When Bob Dylan entered from behind the thick black curtain on the stage of Ohio State University’s Mershon Auditorium on November 4th, I was paralyzed with anticipation. It felt remarkably surreal. I truly never suspected that seeing Bob Dylan perform in person was something that I would be able to experience in my lifetime.
In my life, I am not often actively conscious of the fact that I am a person. There are occasional moments, however, that bring me in touch with my own humanity. Even rarer are the moments that make me feel grateful to be a person. This concert was one of those moments. For me, there is something about Bob Dylan’s music that tears away the distance that I often feel between myself and the world I’m a part of. There is a sense of common human experience that folk music manages to express so aptly. That feeling of connection and relationship with the world around me is what draws me to Dylan’s music.
I was introduced to Bob Dylan by my first boyfriend the summer following my sophomore year of high school. He was a music man (the only kind of man I ever seem to pursue). He played bass, drums, guitar, and could definitely deliver some solid vocals when needed. We spent that summer apart from one another. While he worked at a laborious job remodeling old Safeways on the other side of the country, I attended a summer camp for aspiring journalists in New York City. We were both far from home and missing each other. He spent his free time creating carefully-crafted playlists for me. I would listen to them on car rides and train trips and whenever I was alone in my camp dormitory. The playlists consisted primarily of classic rock and folk-rock, genres my then-boyfriend and I shared an appreciation for. There was some Led Zeppelin, U2, Cake, The Beatles, and Nirvana. There was also, as you may have guessed, Bob Dylan. The first couple of times I listened to my boyfriend’s playlists, I skipped past every Dylan song. I thought his voice was scratchy and unapproachable. The melodies weren’t catchy enough and the overall sound was too harsh.
I remember the moment when my opinion changed. I was sitting in bed in my dorm room, watching the New York City skyline change color through the large window opposite me. The clouds shifted from pale grey to faint pink and orange, while the windows of highrises lit up in a series of bright yellow glows. I remember feeling lonely for reasons I couldn’t quite discern at the time. I didn’t feel close to anyone else at the summer camp, and I missed my friends and family back in Washington. Looking back, I think it was more than that. I felt a disconnect between myself and the people around me that I struggled to bridge, both in New York and back home in Washington. I turned on one of my boyfriend’s playlists, and the song that started playing was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan. I don’t know why this time was different, but for some reason, I didn’t want to skip the song. Dylan’s voice was as raspy as it had always been and the overall sound was akin to the other music I’d heard by him. But for whatever reason, this time I listened. “Come gather round, people / Wherever you roam,” Dylan sang. “And admit that the waters / Around you have grown.” His words dove into some part of me that needed to be felt. Sitting there in my dorm room, I started to cry. I wanted to gather with others, I wanted to feel that sense of connection that Bob Dylan’s voice held such a longing for. I wanted to be able to confess to myself that I was changing, that the world was growing, and I would need to grow with it. Paying attention to that song for the first time gave me the opportunity to recognize that the feelings I was struggling with—loneliness, disconnect, change—were part of a common human experience.
From that moment on, long after the boyfriend became a friend and the New York journalism camp became a summer memory and the playlists receded to the far edges of my Spotify repertoire, no matter where I am, Bob Dylan has always made me feel like home.
I love Dylan in part for his cynicism. He seems to harbor a great deal of sadness and coarseness. Yet, he is also romantic, hopeful, and full of beautiful ideas about the world. The way that he expresses his ideas brings beauty to things that perhaps never seemed so before.
I am a cynical romantic. I grew up watching romantic comedies and I’m always more than happy to listen to affectionate stories of how couples first met, but when it comes to my own life, I am ever-skeptical. “He” (being any love interest I’ve ever had) is never quite right, or I never feel strongly enough, or there’s just always someone more attractive, or—for reasons that I usually neglect to determine—“we’d never work”. I like folk music because it embraces the romance, the love, the pain, but it’s also cynical and self-aware.
Folk is up-close, personal, and emotional: a deep dive into the musician’s own heart. But folk music often also speaks of world issues that transcend the individual. It can be a means of change for topics that reach much farther than traditional themes of romance, heartbreak, or home. Bob Dylan’s music is a prime example. His album The Times They Are A-Changin’, released in 1964, takes an activist’s approach to music that expands on previous ideas introduced in his earlier work. “With God On Our Side,” the third track on the album, iterates a fierce anti-war message through lyrical citation of historical events and the questioning of players on both sides of the wars that are referenced in the song. The album’s title track, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” has earned its place as one of the most popular protest songs of modern day. The themes of togetherness, speaking out, and listening to one another resonate with listeners across generations.
Many people responded to my excitement about buying Bob Dylan tickets with “Uh, isn’t he kind of old, Grace? He’s probably not going to be good anymore.” And my response was consistently: “I couldn’t care less.” That leads me to wonder…what is my appreciation and infatuation with Dylan about? Is it really about his music? Or has it become something larger, something more all-encompassing that is no longer dependent on his actual sound?
My theory is that it is easier, more satisfying, and even perhaps more natural to love someone or something unquestioningly than it is to reason your way through that love. A crush, for example, is delicious for its lack of definition. I don’t think I have ever been able to answer the question “Why do you like him, Grace?” when I have a crush on someone. And of course, there’s a part of me that relishes that because it leaves room for wonder. To love blindly feels powerful, whether or not it actually is.
Earlier this week, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” about the unabashed enthusiasm that comes with being a true fan of something, whether it’s a band or musician, a TV show, a book series, or anything else. There’s just something about loving “beyond rationality” that brings a certain vitality to the everyday.
One of the most appealing aspects of being a fan of something is the community of other fans that you have the opportunity to be a part of as a result. Whether or not you know anything about a person, when you discover that they love the same band you do, a connection is formed. There is an intimacy that comes from loving something with someone else that is comparable to the intimacy that comes with loving the person themselves.
So when I think about why I love Bob Dylan, of course, it is mostly because I’ve grown to love the way his music sounds and the profound meaning that his lyrics hold for me. But beyond that, one of the wonderful things about loving Bob Dylan is that it gives me other things to love too. Loving Bob Dylan gave me a way to be closer to that first boyfriend, it gave me a reason to want to play guitar and sing in front of people, a reason to speak soulfully about what I feel. It gave me records to want and posters to buy. It gave me a lens of beauty through which to view the world in times of doubt. Before I knew it, I was part of a community, a group of people that share a love.