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Bart Beaty takes on Bob Dylan

  With his extensive and ambitious blog, longandwastedyear, English professor Bart Beaty is researching the artistic career of Bob Dylan in its entirety. (Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary)

By Heath McCoy 
July 11, 2014 

Tackling Bob Dylan’s entire career in a meaningful way would be a daunting task for any writer, never mind one with an itinerary as tightly packed as English professor Bart Beaty

Serving as head of the Department of English until recently, when he accepted a new appointment as Academic Convener for the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Beaty is also an active teacher who has four books in the works. He’s not a man with a whole lot of time on his hands, to say the least.  Certainly not when it comes to massive side projects like his blog on all things Bob Dylan – cheekily titled – that Beaty has been working on throughout 2014. 

Exposed to Dylan through his parents’ copy of Blood on the Tracks, Beaty was a fan of the iconic singer-songwriter for a short period in his early teens. Then, turned off by the artists’ dismal 1980s output, Beaty stopped listening entirely. 

Thirty years later, inspired by an intellectual curiosity in Dylan’s “lost years,” Beaty decided to revisit the artist. It speaks to his unquenchable academic curiosity that he took this on in such a big way. 

With this year marking the 52nd anniversary of Dylan’s debut album, Beaty’s blog has dedicated each week of the year to a corresponding year in Bob Dylan’s career, working up to the present. This has most often amounted to one blog entry a day, and sometimes more. He posted his 200th entry in mid-June. Beaty estimates that he’s written over 600 pages on Dylan at this point and, by the time the longandwastedyear is through, he thinks he’ll have up to 1,500 pages of text. Posts have ranged from a few sentences to more than a dozen pages. 

Encapsulating Bob Dylan’s entire career is an epic undertaking. The singer-songwriter has been, after all, one of the most influential cultural figures of his time. He’s also been incredibly prolific. 

“He’s performed more than 3,000 concerts, released 50 albums and he’s written six books,” says Beaty. “And he’s changed constantly. Every few years, Dylan completely reinvents himself. Then you have these mysterious, lost periods that nobody fully understands. In the ‘80s he goes through a hardcore Bible phase that confounds everybody. And I don’t think you can fully understand his Christian period without understanding all of these other phases. 

“It’s all one large tapestry.”  

Well known for the pop culture bent of his writing, research and lectures – with a particular focus on comic books and graphic novels – Beaty says his academic interests are often rooted in his past. 

“I sometimes feel like I’m excavating my childhood,” he explains. “I look back on these things and try to figure out what it was I loved about them. I listened to Dylan for a while as a teenager, and then I stopped completely. I didn’t listen to Bob Dylan for over 25 years. I want to understand why I stopped.” 

After he’s completed his longandwastedyear, what might Beaty do with the massive amount of writing and research he’ll have compiled? 

He’s considered creating a class dedicated to Bob Dylan. The possibility of a book has also crossed his mind. “I’ll do something with it, but I don’t know what that’s going to be yet,” he says. “I keep waiting for that eureka moment where I realize `Oh, I know what this really is.’” 

Whatever Beaty decides to spin the project into, the challenge will be in encompassing Dylan’s career in all its massive scope. “Sometimes I think there’s too much material for a course,” Beaty says. “Too many books, albums, his life is so complex. I feel like I’m doing laps around it right now.” 

“I just happen to be posting my research notes online.”