bob dylan
Stew Milne, File/AP
In this Aug. 24, 2006, file photo, Bob
Dylan performs at McCoy Stadium in
Pawtucket, R.I.

Bob Dylan Album Has Classroom Significance, 35 Years Later

September 16, 2010 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Critics are revisiting Dylan’s fabled "Blood on the Tracks," while teachers and students discover its significance as a literary learning tool.

The Mystery Persists

“Blood on the Tracks” has been analyzed endlessly and given a spectrum of meanings. Since its January 1975 release, “the album has been dissected and examined with the sober seriousness usually reserved for lost scrolls of the Talmud or the prophecies of Nostradamus,” Rodger Jacobs writes for PopMatters.

Ultimately, the mystery is part of the album’s ability to intrigue generations of listeners. “The words, the music, the tones of voice speak of regret, melancholy, a sense of inevitable farewell, mixed with sly humor, some rage, and a sense of simple joy. They are the poems of a survivor,” according to’s synopsis of the 1975 album.

In honor of the album’s 35th anniversary, PopMatters devoted a series of essays to it. An introduction to the special feature, titled “All Things Reconsidered: The 35th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks,” discusses theories about different songs’ lyrics. In his memoir “Chronicles, Volume One,” Dylan insists the words were inspired by Anton Chekhov’s short stories, a claim disputed by back-up guitarist Kevin Odegard.

Dylan-centric Lesson Plans

Boston University lecturer Kevin Barents teaches a college course in which students learn about Bob Dylan’s lyrics and attempt to “decipher” his songs, NPR reported in March 2009. Barents’ course is a writing seminar that teaches “the mechanics and artistry of poetry through Dylan’s songwriting.” Students are also encouraged “to consider the relationship between the words and the music,” NPR reports. Barents tends to focus on Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and his 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding.”

PBS American Masters provides a lesson plan titled “Bob Dylan: No Direction Home,” which delves into historical factors that impacted the artist’s music. PBS contends that the outcome of World War II “and subsequent prosperity in the United States set the background for what was going to be a perfect world,” until the Cold War and “unresolved racial issues dating from the Civil War” emerged. In the lesson, students explore the time period of Dylan’s childhood, his musical influences and personal style, and analyze his lyrics.

Music at School

Other artists have also taken center stage in the classroom. Beyonce, for example, figured prominently in a Milwaukee English class led by teacher Megan Huff, showing how popular music can inspire students.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Huff’s middle school students at HOPE Christian School transformed Beyonce’s "Single Ladies" into their very own “video called ‘Scholar Ladies.’” “Instead of singing about seeking an engagement ring, the girls boast with attitude about earning top grades, preparing for college and staying free of trouble,” Lolly Bowean writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Related Topic: Lyrical controversies

His lyrics may prove inspirational and thought provoking to many students and teachers, but Bob Dylan’s words are not without critics and skeptics.

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Diehl, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell had harsh words. “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception,” she told Diehl.

Mitchell’s comments may stem from controversy surrounding Dylan’s album, “Modern Times.” Lyrics from the album bear a striking resemblance to poems by Henry Timrod, “sometimes known as the poet laureate of the Confederacy,” Motoko Rich wrote for The New York Times. Timrod was a native of Charleston whose writing focused on the Civil War. His biographer, Walter Brian Cisco, “said he could find at least six other phrases from Timrod’s poetry that appeared in Mr. Dylan’s songs,” Rich reported.

Other Dylan albums have featured “striking similarities” to “the words of other writers,” including Junichi Saga, the Japanese author of “Confessions of a Yakuza.” According to Rich, fans have also noted similarities between Dylan lyrics and “lines of dialogue from movies and dramas,” including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Background: Bob Dylan’s Pulitzer Prize and self-doubt

Bob Dylan was awarded a special citation from the Pulitzer Board for his poetic contributions to popular music in 2008, making him the first pop musician to win the prize. The Pulitzer Board has previously been criticized for only giving awards to classical musicians. Frequently, winning pieces have gone unheard by the general public.

In 2004, Dylan spoke about his designation as the “voice of his generation,” telling NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the label often felt like a burden. Dylan also talks about touring with the Grateful Dead, and his hesitation to perform songs from early albums, which he could no longer connect with.

FindingDulcinea’s Happy Birthday article covers Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, his notable accomplishments as a musician and his most recent work and tours.

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