He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.
I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.
This is a religious story, don’t you see? Dylan then talks about how he entered into an artistic apprenticeship, teaching himself the folk and the blues canon. These songs gave him a framework for understanding his calling and expressing it. Once he mastered contemporary music, he didn’t stop there:
I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels,Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
He goes on to discuss those three novels, and how they affected his understanding of the world, and in turn, his music. One of the greatest popular musicians of the 20th century, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, got his start in what we now call classical education — one that gives the student “a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by.”
Here’s part of his description of The Odyssey. He makes it sound like a folk song. He makes it sound like real life:
In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.
Again, I read this as Dylan’s mingling religion with art. What is this story but a retelling of St. Paul on the Damascus Road, then after his conversion, using his deep knowledge of Hebrew religion to both break with the tradition and extend it in new and revolutionary ways?
Isn’t this what all serious religious pilgrims and truth seekers do? After their epiphany, they submit to tradition — not just the more recent tradition, but big-T Tradition. They know that books and works of art and teachings that have survived for so long must in some way speak truth about the human experience. You know my own story: how I found my own troubled life 21st century life, and the way out of the dark wood, in the 14th century Commedia of Dante Alighieri. Not a week goes by in which I don’t think in some way about how our own life today is in some profound ways a repetition of events in the Commedia. Because that’s what real art does.
In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have been thrown out of your community for things you didn’t do. You too have made an idol of a woman, and suffered because of it. You too have been spellbound by the voice of a charismatic teacher who led you wrong. You too have faced a wall you could not break through, until divine assistance came. You have seen the hard faces of the damned, and heard the sweet consolations of those grateful for mercy. You learned that things you used to believe were important actually don’t matter. You have won hard wisdom, and faced the temptation to rest too early, before your journey’s proper end. And that’s still not all of it.
This is also the journey of the religious believer. There are those who wrongly believe that the Damascus Road moment is the end of the journey, and that they do not have to submit themselves to any tradition, or root themselves in any commitment. For them, their religious journey is a lifelong attempt to recapture the thrill of the Damascus Road. But notice: St. Paul’s journey only began on that road. He had incredible adventures ahead of him, in the service of the Lord he met on the road to Damascus. In truth, if you are to understand the meaning and purpose of Damascus Road, you need to start listening to those who have walked it before you — and even those who sought the light but never found it there, and those who found it but veered off into a dark wood.
If you do, maybe you will be able to receive the grace from the Creator that allows you to participate in His creation through making great art. And the greatest art is the artwork that is your life.