Macalester hosts summit on Bob Dylan and Vladimir Vysotsky


(left to right): Musicians Olga Chikina, Lev Frayman, Valentina Solovyova, Laura Ann Singh and Ian Moore perform Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” at TMORA. Photo by Lauren Petro).

Lauren Petro, Staff Writer

On the weekend of March 3, Macalester hosted a summit celebrating and presenting wider contexts of music by Minnesotan folk-rock singer Bob Dylan and Soviet Russian songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, who died in 1980. Both were monumental in shaping their cultures at the time of their popularity and are considered some of the best songwriters of all time.

“Vysotsky is referred to as the ‘Russian Bob Dylan,’” singer-songwriter Mary McBride,  founder of the Forum of Cultural Engagement (FCE), said.

FCE is an organization that creates global programs with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of different cultures and decreasing the isolation between them. In this case, they examined how American and Russian culture connect with one another.

“We discussed other artists like Tom Waits and Woody Guthrie, but we came back to Dylan because of his monumental impact in the same way as Vysotsky,” McBride said.

While some speakers talked about Dylan, others spoke on the importance of Vysotsky in Soviet Russia and his impact on Russian culture today. 

“We recruited these speakers to talk about Vysotsky and the contexts in which to understand him,” Professor and Chair of Russian Studies Julia Chadaga said. “We met every week and talked about what the event should be like, what values we stand for, and how culture can connect us to one another as human beings.”

The FCE collaborated with East-West Connections, a nonprofit organization that increases cooperation and understanding between Russian and American cultures. 

“Originally, the director of East-West Connections wanted to have an event on Vysotsky and connect it to American music,” Chadaga said. “Dylan was a good connection because he is from Minnesota. Like Vysotsky, he had powerful songs of protest, he spoke truthfully to his listeners, and he upheld individual freedom. We brought the event to Macalester because we as a college stand for internationalism, and we value connecting cultures.”

Vysotsky and Soviet censorship

One person who presented on Vysotsky was University of Arizona Professor Anastasia Gordienko, who teaches Russian and Slavic studies. Her presentation was based on chapter four of her new book, Outlaw Music in Russia: The Rise of an Unlikely Genre. She discussed the paradoxical censorship in Soviet Russia and how Vysotsky’s music highlighted this inconsistency as well as the strict publishing guidelines artists had to go through.

“Soviet people expected new, inspiring songs that bring joy to millions from poets and composers,” Gordienko said. “They wanted songs that aided their communist construction.”
“The first vinyl record to be published legally was Slawa Wolnyj’s Gulag Song in 1974,” Gordienko continued. “The song folklore-ized Stalin, yet juxtaposed Stalin’s might with gulag contribution.”

Vysotsky was a founder of the “bard song,” a type of music that focuses on storytelling through song. Since music that criticized the Soviet Union was considered “blatnye,” indicating “criminal themes” (“blatnaia” being the adjective form), Vysotsky often used symbolism in his bard songs to criticize the government. He regularly sang about criminals, prisoners and other groups the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) viewed as enemies. This created a juxtaposition in Soviet censorship laws.

“It remains impossible [to discern] whether some songs are considered bard or blatnaia,” Gordienko said. “Although no bard songs originated in the criminal world, they have been appropriated in the form of compilations labeled ‘blatnaia songs.’ Some scholars choose to place them [Vysotsky’s songs] in both categories [bard and blatnye].”

Vysotsky risked his life singing about the people that the Soviet Union viewed as enemies due to the government’s strict censorship laws. Gordienko mentioned that a fellow bard, Alexander Galich, was forced to leave the USSR in 1974 after publicly bashing public Soviet figures and facing persecution from the KGB. This increased the censorship of bard songs, which were considered illegitimate genres. 

“Vysotsky indicates his popularity with the criminal world by singing about prisoners and engaging in criminal words,” Gordienko said. “Blatnye stems from the lack of understanding of the genre. Songs were considered blatnye by audiences and were played on radios specializing in criminal overtones.”

Despite the danger of writing songs criticizing the government, the KGB was unsure of how to classify Vysotsky’s work, or other bard songs, for that matter. 

“Soviets believed in a binary regime of support or not,” Gordienko said. “Soviet culture and music have obtained large gray areas, and bard songs existed there, neither praised by the Soviet regime nor opposed.”

Even though the KGB always kept a watchful eye on the bard song, the genre remained popular among Soviet citizens. Vysotsky led the genre into the mainstream, making him an even bigger threat to the Soviet government.

“The Amateur’s Song Club was legalized to support the bard song, and the political branch of the blatnaia song grew exponentially,” Gordienko said. “That’s Vysotsky’s influence. Press attacks on Vysotsky claimed that he was writing in the name of alcoholics, defaulters, criminals and people who are violent and insufficient. As his popularity grew, so did the KGB.”

Vysotsky’s music served as a touchstone for Russian culture, forging literature that appealed to outsiders while esoterically criticizing the communist regime of Stalin.

Bob Dylan’s influence on American music

There is no denying the influence that Dylan has had on music and American culture. Several musicians and writers alike have been inspired by his work since his initial popularity in the 1960s. 

“I was raised by parents who loved Dylan,” musician Ian Moore said during a panel. “I picked up the guitar, and there was a whole new level of ‘woah.’ If you’re from the west, you love Bob Dylan. It’s like when someone says they don’t like the Beatles; it’s just not possible. Dylan was my north star. He was the person that gave me something beyond.”

