Bob Dylan is the ultimate musical shape-shifter. In his five-decade career, he has refused to stay in the same place for long, moving fluidly between genres, voices and performance styles.
To some, that elusive quality makes Dylan almost maddening. To others, it makes him fascinating. But to musicologist Steven Rings, it makes Dylan’s work a perfect object of scholarly analysis.
Literary critics have been studying Dylan’s lyrics since the 1960s. Yet his music has never received the same attention. Rings, associate professor in Music, has devoted the last several years to that challenge, devouring obscure bootleg performances and examining every aspect of Dylan as a musician. He will share some of the results of his work at the Franke Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 4 at the Gleacher Center in a talk titled “’Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’: A Genealogy.” The talk begins at 5:15 p.m.
These days, Rings counts himself among the legions of Dylan obsessives. “I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole,” he admitted.
But it wasn’t always that way. Rings began as a casual Dylan fan, “and if you know anything about Bob Dylan fans, you know that the distance from a casual Bob Dylan fan to a serious Bob Dylan fan is measured in light-years,” he said.
Still, even in those early days, Rings was drawn to Dylan as a performer. “He is not one to repeat himself, and that happens at the macro level of his career, but it also happens at the micro level, within performances from night to night and within a song. He just never does the same thing twice,” Rings says. “That makes him a moving target for a music scholar in a way that I find very productive, in an unsettling way.”
It’s largely uncharted territory: for all the ink spilled on Dylan the writer, few music scholars have taken the time to scrutinize what the songs sound like, what kinds of ensembles Dylan surrounds himself with, and how his live performances have changed.
If a song keeps changing, is it the same song?
Without a traditional score to analyze, Rings turned to techniques like spectrographic analysis to examine the shifts in Dylan’s voice throughout his career. Over time, Dylan has shed his more nasal sound for a throaty, bluesy style—much like the Delta blues singers he admired in his childhood. In many ways, Rings concluded in a talk at Humanities Day in 2012, “Dylan has the voice now that he always wanted.”
For a music scholar, Dylan’s work also raises profound questions about the nature of music: if a song keeps changing, is it still the same song? What is a song, anyway?
Dylan’s work highlights a fundamental paradox in the study of music: we think of songs as fixed entities, yet they exist in the ephemeral performance and experience of them. From that perspective, songs are something we do. In Dylan’s case, performances can change so much that it’s hard to pin down exactly why two radically different versions of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” are even the same song.
Yet we experience them as the same: “You say, ‘I love that song,’ and you don’t mean, ‘I love that thing I do,’ you mean, ‘I love that song.’” In that sense, “‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ has the effect of being a thing,” Rings said. “The song is the effect all of the encounters you’ve had with different versions of it.”
These questions are central to Rings’ fascination with Dylan. “Even though my work takes as its point of entry close examination of what a particular Dylan song sounds like, it then exits from that into a set of philosophical or conceptual questions that I find really interesting,” Rings explained.
Rings has no single answer to why Dylan has remained so musically impatient. Some of it, he thinks, is the early influence of the Beats, who craved spontaneity. Some of it is a modernist stance of deliberate antagonism toward the audience. Some of it is Dylan’s belief in the fundamental mutability of song.
For Rings, solving the riddle of Dylan’s elusiveness pales in comparison to another challenge: with five decades of Dylan lyrics and quips to pick from, how will he ever settle on a title for the book on Dylan he plans to write?
“Earlier on in my career I made a pact with myself, which was, ‘No titles with colons in them,’ because that’s something of an academic tic,” Rings joked. “I succeeded in doing that for a long time, but it’s so hard when you get to Bob Dylan. Every topic, there’s a perfect line from a song. You’ve got to be strong to resist that temptation, and I have not succeeded.”
Rings’ book A Foreign Sound to Your Ear is under way. Or maybe he’ll title it, It Used to Be Like That, Now It Goes Like This. Or maybe Here’s Your Throat Back, Thanks for the Loan. He’s still deciding.