• English professor David Gaines is known on campus and across the country as an expert on singer and songwriter Bob Dylan.
    English professor David Gaines is known on campus and across the country as an expert on singer and songwriter Bob Dylan.

“A song is like a dream and you try to make it come true. Sometimes the things you see outside of yourself can create a song.”

These are some of the many written words of singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, who has been a key source of inspiration for the research and teaching of Southwestern University English professor David Gaines.

Gaines teaches a variety of topics in American literature, film studies and cultural studies, but he has become known on campus and nationwide as a Dylan expert. Once, Gaines even made a pact with a former graduate school colleague to go three days without making a Dylan reference. Neither of them made it past day two.

“Professors strive to cover a lot of territory, but they always come back to the things that they love to teach the most,” Gaines said.

Gaines frequently references Dylan in his literature classes, but he also occasionally offers a class devoted to Dylan, per request of the students.

“There are students who come in to the course having an incredible amount of knowledge already, and then there are the students who come in without any knowledge about him and they get hooked,” Gaines said.

Gaines also speaks about Dylan at venues as varied as the Northeastern Modern Language Association in Boston; the Young Rhetoricians Conference in Monterey, Calif.; and the New School and 92nd Street Y in New York.

In his talks, he shares samples of Dylan’s writings from his songs or his books (Dylan’s books include Chronicles, about his own life). Gaines may also play the occasional Dylan song for the audience, as he did at a recent Salon at Wildfire event hosted by the Williamson Museum.

“He has written more than 700 songs over 50 years. That’s a serious career,” Gaines said.

Gaines said he has been interested in Dylan ever since he was a teenager growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas. “My father was a very political guy in the best civil rights kind of way, and I went to a summer camp where folk songs were the homilies. So when I first heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times, They Are a Changin’’ at age 12, I was already primed. I remember watching Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech with my father, tears of joy in his eyes, and later learned that Dylan sang at the Lincoln Memorial shortly before Dr. King spoke,” he recalled.

When “Like a Rolling Stone” came out in the summer of 1965, Gaines said it called to him and three other friends in town who heard in Dylan another way of being other than the Friday night lights heroics of their hometown. “We wore out the headphones at Ray’s Record Shop on Main Street over the next few years,” Gaines said. “I guess you could say I haven’t looked back since. In grad school I spent way too much time listening to ‘Blonde on Blonde’ when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation.”

Gaines researches Dylan’s life continuously and has contributed articles to the forthcoming book Dylan at Play and Montague Street, a U.S.-based journal dedicated to the art of Bob Dylan. The former looks at Dylan and transnationalism and the latter addresses Dylan’s senses of time. He currently is writing an article about Dylan’s senses of humor.

In addition to being a popular professor and Dylan enthusiast, Gaines also is director of the Paideia program at Southwestern. The program consists of professors who work with small groups of students to help them make connections between classroom curriculum and the world. Gaines has been a faculty member at Southwestern since 1984 and has won three teaching awards.

Gaines noted that this is a good year to be a Dylan expert and fan because this year was the singer’s 70th birthday as well as the 50th anniversary of his arrival in New York City when he literally created a name for himself, changing his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman.

“I’ve taught this stuff for years, and I have had a great time doing it,” Gaines said.

−Kristen McLaughlin


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