SU Professor and Bob Dylan Expert David Gains Traveled to Sweden for Nobel Week
- Southwestern University
Professor of English David Gaines has won teaching, advising and service awards. His articles have appeared in publications as varied as Texas Monthly and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His 2015 book, In Dylan Town: A Fan’s Life, was described by novelist T.C. Boyle as “a stirring memoir of a very fine writer so very deeply touched by another.” It’s been a very good and rewarding career. But, according to Gaines, “nothing has quite compared to the Nobel Prize week I spent in Stockholm last December. It was only a notch below the births, graduations, and weddings of my children. Being there to see Dylan’s genius celebrated was truly magical.”
Gaines’s work on Dylan—which he describes as “a long-running labor of love”—began back in Grand Prairie, when, as a teenager, he first went to Wray’s Record Store in 1964 and heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” on what he describes as “the people’s headphones.” Gaines got the fever and has not looked back. As many Southwestern alumni know, he has been incorporating Dylan into his teaching and research from when he first arrived on campus in 1984. When asked about what has happened since the days of his trail-blazing Dylan courses, Gaines quotes Dylan without missing a beat: “A lot of water under the bridge/a lot of other stuff too.” Fast forward beyond that metaphorical bridge to Oct. 13, 2016, and the announcement of Bob Dylan as the Nobel Laureate in Literature.
The day of the announcement, the Southwestern marketing department went into full PR mode and quickly pitched Professor Gaines to hundreds of media outlets as an internationally recognized expert on Dylan’s music and writing. Within hours he was on his way to an Austin studio to tape an interview with Al Jazeera. A few hours later, with an image of the state capitol over his shoulder and a major smile on his face, he appeared on the first international broadcast regarding the story. Over the next few days, Gaines was quoted on ABC News, the BBC, and CNBC, as well as in papers around the country. He was contacted by the documentary film team at SVT (Swedish National Television) responsible for the official Nobel documentary, and director Ann Victorin and cinematographer Sven Visen flew to Texas, filmed Gaines on campus, and invited him to Stockholm for the film’s screening and the Prize ceremonies. Robert Siegel of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” interviewed Gaines about Dylan on Nov. 17. With the support of Southwestern University, on Dec. 3, Gaines boarded a plane for Stockholm to continue his role as University representative and resident Dylan expert for those media outlets attending the ceremony. He recounted his journey in a series of articles for The Austin Chronicle and in a Southwestern produced blog entitled “The Big Tent.” He named it “in homage to what Dylan’s award means to the world of literature and music.”
Gaines arrived at the beginning of Nobel Week, which he describes as “the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, and ‘Downton Abbey’ all rolled into one.” He was not surprised that Dylan opted to forego a week of press conferences and answering questions about whether he was writing “literature,” a week culminating in a three-hour white-tie-and-tails dinner with the King and Queen. “It just does not seem like what he would prefer to playing music, writing songs, or painting,” Gaines had told various reporters before heading to Stockholm. “It felt even more the case once I saw the added security presence for the festivities,” Gaines added as he looks back on his week. “The other interesting thing I immediately learned,” he went on, “was that people in Sweden were far less troubled by Dylan’s absence than were Americans. They understood that he is, first and foremost, an artist.”
Those “people in Sweden” were not only Gaines’s “new Swedish family at SVT” but also the cab drivers, hotel staff, buskers, laptop technicians, and fellow diners Gaines met and subsequently interviewed about Dylan. “I’ve always been something of an extrovert and a bit of a journalist at heart,” he explained. “A third of my trip was devoted to learning what people who speak five languages think of Dylan. The short answer is that they revere him. It’s probably no real surprise to find window shrines to a singer-songwriter in a city that names streets after filmmakers, architects, and diplomats.”
When asked about “the other two-thirds” of his trip, Gaines shared that seeing himself and Sir Christopher Ricks of Boston University discuss Dylan’s Nobelity on the documentary, being recognized on the street as “the man whose eyes filled with tears after he read ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ on that documentary,” watching the official ceremony with the SVT crew, and—through a Dylanesque simple twist of fate—meeting the writer/singer/performer Patti Smith were “the high points of a seven-day dream from which I still have not awakened.” Putting his hands on his heart and with a twinkle in his eye, Gaines concludes, “Check out my blog. It has pictures that attempt to do the magic justice. And, whether or not you check out the blog, as you-know-who sings, ‘keep on keepin’ on.’”