The World of Bob Dylan Tulsa professor shows the troubadour’s sides in new book

BY Alex Gallagher

University of Tulsa professor Sean Latham joined other music lovers to pen “The World of Bob Dylan,” which was released on Dylan’s 80th birthday. 

“The book itself brings together 25 different contributors, each of whom is explaining their version of Bob Dylan,” says Latham, who served as editor.

Latham is the first to admit he’s not the biggest Dylan fan, but he does appreciate the legendary musician and the impact he made on music.

“I was fortunate in the sense that Bob Dylan came to me rather than me going to him,” Latham says. 

At the University of Tulsa, Latham is a James Joyce expert who edits James Joyce Quarterly. The executive secretary of the Joyce Foundation, Latham was selected to run the Bob Dylan Institute by University of Tulsa President Brad Carson because of — as he describes— his ability to focus on one person. 

“We knew we wanted the institute to focus on all of the ways Dylan might matter,” Latham says. “This is, in my view, the most important and most influential artistic figure of the latter half of the 20th century.

“This is, in part, because many other artists talk about what Dylan did for them,” Latham says. 

Latham admires how Dylan’s songs did not just impact music, but they changed how the public speaks about the medium.

“His music doesn’t just live in the history of pop; it lives in the history of the civil rights movement,” Latham says. “It lives in conversations about theater, film and performance and ideas relating to justice.”

When it came to creating “The World of Bob Dylan,” Latham knew he could approach it in many ways. However, only one was right.

“We wanted an edited collection like this with a grand title like ‘The World of Bob Dylan’ to say there is no one Bob Dylan to get your mind around,” Latham says. “He changed too much, he made too much music and his impact is far too broad.”

Latham structured this by delegating chapters to different writers, and some really jumped off the page, he says.

“I conceived each of the chapter titles and then approached people who I thought could write in really interesting, thoughtful and accessible ways about those topics,” Latham says. 

Ann Powers, NPR’s music critic, wrote an essay on Dylan’s body and how his body and performance had changed over the course of his career. 

“No one has really written their thoughts about the different ways that Dylan has inhabited his body, from being that kind of soft almost puppy dogish folk singer he was at the start of his career through that really angular body that we came to know in the ’60s,” Latham says.

“It’s a really interesting (take) on Dylan’s changing performance of masculinity on stage over the course of his career.” 

Latham was also impressed by Devon Powers’ take on Bob Dylan “the brand.” Powers is formerly of the Village Voice and is a marketing professor at Temple University. He explores how Dylan manipulated his own stardom to produce a branding effect.

“The impetus behind the book was to pull all of these different views and create a fractal view of Dylan,” Latham says. 

Latham had a secondary motivation for this book. 

“It was essential that this book be conceived, in part, as an introduction to Dylan,” Latham says. “We want this book to be a way for people to sort of say I understand why Bob Dylan matters to the history of rock.” 

“The World of Bob Dylan” fills a niche for fans who have been asking for an extensive book like this.

“There’s been a demand for this kind of book,” Latham says. “This book operates as a hinge. This book and others like it are the ones that are going to pivot us from fandom to trying to take full stock of Dylan for the next 80 years.” 

Latham hopes readers come away with an appreciation for Dylan the artist.

“When you teach and you look back over an era, you get three or four people who become the representatives of that era, and that’s probably what we’re going to have for pop music from the second half of the 20th century,” Latham says. 

“Dylan is going to be that guy, maybe also Prince and the Beatles, these are going to be the touchstones that we dwell on when we talk about what happened in music and its relationship to literature and culture from 1960 to 2001.” 

While Latham hopes the book will make its way onto the shelves of Dylan’s fans, he encourages teachers and professors to use it as an educational tool.

“This book is written to be used in classrooms as well,” Latham says. “If you’re teaching a literature class, there’s a chapter in here about Dylan and literature that will give you the sense of why you need to know something about Dylan.” 

“The World of Bob Dylan” premiered in the United Kingdom first, but Latham ensured the book would be released on an important day.

“We put this out as a kind of birthday present, and it also came out in conjunction with the announcement of the Bob Dylan archive,” Latham says. “Another thing that makes this book important is that we have access to this material. We’re going to have access to see how the songs got made, who he was exchanging letters with, and we can see and listen to the studio tapes.” 

In the meantime, Latham hopes readers will do much more than just read his book. 

“I suppose the one thing that we would hope is that people would read the book and go back and listen to the music,” Latham says.

“Even as you read a book like this and get a sense of all the different entangled ways that we can think of Dylan from a marketing standpoint to the way that he was influenced by gospel music and shaped how gospel music could intersect with rock, through it all, you still need to go back and hear the music itself.”