Bob Dylan plays the harmonica and acoustic guitar in this March 1963 file photo taken at an unknown location. (AP)

Bob Dylan, the surprise winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, has long been the subject of college courses around the country for both his music and his lyrics.

Dylan won the Nobel, according to the award citation, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Or, as Bruce Springsteen said when he inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988: “Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body. He showed us that just because music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual.”

Dylan may be the most respected pop culture figure for intellectuals, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

As the writer Alan Franks put it, “No one in the supposedly low arts has ever drawn more high-minded attention than Bob Dylan.”

The first scholarly articles about Dylan began appearing in the late 1960s; the first book—Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan (Indiana University Press)—was published a decade later. (More than 1,000 books have reportedly been published on Dylan in English.) In 1998 devotees gathered at Stanford University for the first conference devoted to Dylan in the United States. And last year, Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, placing the musician in the company of Baudelaire, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary giants. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, published in 2006, saw fit to include Dylan’s song “Desolation Row.”

Dylan’s impact even extends into the realm of legal studies. According to an article published in the Washington and Lee Law Review, Dylan is the most-cited songwriter in both judicial opinions and law-journal articles. (The Beatles are a distant second.) Glancing at the bounty of scholarship on Dylan, the critic Richard Goldstein wryly cracked in The Nation: “Welcome to the Rolling Tenure Review.”

College and university courses on Dylan are not only taught by music professors, but also teachers of English and cultural studies. At Dartmouth College, for example, English Professor Lou Renza has been teaching a version of a class on Dylan, analyzing his poetry, since the mid-1970s.

Instructor Kevin Barents and Professor Jeremy Yudkin created and teach a new course called “Bob Dylan: Music and Words” at Boston University. Yudkin’s involvement is especially interesting given that his principal fields of research include medieval music, early Beethoven, popular music, and jazz. Barents previously taught a course on Dylan’s lyrics that was featured in an NPR piece in 2009.

Barents and Yudkin explain, in this Q&A, why they teach the course — and, after that, are two syllabi of Dylan courses.

Why did you decide that Dylan’s music and words were worthy of their own course as opposed to any other poet-musician?

Because Dylan’s music and lyrics are of a far superior quality in terms of their originality, allusiveness and stature than any other songwriter. Like Whitman, Dylan “contains multitudes,” and has covered every emotion and theme in the canon.  While not every work in his canon (think “Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle”) might be a lyrical masterpiece, the accretion of detail and breadth of subject and emotion in his work as a whole is as staggering as that of Homer or Shakespeare. That fact that he is simultaneously an amazing musician has made possible one of our era’s most far-reaching and consequential artists. If that doesn’t make one “worthy” of a Nobel, we don’t know what does.

Who takes your class and why? How do you find young people today respond to his work from decades ago? What is the most common response you get from students?

Undergraduate students and adult students of an older generation take our class. Young people are fascinated by Dylan’s songs, for both their historical and contemporary significance; and adult students revisit the time of their youth, not just to relive it but to learn more about it. We’re very fortunate to have, in our class, students who were there and remember when a given album came out.

How did you draw up a course syllabus and decide which songs to use to illustrate specific concepts?

Given the vast scope and range of the work, we decided to concentrate on just the first 12 albums, from “Bob Dylan” in 1962 to “Blood on the Tracks” in 1974.  Even so, the number of great songs is almost overwhelming. The two of us spent the whole summer discussing how to approach the class, combining our separate experiences and skills to provide the students with the largest number of angles possible from which to view the work.

Which song lyrics do you think are his most important and why?

This is an impossible question to answer without a significant and lengthy essay on the subject.  There are some themes that have changed over Dylan’s over-50-year career, such as those related to specific historical events, and some that are perennial, such as relationships, justice and the long trail of American musical history. Some albums, like “Blonde on Blonde” and “Blood on the Tracks,” are justifiably acclaimed for the sophisticated and subtle ways they convey their themes and tones

Here’s the syllabus to the course:

Syllabus for Bob Dylan: Music and Words

Course Description

This course will examine Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics from 1962 to 1975 in the context of his life, artistic influences, and milieu.  We will explore the wealth of criticism and reaction his songs have inspired, paying special attention to questions concerning the nature of his art—for example, his dependence on musical tradition or the relationship between song lyrics and poetry—and past and current critical discussion about his legacy.

Course Goals

You will develop your abilities to:

  • listen intelligently and critically to both music and words
  • craft thoughtful substantive, balanced oral arguments
  • plan, draft, and revise your writing efficiently and effectively
  • respond productively to the comments and the writing of others 

Course Requirements

 Specific course requirements are:

  • detailed album logs for the 12 albums on which we’ll focus
  • one formal and frequent informal presentations
  • two major papers
  • short in- and out-of-class assignments
  • conferences with instructors and TAs
  • attendance and participation

Course Materials

The following books are required and are available online or at BU Barnes and Noble:

Bob Dylan’s Lyrics (1962-2001) by Bob Dylan (any edition)

Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks

Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader edited by Benjamin Hedin

Norton/Write free online handbook:

In addition you are required to have access to all of Dylan’s albums.  You must be able to listen to the entire albums with the songs in the original order.

