I have never been a Bob Dylan fan. Some of his music I liked, the more commercial songs, although not his disco, Country, zydeco, or rap periods. I have no idea if he really did any of those, but I give him points for longevity, which is no mean feat. Dylan has been adaptable, flexible, with an ability to reinvent himself over time and according to need. I admire that. Few people are able to do that regardless of their field or discipline. I understand he’s now welding iron gates.
Which brings me to Dylan’s career choice. In an article for AARP’s magazine earlier this year (he’s 74), he confessed that, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a schoolteacher–probably teach Roman history or theology.” This is a guy who has been awarded eleven Grammy Awards, the Légion d’Honneur from France (Céline Dion also has one, but we won’t hold that against him), a Kennedy Center Honor, an Oscar, a Pulitzer, and honorary doctorates. He is also a member of three halls of fame for music and songwriting. And he wishes he had been a schoolteacher. Theology, no less.
There’s more to this than the grass being greener. In describing his latest album, a collection from the American Songbook, Dylan talks about virtue and vice. Virtue consists of happiness, resiliency, self-sufficiency, compassion, and love. It’s about being authentic, which for Dylan is reflected in the ability to sing to people rather than at them. Frank Sinatra was the master at that. Vice and its “trappings” revolve around ambition, greed, and selfishness.
“We don’t see the people that vice destroys,” Dylan says. “We just see the glamour of it–everywhere we look, from billboard signs to movies, to newspapers, to magazines. We see the destruction of human life. These songs are anything but that.”
He is referring to standards like “I’m a Fool to Want You” (1951), “Autumn Leaves” (1947), and “What’ll I Do?” (1924). These songs are about love (pure, lost, unrequited), hope, and longing. Stylistically, they are soft and slow, no doubt reflecting Dylan’s temperament at this stage in life. You can also hear simplicity and humility in the music. Virtue is based on simplicity and humility, which puts Dylan in the same line of thought as Aristotle and his concept of the “magnanimous” person. Even so, Dylan is much better at being Dylan than Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mercer.
What does all of this mean?
The world is filled with people who want to be someone else. They yearn to be celebrities and will stop at nothing to achieve it. But if the essence of fame is virtue, as Dylan believes, and if virtue consists of simplicity and humility, then it makes more sense to seek those things directly than to follow the lemmings into the sea. How do you do that? Through another virtue: selflessness. You arrive at yourself through helping others. Dylan recognizes this by pointing out the injustices of poverty, inner-city violence, and the superficiality of “hotshot billionaires.” He wants to help people out of oppression and the trappings of ego through his music, which can show them how to be virtuous, even if the direct route for him might have been theology. Picture Dylan in a bow tie.
A cynic might say that it is easy for Dylan to say this now, after having achieved fame. It would be an entirely different matter if he were speaking as a schoolteacher. For one thing, how many people would listen? A lot of students don’t even do that. And there probably wouldn’t be a magazine article about him.
I am not a cynic, but there may be merit to the critique. After all, I have taught theology for years. Even now, I incorporate Roman history and literature into my business ethics classes. But I’d rather be a musician.
We both seem to be tangled up.
Haven’t had enough? What’s wrong with you? Go to Robert Brancatelli and get your fill. While you’re at it, buy some books, put your name on the email list. Photos and quotes taken from Robert Love, “Bob Dylan: His Way,” AARP The Magazine (Feb/Mar 2015).