Monday, October 17, 2016

William J. Harris, Bob Dylan, Jay Z & Secondary Literature

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II
"People see me all the time
And they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas
Images and distorted facts" --from "Idiot Wind" by Bob Dylan

"I’m in Cuba, I love Cubans
This communist talk is so confusing
When it’s from China, the very mic that I’m using
Idiot wind, the Bob Dylan of rap music
You're an idiot, baby, you should become a student" --from "Open Letter" by Jay Z
Of all the news that emerged after the announcement that Bob Dylan earned the Nobel Prize for Literature, we were particularly intrigued by a discovery related to our professor, William J. Harris.

Harris recently shared an excerpt from a short article that he published on Dylan, which appeared in Mad River Review in 1967. The excerpt reads:
His career as a poet of real consequence did not begin until ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ Before this song-poem, he was more a writer of lyrics than a poet. But with it, and the album Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan has become the first important American poet since Ginsberg."
In their notations on Dylan, the Nobel committee observed that the songwriter has been the “object of a steady stream of secondary literature.” Harris’s review was an early contributor to that commentary and critical discourse on Dylan.

Beyond the classroom, we’d always known Professor Harris as one of the early, important scholars on the work of Amiri Baraka. But who knew that he also preceded the Nobel committee by 49 years as a strong advocate for Dylan as poet?

For some time now, we’ve been focusing on Jay Z. Recently, we’ve taught African American literature courses focusing on the rapper. We have examined the storytelling techniques and literary devices Jay Z uses across his 12 solo studio albums. We have placed his rhymes in concert with autobiographical and semi-autobiographical stories about black male characters in narratives by Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and others.

We have also started an extensive data collection project on Jay Z’s song lyrics, collaborators, album sales, and album structures. Our courses and projects highlight the interplay between album content and production characteristics.

Covering Jay Z in this manner helps us to combine and develop our interests in verbal art, data science, African American artistic culture. Also, our continued projects on Jay Z allows us to think about his work and perhaps even rap music in alternative ways.

Coming across Professor Harris’s early work on Dylan validated our ongoing projects on Jay Z, and our efforts to situate rap lyrics within the realm of African American literary studies.

A Notebook on Jay Z

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