Our class has a Blackboard site that contains the syllabus, assignments, and other course-related materials. You can also send e-mails to us, the TAs, or other students in the class.  You can log in to our Blackboard page at:

Email Policy: We welcome your email communications. So that all of us can be knowledgeable about the progress of the class, please copy all four of us on your emails, unless you wish to address one of us privately.  Please allow 48 hours for a response.

Grading and Evaluation

 Your final grade will be calculated as follows:

12 Album Logs:                                  25%

Formal Class Presentation:             10%

Paper 1:                                               25%

Paper 2:                                               40%

Your final grade may also be adjusted to reflect your attendance and participation as described below.

Late and Missed Assignments: Unless you make other arrangements with us in advance, graded assignments will be penalized by one-third of a letter grade for each class day they are late. If you submit a draft late, we cannot promise to read it in time for our comments to be useful to you. If you do not turn in drafts, you are still responsible for turning in final versions of your papers when they are due.

Paper Format and Submission

  • All papers should follow the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. Please make sure to familiarize yourself with these guidelines.
  • You may print documents double-sided to save paper.
  • A PAPER copy of all major assignments should be submitted in class on the date it is listed on the Schedule. 


 Regular attendance and participation are essential both to your own learning and to your classmates’ learning.  Consequently, your final grade may be adjusted up or down by one-third of a letter grade to account for the quality of your participation and ungraded work over the course of the semester.  This includes coming to class with the required books, completing all required listening and reading on time, spending enough time with the required listening and reading that you fully comprehend them and have opinions and/or questions about them, sharing your ideas and questions in discussion, and performing to the best of your ability in class.

None of this can be accomplished if you do not come to class.  You may have only one unexcused absence without affecting your participation grade.

 Albums we will study in class:

 Bob Dylan 1962

  • The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963
  • The Times They Are A’Changin’ 1964
  • Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964
  • Bringin’ It All Back Home 1965
  • Highway 61 Revisited 1965
  • Blonde on Blonde 1966
  • The Basement Tapes 1975[sic]
  • John Wesley Harding 1967
  • Nashville Skyline 1969
  • New Morning 1970
  • Blood on the Tracks 1975

Albums we may touch on:

  • Self Portrait 1970
  • Planet Waves 1974
  • Bootleg Series, Volume 1991
  • Pat Garett and Billy the Kid (Soundtrack)1973 

Other great albums:

  • Desire 1976
  • Good As I Been To You 1992
  • World Gone Wrong 1993
  • Time Out of Mind 1997
  • Love and Theft 2001
  • Modern Times2006

Some Dylan films:

  • No Direction Home (a documentary; we will watch this the first week)
  • Don’t Look Back (a documentary; includes definitive footage from 1965)
  • Renaldo and Clara (a film directed by Bob Dylan)
  • Pat Garett and Billy the Kid (a Western with Dylan as actor and composer)
  • Masked and Anonymous (a later film starring Dylan)
  • I’m Not There (a film inspired by Dylan; we’ll watch at the end of the semester)

Index to Readings in Dylan’s Visions of Sin by Christopher Ricks 

Song                                                                            Page numbers 

Bob Dylan

“Song to Woody”                                                       51-55, 68

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

“Blowin’ in the Wind”                                                320-329

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall                                    329-344, 359

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”                           316, 477

“Oxford Town”                                                          246-252

“I Shall Be Free”                                                         150, 444

The Times They Are A-Changin’

“The Times They Are A-Changin’”                            258-271

“One Too Many Mornings”                                        421-439

“Only a Pawn in Their Game”                                    171-178

“Boots of Spanish Leather”                                        404-413

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”                   221-233

Another Side of Bob Dylan

“All I Really Want to Do”                                          147-149

“If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You

Got to Stay All Night)”                                  145-147

“Mama, You Been on My Mind”                               398

Bringing It All Back Home  

“Subterranean Homesick Blues”                                 253

“Live Minus Zero/No Limit”                                      287-302

“Mr. Tambourine Man”                                               136-144

“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”                                254-258

Highway 61 Revisited

“Like a Rolling Stone”                                                179-192

“Highway 61 Revisited”                                             377-378

“Desolation Row”                                                       361

“Positively 4th Street”                                                 55-68, 80

“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”           440

Blonde on Blonde

“Visions of Johanna”                                                  487-488

“I Want You”                                                             151-153

“Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”                            97-108

The Basement Tapes                                                

“Million Dollar Bash”                                                 110

“Clothes Line Saga”                                                   127-132

“Apple Suckling Tree”                                                112-113

John Wesley Harding

“All Along the Watchtower”                                      359-360

Nashville Skyline

“Lay, Lady Lay”                                                         134, 153-164

“Country Pie”                                                             110-112

New Morning

“If Not for You”                                                         470-477

“Day of the Locusts”                                                  192-201

“Time Passes Slowly”                                                 124-127

“Winterlude”                                                               119-120

“Watching the River Flow”                                        116-117

Weekly Class Schedule

NOTE: All reading, listening, and writing assignments should be completed BEFORE class on the dates listed below.  Additional materials will be distributed in class and made available on Blackboard.

