Seville has no direct link to Bob Dylan. The artist has only played once in the city, leaving no mark with his performance. However, his work has manifested itself in several foci spread throughout the Andalusian capital. People who assimilated his work carry it today as a secret torch, an influence full of contradictions. Like Dylan himself.
“THE CONNECTION WITH THE GUITAR brought me to Spain. I was born in the sixties, lived between Brooklyn and Woodstock, played folk and rock. At age 18, I became fascinated by the classical guitar and a friend started teaching me. I decided to come here to study it.” Dan Kaplan sips his beer after having ridden his bicycle to the bar in front of the Provincial Council of Seville. The night, which is coming through the window, is cool. Kaplan’s voice is close, nuanced with his strong American accent, despite the more than thirty years he has lived in Seville.
His intense blue eyes are hardly blinking when he declares his love-hate relationship with the city, where “love wins, of course.” He likes its size, its tranquil streets, that people are so civilized. He intersperses pauses when he talks about the cultural life of the city, which he believes could be improved. “There should be more openness. Outside the city, there is not a big audience that captures what I say if I sing in English.” Dan is a renowned songwriter, singer and guitarist, leader of the band “Krooked Tree,” with several albums published, and some soundtracks for classic silent films.
After obtaining his degree as a classical guitarist at the Conservatory of Music in Seville, he tried to give concerts but “I didn’t feel in my skin, on the stage, that music in the sense of having something to offer. My heart was in what I was doing before,” explains Kaplan. Giving music lessons in the town of Estepa, his friend Quino Castro, who, in Dan’s words, “must be the one who knows the most about Dylan in Spain,” began to organize “Dylaners” annual meetings. Quino then proposed them to play those old Dylan songs in local bars, but that grew, and they even came to play in fair tents in later meetings. “I recognized that I enjoyed it more and I started composing lyrics again. I realized that it was my voice, my aesthetic, the way of folk.”
Dan rolls up the sleeves of his blue shirt and recognizes, with a smile emerging from his greying beard, that this was a journey to his childhood, to his roots. He then began to appreciate Bob more, for he had never been a great follower. Although Dylan’s music did not represent his first steps in folk, as it began to popularize when he was just a child, his music, however, was on the air. “In summer camps they played ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’” he recalls. One of the neighbors of his family in Brooklyn was Lee Hays, a colleague of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, folk stars that were common teachers for both Dylan and Kaplan.
“After the return, perhaps I must admit that Dylan influenced me more than I wanted to acknowledge. As Brahms and Mahler complained about Beethoven: ‘how are we going to compose after this giant?’” He laughs with complicity, explaining his gratitude to that music. The Krooked Tree’s leader, leaning his forearms on the table, looks out the window before specifying that, in this sense, “Seville has an almost hidden culture that is worth discovering.”
Between conversations of students and professors at the University of Seville cafeteria, Carlos Mármol fled from formalisms, setting aside the dark clothes he wears, and dialogues with certainty of his encyclopaedic knowledge of Dylan. As the “impertinent journalist” he is, he is well informed and does not mind saying what he thinks. “He is God. And, joking aside, he’s the best writer of popular music songs in the twentieth century. For me, moreover, a poet.”
Mármol connects Dylan with both traditional, oral, and contemporary poetry, of free verse, whose rhythm maintains other logics. In his case, the logic of the song. “I don’t play music. I’ve been listening to him since I was young and I never tire of listening to him every day.” He confesses to being influenced by the artist. He expresses himself with a quick speech, as he stirs his afternoon coffee. His journalistic work is peppered with quotations and “Dylaners” references; it’s an acknowledged fact. “I think the most important part of his message is what it transmits unintentionally: ‘Be yourself. It doesn’t matter what others think.’ This is not a message that comes from Dylan; it comes from the classics, but he has reformulated it for our time and it’s a good example.”
With a smile that sharpens his eyes, Carlos explains that this lighthouse to follow causes some to become enthusiastic and others, annoyed. This Sevillian acknowledges that he has a “complicated” relationship with his city. “I travel a lot, as much as I can, so my perception of the city is not the same as the official one. This city is kind of surreal.”
When questioning the influence that the Andalusian capital could have from Dylan, he does not need to blink to clarify that there is no direct connection, but that “there are clubs for béticos and sevillistas everywhere” He names the musician Chencho Fernández as the highest reference he can make in this sense of the Dylaner school in Seville, both musically and lyrically.” But in Seville, there are very good musicians, especially rock, but with a rather underground circuit, and they don’t usually perform outside the city,” says Mármol, who believes that the same thing is happening with the new Sevillian poetry.
Carlos was 20 years old when he attended, in 1991, the only concert that Dylan has given in Seville. The journalist agrees with the general opinion that it was an awful festival. “He played three songs; he was wasted. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and two more songs in acoustic. Finally, he played one along with Keith Richards and other musicians. He didn’t even bring his own band. He came for the money, was depressed, and it was a bad time for the live shows.”
In the Jewish Quarter of Seville, in a large, cool room in the Center of Cultural Initiatives of the University of Seville (CICUS), Fran Matute prepares for his presentation of the day in the workshop that he teaches entitled “Watching the parking meters (or why Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize for Literature).” With the quota of registrations full, they are already at the halfway point of the workshop. From the courtyard, you can hear songs from the “John Wesley Harding” album, recorded by Dylan in 1967, emitted by speakers at the table where Matute deposits his laptop, a voluminous book of lyrics by Dylan, a copy of Tarantula (1966), the only novel published by the artist, some notes and something to drink. At his back, a projector displays his desktop on the wall. In front of his table, a large range of chairs arranged in a half moon for students enrolled in the workshop, whose registration was overwhelmed by so many applications.
