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Exploring Liberal Arts Through the Life and Lyrics of Bob Dylan

For 50 years, the music, words, story and fans of Bob Dylan have fascinated David Gaines. And for more than 30 years, Gaines, associate professor of English and Director of National Fellowships and Scholarships at Southwestern, has been using Dylan as a springboard to teaching about other writers and as a model for approaching a variety of subjects.

Gaines’ students—by studying Dylan’s work—make connections to social and political change, gain a better understanding of poetic use of language, and are exposed to “one of the bravest, funniest and most remarkable people of the last half century.”

Not just a topic of Gaines’ teaching and research, Dylan’s lyrics and music have literally been his passion and life’s work. “Dylan has been at the center of the best social moments of my life,” he says. His wife, Norma Aguirre Gaines ’08, a member of the Southwestern staff, says his passion for Dylan carries over into his home life as well. “We have images on the walls, we have racks of Dylan CDs, our home office is a library of Dylan material,” she says. “And David quotes Dylan’s lyrics daily. One of the first things he taught one of our daughters to say many years ago was, ‘the vandals took the handle’.”

This passion, this love of Bob Dylan’s “fearlessness, humor and magical language,” and the way all of it has been woven into his daily life, has resulted in an about-to-be-released book by Gaines, “In Dylan Town” (2015, University of Iowa Press)

gaines_cvr_webAs much a memoir as a book about Dylan, Gaines says “In Dylan Town” is not a biography. “Dylan is really the starting point; it’s more about what he and his work have meant to me, my friends and students, and my academic life over the years.”

Raised in Grand Prairie, Texas, by parents who were political activists, Gaines was exposed to the social justice movements and the folk music of the era. In his words, he was “primed” for Dylan’s music. In high school he was befriended by “a couple of guys who were the closest thing to beatniks that Grand Prairie had,” and who officially introduced him to Dylan. Then, he went to Stanford, where “Dylan’s lyrics were part of the everyday language of the place.”

Although Gaines says he has only met Dylan once—back stage many years ago, where he was “awestruck” in the singer’s presence—he has been influenced by his lyrics many times and in many ways over the years. “Just recently, for Norma’s birthday we went to a Dylan concert in, of all places, Grand Prairie. We were a few miles from where I first heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ on the turntable at Wray’s Record Shop and right up against the stage when Dylan sang, ‘The next 60 seconds can feel like an eternity,’ and then we heard him ad-lib ‘…and that’s a long time.’ That was powerful.”

“It’s a very sweet story that encourages the reader to follow his or her own passions. But in a larger sense, it’s really an exploration of liberal education in America.”

In 2012, after taking part in a fan studies panel at a meeting of the American Culture and Pop Culture Associations, Gaines was approached by a representative from University of Iowa Press about writing a personal encounter with and exploration of Dylan. Of course he said yes. The resulting book, he says, is a series of love notes to all of those with whom he has travelled along life’s path. “It’s a very sweet story that encourages the reader to follow his or her own passions. But in a larger sense, it’s really an exploration of liberal education in America.”


Story by Kristina Moore

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3 comments

  1. Rebecca Lowe

    I’m looking forward to reading this book!

  2. I have had the privilege of reading the original manuscript. This is an inspirational book about finding your passion and making sure it stays in the forefront of your life. A great read. Get it this August!

  3. Nettie Ruth Bratton

    David Gaines is an amazing teacher! So glad his book is coming out right away. Hooray! Thanks you, David.

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