thoughts and preferences . . . Rarely does one get a chance to introduce Hank Williams or Robert Johnson to a group!


Early Jazz & the Blues

W.C. Handy’s Blues Band
Paul Robeson
Ella Fitzgerald
Django Reinhardt
Robert Johnson
Huddie Ledbetter
Mississippi John Hurt
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Howlin’ Wolf

Bluegrass & Country

Jimmie Rodgers
Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
Doc Watson
The Carter Family
Hank Williams
Earl Scruggs

Woody Guthrie


Dust Bowl Ballads
The Asch Recordings
American Radical Patriot
Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti


So Long, it’s Been Good to Know Ya
Union Maid
I Ride an Old Paint
Grand Coulee Dam
Pretty Boy Floyd
Pastures of Plenty
This Land is Your Land
Do Re Me
Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues
Hard Travelin’
Philadelphia Lawyer
Jesse James
Jesus Christ

Greenwich Village

Joan Baez
Dave Van Ronk
Karen Dalton
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Peter, Paul and Mary
Pete Seeger
Ed McCurdy
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry




*So What do you think???  What “essential” artists did I miss?  Who can be taken off? 

Send me your suggestions and comments below  . . .

One comment on “Sounding Out Supplements: Bob Dylan

  1. Pingback: 16 Weeks with Bob Dylan | K. A. Wisniewski

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2017 by in activism, Art, Films, History, Literature, music, pedagogy, Teaching and tagged , , , , , .
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