6 Song Limit

We cannot dedicate all of every class to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature; yet neither can we ignore it any more than we would ignore a zeppelin hovering immediately outside our classroom’s giant window or an extravagantly long foul ball that came crashing in from Dodger Stadium.

This is history. This is validation of all those lyrics not just memorized but cauterized beyond brain tissue into bone marrow. By me. Not by my kids. I had one kid ask the much-needed question, “Who is Bob Dylan?” and you know that for every kid who asks a question there are a dozen wondering the same thing.

So I tell him, “He’s that guy,” pointing to the lineup of album covers leaning against the whiteboard. Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Street Legal, Greatest Hits Volume 2: the essentials. I have one kid who looks and dresses precisely like Dylan on Blonde on Blonde — wild curls, scarf, peacoat — and I have been wanting since the first day of school to display the album so he would see the resemblance, but to make himself all the more Dylanesque, he’s not there.

The other kids are down for it, though, and with only a modicum of sticker-awarding they have folded a piece o’ paper into two columns, one for word and one for mood. I want to play ’em, “Oh Baby I’m in the Mood for You” but we have a strict one-song limit so as not to wind up spending the entire class on Dylanology. As much as I like the very young Bob’s whooping and hollering about his sexual readiness — and as teen-relevant as that would be, and as much as you could make of repetition and phrasing in that tune, and also as much as any non-dirgy or throwaway tune would contain enough Dylan DNA to breed full-grown fandom — nevertheless a vital instinct tells me that horniness is one spark in my youths that does not need to be fanned by me.

So I think again, and again, and come up with the one song that best matches each period’s composite personality. We then use it to support the fundamental standard of analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Period 2: “Hurricane”

This is the song that started it all for my eldest-by-two-minutes daughter Lilly. She heard it through the floorboards on my basement workout tape, along with the reggaeton hits of the mid-2000s. Fifth-grade Lilly went on to read both of Rubin Carter’s autobiographies as well as many other books besides, so this song seems like it could be a good pump-primer for these 10th graders.

They do, indeed, respond voluminously. “Pool of blood” is a big hit. It makes them feel terrified, as well it should. These kids are not jaded. “Although this man could hardly see” makes a girl feel outraged that the police were not treating a wounded man with compassion. “All-white jury” gets another kid riled up. There might have been even more of an outpouring but it wasn’t until the middle of the song that I got the idea of projecting the lyrics on the screen so we can read them as in an old-fashioned movie sing-a-long.

Period 3 — “Visions of Johanna”

This is AP English Language so we go for the deepest cut. By way of background I tell them, “Let’s travel back in time to the New York City blackout of 1965, to the Chelsea Hotel, where Dylan writes this song in the dark, lit only by the tip of his cigarette.” Probably I am not supposed to say the word “cigarette” in class but there is Dylan smoking away on the front pages of the newspapers taped to the whiteboard behind my desk.

“Little boy lost” is the big hit here. It reminds a student of that little boy you see at every dance, out in the middle of the floor, giving it all he’s got, and how that boy grows up to understand that everyone he thought was admiring his dancing was actually making fun of him.

“She’s delicate and seems like the mirror” resonates with a slender student who feels especially vulnerable this week. What is she vulnerable to? She is vulnerable to everything.

Tone and mood are typically taught at the same time, and tend also to be taught as being more or less interchangeable. According to catechism, the distinction is that tone is the author’s attitude towards subject and audience, while mood is what the writing makes the reader feel. The problem is that most students do not know what an author is. To them, an author is either a textbook or the Duplo machine that spits out fuzzy copies or whichever student has been Shanghaied into passing out those copies. They have no more experience of an author as living artist than they have of a California condor or the Great Barrier Reef.

All is not lost, however, because they are teenagers and therefore experts on mood; especially, their own mood. Thus, we can reverse-engineer the notion of author — not so much by trying to pump up their own pride of authorship, which few of them care about, because writing has only gotten most of them criticized or into trouble — but rather by positing an author as someone who uses words to make them feel a certain mood. Mood, they understand.

Hence, “lover so entwined” makes a student feel warmth and companionship from the intermingling of all the images in the song. How proud am I in the moment of hearing this comment? Immensely proud, and deeply grateful for the privilege of hearing such a pure interpretation.

The “jelly-faced women” make another student feel a sense of mystery. I go off on how many of the rhymes in this song feel forced, like “Jeeze,” “sneeze,” and “knees,” but it’s hit-or-miss a lot of the time with Bob. You take the good with the bad.