 Part 1: The Folkie

WEEK ONE       

Sept. 6             Course expectations; writing about literature and music

Watch: You should attend one of the screenings of No Direction Home this week (screening times TBA).

Sept. 8             Songs versus poems; Woody Guthrie; folk and protest music


1) Lyrics, Bob Dylan (pages 1-15)

2)  corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (see “Index to Ricks Readings” attached)

 3) Dylan’s Visions of Sin, pages 11-48

4) Guthrie, “At My Window Sad and Lonely”


1) Guthrie: The Grand Coulee Dam, The Ludlow Massacre, Hard Travelin’, Bound for Glory, This Land is Your Land

2) Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

WEEK TWO      

Sept. 13           Childhood; reviews and defenses; discussing music

 Attend: You should attend one of the TA sessions on MLA and Chicago writing and styles.


1) Lyrics, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

3) Studio A, Introduction and pages 3-22

4) Understanding Music Chapter 2


1) Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  

2) Some of the music mentioned in Understanding Music

Sept. 15           Tone, theme, and style; songs of invective; Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez 

Read:  TBA                   


Sept. 20           Strategies for analyzing songs; metaphor; Dylan as singer 


1) Lyrics, The Times They Are A’ Changin’   

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

 Listen: Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin’  

Sept. 22           Christopher Ricks visit 


 Sept. 27           Practicing analysis; irony and humor; Dylan’s “other side”        


1) Lyrics, Another Side of Bob Dylan 

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

3) Studio A, pages 22-51


Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan 

Sept. 29           Cliché, triteness, and sentimentality; Newport; from folk to pop 

Part 2: The Rock Star


 Oct. 4              Electric music; language and diction; production


1) Lyrics, Bringin’ It All Back Home

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin                 

Listen: Bob Dylan, Bringin’ It All Back Home                                                                                                                                    

Oct. 6              Relationship with press; KQED conference


1) Studio A, pages 51-58                                                                                 



Oct. 13            Surrealism; Rimbaud; rhyme

Due: Draft of Paper 1 (paper copy in class)


1) Lyrics, Highway 61 Revisited

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin 


Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited 


Oct. 18            The Band; the greatest album?


1) Lyrics, Blonde on Blonde  

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin


Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde

Oct. 20            Tim Riley visit

Read: TBA


Oct. 25            Structuring arguments; the Trilogy revisited

Read: TBA                     


Oct. 27            Albums versus singles; mono versus stereo; the crash

Due: Final Version of Paper 1 (paper copy in class) 

Part 3: The Hermit 


Nov. 1             Big Pink; vowels and consonants; Dylan Thomas


1) Lyrics, The Basement Tapes

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

Nov. 3             “The Old, Weird America” and the Jewish Dylan


1) Lyrics, John Wesley Harding

2) Studio A, pages 58-73

3) Reading TBA


1) Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding

2) Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” 


 Nov. 8             Scansion; ballad meter; types of sources

Read:  1) Studio A, pages 73-94                                    

Nov. 10           “Country” music; Johnny Cash


1) Lyrics, Nashville Skyline

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

  Listen: Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline



Nov. 15           Bad reception; warming to academia; theses about songs                                

Due: First Draft of Paper 2 (thesis and outline due in conference)


1) Lyrics, Self Portrait, New Morning, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin 

Listen: ob Dylan, Self Portrait, New Morning, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”

Nov. 17           Stylistic range; organizing an argument about songs 


1) Studio A, pages 94-116

2) Lyrics, Dylan, Planet Waves

 Listen: Bob Dylan, Dylan, Planet Waves

 Part 4: The Poet 


 Nov. 22           Peer review; instrumentals; the greatest album, revisited    

 Due: Second Draft of Paper 2 (paper copy in class)


1) Lyrics, Blood on the Tracks

2) corresponding pages in Dylan’s Visions of Sin

3) Studio A, pages 116-137

4) Reading TBA

Listen: Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks



Nov. 29           Plagiarism and appropriation; experts and Garbologists    

 Watch: You should attend one of the screenings of I’m Not There this week (screening times TBA)

Read: Independent Reading

Dec. 1              The many Dylans

Due: Final version of Paper 2 (paper copy in class)      


WEEK FOURTEEN                              

Dec. 6              Artistic success versus critical success; person versus image

 Due: I’m Not There Presentations due this week   

Dec. 8              Farewell party and performances



Here’s another syllabus, this one from Professor Glenn Gass at Indiana University, who teaches a course called “The Music of Bob Dylan.”

Course description: An examination of Bob Dylan’s astonishing songs and an overview of his endlessly fascinating career. The course traces his many incarnations and reinventions, from his early days as a folk-protest singer and pop icon to his current and still vital role as elder statesman and Poet Laureate of popular music.

(Correction: Fixing name of course taught at BU and clarifying who teaches it.)