Moore, originally from Austin, Texas, has had the opportunity to tour with Dylan in the past and frequently hangs out with him. Dylan is creating music and touring to this day.

“Dylan’s still on the road, man,” Moore said. “He’s still living his life, and it’s never-ending. There’s no one like him. Dylan is the patron saint of the mind and body of rock ’n’ roll.” 

Another panelist, Iowan writer Matt Steichen, has been to over 50 of Dylan’s concerts and written about Dylan’s life.

“My older brother told me about a guy who ‘sings like this,’” Steichen said while doing an impression of Dylan. “I wondered if he was exaggerating, but people must like it if he’s famous. I started listening to him every night. I realized how each song created its own world. Some broke my heart, and some made me happy.”

One of Dylan’s appeals is that he was not like other contemporary mainstream musicians and is constantly reinventing himself.

“In ’95, I saw his 30th-anniversary show,” Steichen said. “I saw Bob perform and realized how much he didn’t fit in. He didn’t look famous and didn’t seem like someone who sings like he was famous. It made me curious about what he did to get this reverence.”

Dylan has stayed true to himself and does not let anyone change him. 

“He says that an actor in a movie isn’t the same as a song,” Steichen said. “They’re things he tries to reconnect with, and people relate to them. He’s never had to bow down to television, and he can get away with that because his brand is about being himself.”  

Steichen also hosts a podcast where people from all over the world have the opportunity to share their stories of meeting Dylan and how he has impacted them. The podcast is called “The Bobcats: The Bob Dylan Fan Podcast.”

“All my friends were listening to Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls and didn’t know who Bob Dylan was,” Steichen said. “No one wanted to talk about Bob Dylan with me, so I talked to people on the internet all over the world. Going to Bob Dylan concerts, I met people who dedicated their lives to him, and these people opened my mind to what the world was like compared to where I grew up.”

Although many people agree that Dylan remained authentic to himself, Dylan himself did not think so due to his constant self-reinvention.

“I think Dylan would be the first one to say he’s not authentic,” Moore said. “That’s the beauty of him. He wore many faces, unlike Vysotsky. When we opened for him, it was all girls, yet Dylan’s audience in the ’70s was all men. That day, I saw Dylan in a velvet jacket and putting his hair in his hat. He emulated Prince at that moment. He can reinvent himself as an old man. He doesn’t play the same way anyone else does.”

In spite of Dylan’s authenticity, he had to change some things to be accepted, such as his name — Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman. However, once he made the shift, he embraced himself once again. Dylan was not going to let anyone or anything prevent him from being successful.

“It’s a reflection on us that Dylan had to change his name and put on a Woody Guthrie jacket,” Moore said. “He knew how to take these emerging cultures. He has this earnestness that a lot of Minnesotans have. Dylan was just a brilliant man.”

“What makes [Dylan] stand the test of time was that he was better than anyone else fundamentally in music,” Moore continued. “People wanted him to be a hitmaker, but he mumbled his way until people backed off, and he got to re-emerge.”

The third person on the panel was folk musician Paul Metsa, who grew up in Duluth and has worked with others who have worked with Dylan. He is also the author of Alphabet Jazz: Poetry, Prose, Stories, and Songs.

“I was nine or 10 when I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and it changed everything for me,” Metsa said. “I started playing guitar. When I was old enough to hitchhike, I got to 2425 7th Avenue in Hibbing [Dylan’s childhood home]. He’s been a lifelong touchstone. Bob Dylan, for us folk singers, really invented the genre. He’s someone who not only has music that I enjoy, but he’s also a beacon of what you can do. If you can get from here, you can go anywhere.”

Another appeal of Dylan is that he is not afraid to take risks. That is how he got his start, and people appreciate his versatility.

“He wasn’t going to take no for an answer,” Steichen said. “He wanted it so badly. He’d go to shows, pick up what they were doing like a sponge and do something different with it. All he had with him when he went to New York was $5 and a guitar.”

Dylan is known more for his lyricism and storytelling rather than his singing. His lyrics are considered literature, winning him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. 

“He didn’t set out to be someone who wrote literature,” Steichen said. “The way he did it happened to be literary.”

Dylan’s storytelling also prompted listeners to become more understanding of topics and themes they would not have otherwise been aware of. 

“Listening to his music taught me about history, art and culture,” Steichen said. “He brought those words in the lyrics, to people like me who never would’ve learned those things.”

Dylan’s musical and Minnesotan roots are also present in his music. 

“One big piece I thought was important was that we provide the context of what Minnesota meant to Bob Dylan, how it shows itself in its work and how it served as a refuge for him,” Steichen said of his book about Dylan. “I was told Minnesota didn’t like Bob Dylan the same way they like Prince. That was the narrative I’d heard. Reading so many interviews, I knew that wasn’t true. I dug up all those quotes and what Minnesota meant to him.”

One song that panel facilitator and East-West Connections coordinator Bernadine Joselyn mentioned was “11 Outlined Epitaphs.” This song discusses the environment and culture of Hibbing.

“Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan if he didn’t mine the deep well of American country, blues, ragtime and folk,” Metsa said. “If you looked back, he’s recorded 800-900 cover songs over the course of his career. If you look at the bootlegs, you see he had a grasp of not just American history, but the history of American history.” 

Other parts of the summit included musical performances and concerts. One was a medley of Vysotsky songs by the Troubadours. Another was a group of artists reimagining songs by Dylan or Vysotsky performing at The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA), another collaborator with the Summit. The third concert included students who performed original material inspired by Vysotsky and/or Dylan.