Bob Dylan made a doctor of music

Wednesday 23 June 2004

The following laureation was given by Professor Neil Corcoran of the School of English.

Chancellor, it’s my privilege to present Bob Dylan for the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

In one of his first concerts in New York in the 1960s Bob Dylan said that he’d recently been asked to contribute to a book about Woody Guthrie, the great folksinger, songwriter and political activist. He’d been asked to say ‘What does Woody Guthrie mean to you in 25 words?’, and, Bob Dylan said, ‘I couldn’t do it’. So instead he read ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie’, a tender poem about Guthrie and the spirit of American idealism.

I feel similarly incapable when I’m asked to say what Bob Dylan means to me in a few minutes. In fact, what I’m here to say isn’t really what he means to me, but what he means to the University of St Andrews that we should have offered him the honour of a doctoral degree. It goes without saying that his acceptance of our invitation deeply honours us, and I really can’t say what a great privilege and pleasure his presence here is today.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941 and grew up in Hibbing, on the Canadian border. He briefly attended the University of Minnesota, and then made what’s become an almost mythical trip to New York to visit the dying Woody Guthrie, and to begin the career which he continues still – writing, singing, recording and performing his songs. Performing is what he’ll be doing once more tonight; and not the least of Bob Dylan’s claims on our attention is his mercurial, devoted and exceptional commitment to the constant renewal of his work that performance involves. It’s as true now as it ever was that ‘no one sings Dylan like Dylan’.

Bob Dylan’s life as writer and singer has the aspect of vocation, of calling, and his is an art of the most venturesome risk and the most patient endurance. He’s spent a lifetime applying himself to such long-sanctioned forms of art as folk, blues, country, and rock music. And, partly by transfusing them with various kinds of poetic art, he’s reinvented them so radically that he’s moved everything on to a place it had never expected to go and left the deepest imprint on human consciousness. Many members of my generation can’t separate a sense of our own identity from his music and lyrics. He’s been for us an extension of consciousness – a way of growing up, and a way of growing more alive. And his work acts like that for succeeding generations too – witness the eager younger people who attend his concerts, which still sell out as soon as they’re advertised. Bob Dylan possesses, in several senses of the phrase, staying power. He keeps on keeping on.

His magnificent songs will last as long as song itself does. There are the early songs of political engagement, songs like ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, songs inseparable from the history of the American Civil Rights movement. There are the revolutionary songs of the mid- 1960s, songs that seem to well up out of nowhere, an electric nowhere of American turbulence, songs like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ – songs that made their time as much as it made them. And then there are, always, the lovesongs – songs of longing and desire, of hope and hopelessness, songs like ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ and ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’, ‘Tangled up in Blue’ and ‘Lovesick’ – songs that make Bob Dylan one of the great writers of the drama of human relationship.

And there are so many other songs and other kinds of song: devotional songs like ‘Precious Angel’ and ‘I Believe in You’, and poignant songs of older age such as ‘Not Dark Yet’, songs of resilience, songs of what it means to have come through. Truly, there is God’s plenty in Bob Dylan’s work; and something Franz Kafka said about Charles Dickens seems to apply to him too – ‘his vast, instinctive prodigality’: a kind of volatile superplus of creative energy and momentum. Bob Dylan’s work has been one of the places where the English language has extended itself in our time.

‘What are your songs about?’ Bob Dylan was once asked. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘some of them are about three minutes, some of them are about five minutes, and some of them, believe it or not, are about eleven minutes’. And songs are about time, about passing the time and filling the time, and doing these things well. Bob Dylan has passed our time very well.

Our graduand has been given numerous awards, including France’s highest cultural accolade, when he was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1990, and a Hollywood Oscar for his song ‘Things Have Changed’ in 2001. But he’s accepted only one honorary degree – from Princeton in 1970. It seems appropriate that his second such degree should come from Scotland’s oldest university, since Scottish border ballads and folksongs have been the inspiration for some of his melodies, and his great song ‘Highlands’ is an elaborate riff, or descant, on Robert Burns.

Chancellor, in recognition of his incomparable contribution to musical and literary culture, I invite you to confer on Bob Dylan the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.


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