The students graciously allow me to foment and then turn the conversation back to what really matters — “the skeleton keys in the rain.” These, the acknowledged ur-scholar of the AP class — himself with a profound nimbus of curly hair — interprets as being the essential, fragile truth. He’s building on what the slender and intertwined students said, talking about how the many images of the song come together to build an intense feeling of existing in and beyond a moment that will inevitably be washed away.

Period 4 — “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”

“Can I use a word that’s in the title?” asks a student who also clarifies that the assignment is to describe the mood that words or phrases “provoke.” My adoration of this student is unbounded. She’s the one who on the first day of school objected to my writing on the board in txt language. “This is an English class, Mister,” she scolded me. “It’s supposed to be right.”

The word in the title that provokes a mood in her is “lonesome.” She doesn’t know what that word means but it makes her feel sad and alone. You can never know what students know or don’t know unless you find out.

Period 6 — “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”

This is the next day. I tell the class the story of how when I was in sixth grade, I was listening to this record while my mom was vaccuming, on the other side of the house, yet she came into my room and told me to turn it down. “My mom is a big-hearted woman who loved to sing with me on the swing in our backyard, but she was not a Dylan fan,” I tell my students. “You don’t have to be, either. I just want you to think about how the words make you feel.”

“That’s how it usually with music between the generations,” a student comforts me. Again I feel grateful for the companionship of these teenagers.

A girl can relate to “tongues are all broken.” She says, “We all sometimes feel like we can’t say what we want to say.”

Another girl is disturbed by the “poet who died in the gutter.” She says, “I’m a poet, and I don’t want to end up like that, even though I know it happens.”

“Tupac,” I offer, and she graciously accepts. I talk a little about being a blue-eyed son myself, but not so much that it prevents another kid — who on the second day of school, when we were picking words to discuss and decorate out of poetry anthologies, asked if it would be okay for him to use “f~ck you” and I said sure because it was the second day of school and what were you gonna do, start the year by telling a kid you don’t even known the words he’s not allowed to use? — this kid says he is especially moved because the mother is asking her blind son what he saw. Clearly this is a kid who might benefit from sitting a little closer to the board, but in front of the class is no time to tell him his interpretation is wrong. He feels intrigued by the notion of seeing while blind.

“Like the third eye,” I offer, and he graciously accepts.

Period Seven — “Watching the River Flow”

“This one is jangly,” I tell the class, after we come back in after going upstairs to see a quiet girl’s photo in the just-opened art exhibition. Someone mentioned that she had a piece in the show during our opening good news and compliments so we took a mini-field trip.

I especially like this class because one of the students is an especially gifted drummer and he drives me to be especially alert for the other students’ gifts, so we can all rise or aspire to his level.

We are essentially all in agreement that this song inspires a calm, peaceful mood, even though it is jangly. A girl who modeled for several of the pieces in the art show upstairs says it reminds her to take a break and breathe even when she’s so busy. We like the “bank of sand.” Our hearts go out to the “somebody on the street who was really shook.” We’ve all seen that person. We’ve all been that person. That’s why we need to sit down on that bank of sand and watch the river flow. These kids are all seniors. It’s a tense time in their lives. Giving them a moment of reprieve is another reason Bob deserves the Nobel Prize.

Period 8 — “You’re a Big Girl Now”

The phrase that pays for me in this song is really just the sound, “O.” It’s so elongatedly broken-hearted. In my example before they start writing, I write, “It’s one thing to sing about heartache; another thing to take your heart out of your body and put it right on the record, raw and full of blood.” Part of the reason why my kids’ responses to these songs is so strong is that I wrote stuff like that on the spot for all these songs. All the how-to-teach-kids-writing experts say you’re supposed to do that. Kelly Gallagher. Jane Hancock. I’m just doing what you’re supposed to do.

Cueing it up, I tell them Dylan wrote this while he was getting divorced, but somehow they don’t really get that the grown-up big girl is a woman. They treat her as a girl. It is not my role to correct their heartfelt interpretations. I may not even be right.

The most self-possessed girl in a class of remarkably poised young people says this song makes her feel how much she’s going to miss her dad when she goes off to college. I must have also mentioned something about singing this song with my younger-by-two minutes daughter Claire on one of our road trips up to Berkeley. In fact it was while the two of us were “o”-ing our hearts out somewhere beyond Bakersfield that I made the resolution to play this song someday in class, and tell them about the bird on the horizon, and the corkscrew to the heart. We talk about that bird, the lonesomeness of the O, and the corkscrew. We feel it in our hearts, together.

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