“With the excuse of Dylan’s Nobel Prize, I came up with the idea of creating a course to assess if the prize was deserved by analysing his work, playing songs and contextualizing them. The idea is to offer participants the tools to reflect on whether or not they should have given it to him.” Fran speaks animatedly, as he likes to work as a cultural critic for various media, and this is a subject that he has mastered. Adjusting his glasses, he explains that the great influence that Dylan made on society “is to have changed the rules of the game musically, lyrically and instrumentally. From my point of view, that has only been done by two other bands, the Beatles and the Beach Boys.”
That is why Matute defines Dylan as a “revolutionary and individualist, who has done whatever he wanted his whole life. In that impossibility of adulteration is where his personality and his importance lies.” And that ability to differentiate himself without copying what everyone else is doing is one of the leitmotiv that guides the latest book published by Matute, Días de viejo color, in which seeks the modern and alternative Andalusia, which inhabits the underground life, from the fifties to the present. “Here in Seville, above all, I recognize Chencho Fernández as Bob’s acknowledged debtor, in his songs, his structures. He has talent and has studied him.” This artist, precisely, has been invited by Fran for the last session of the course.
Under his thick beard, his denim shirt and his hair collected in a subtle ponytail, this avid cultural researcher recognizes some contradictions of his own. “I know Dylan’s work to a fairly freakish level, especially due to the preparation for this workshop, but I’ve never been a fan who knows all the anecdotes or has all the records. I value it without the fanaticism. I think he has influenced me little, although he is one of the few musicians who gives me goosebumps. Without being a fan, his music goes through me,” says Matute, who explains with laughter that has never seen Dylan live and never will. “I would only go to see Dylan in a cafe with twenty other people. And everyone silent!”
The workshop attendees, ranging in age from twenty to seventy, arrive punctually with their book of Dylan’s lyrics under their arms, creating a happy atmosphere, impatient to know more. The course focuses on the traditional American songbook and, on the other hand, the poetic expressions employed by Dylan. The Swedish Academy’s explanation for having granted him the Nobel Prize of Literature is under Fran’s microscope. When playing songs, some of those enrolled cannot avoid keeping the beat with their feet or shaking their heads. They are all present, a portion of Seville eagerly following lessons on Bob Dylan.
“I wanted to attend Dylan’s workshop at CICUS, but there were no spots left,” says Jesús Albarrán, in a kind and cheerful tone despite his gravity. At the age of 29, he has a degree in Journalism from the University of Seville, a master’s degree in Creative Writing, is working on a doctorate in Communication in the field of Communication, Literature, Ethics and Aesthetics, and devotes his time to music and poetry. Albarrán is known in Seville, among other things, for dedicating himself seriously to playing covers of Bob Dylan and advertising on Facebook with recordings and concerts (@jesusalbarranfolk).
“It was all on my own initiative. I needed to know the roots of music. I went to blues, to jazz, to African music, and on that path, I stopped in folk because I found it very dense, full of meaning. I got to Dylan, and I knew it was a turning point. There, many genres converged,” explains Albarrán under the sun that opens on the Perdigones Park, north end of the Old Town. There he confesses that he is totally self-taught. His wavy black hair is shaken when a certain breeze calls a truce with the heat of April. He recognizes Seville as “a huggable city,” which has a cultural fabric that could be thicker, “but you can commit to tracking and getting to know it. There are few people who do many things, as is the case of The House of Max, that tries everything ,” explains the young musician.
In this city, from his point of view, there are people who like folk and a small portion who are “Dylaners”. “Once, I was playing in the bar La Tregua and a group from Estepa came and sang all the songs. I tried to play a song from the beginning, from 1961, that would be difficult for them to know and they also knew it. I went crazy; I could only think that it was eleven o’clock on a Thursday night and that they had driven from Estepa to hear Dylan’s songs.” In regards to other musicians in the city with this American folk school, Jesús admires with awe Frank Berjim, and Dan Kaplan’s roots.
When it comes to recognizing himself as influenced by Dylan, it’s clear. “The song that has hit me the most is ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (1963). It seemed like I was listening to Walt Whitman talking about our society in the sixties. It influenced me when I started to play folk, to conjugate a poetic expression with music. And, when it comes to relaxing at live shows,” explains Albarrán laughing. He does not think Bob Dylan plays the guitar or the harmonica well, nor the piano, of course. “It all comes from amazing incompetence. But he had something that the other did not have: genius.” And it is this desire for learning, that vehemence in the artistic sensibility that Jesús saves for himself.
Sitting there, looking around the park, the bipolarity of Bob Dylan’s follower strikes when he confesses that the important thing for him is just his songs. “If I saw him on the street, I wouldn’t go running after him, because I already have him.”
Bob Dylan is a contradictory trap. He is able to walk the streets of Seville without having to set foot in them. His followers have a complex relationship with his creation. And yet, scattered foci in the city fluctuate in that essence of freedom and revolution that the work of the singer-songwriter means. An oscillating influence, it is taken and refused, impossible otherwise. Dylan is not sought in Seville. •