P O W E L L, W y o. - Mike Masterson hears America singing in Bob Dylan's voice. He'll talk about that and also respond to critics who say, "I love Dylan's writing; I just hate his voice," during a 7:30 p.m. presentation Tuesday, Feb. 12, in Room 70 of the Fagerberg Building at Northwest College.
A long-time music professor at Northwest, Masterson is the February featured author for the NWC Writers Series. For his presentation, he'll draw from numerous essays he's written about Bob Dylan's voice.
Masterson had Dylan's voice and singing style on his mind a long time before he first started writing about it in 1998. The folk singer's "sliding and gliding all over the place" style of note rendering haunted Masterson for years because he knew there was a lot being communicated through the "noisy texture" of Dylan's delivery, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Then he had one of those eureka moments while watching John Mellencamp being interviewed on "The Today Show."
"Bob Costas asked Mellencamp why he considered Bob Dylan an artist but didn't consider himself an artist," Masterson said. "Mellencamp replied that Bob Dylan is an artist because 'he changed the world.' That's when the light bulb went on."
That's when Masterson really understood all that he was hearing in that "ragged and raspy, but also robust, compassionate and authoritative" voice. "In Walt Whitman's poem 'I Hear America Singing,' Whitman mentions the craftsmen he hears singing through their work and contribution to the culture of the country - the masons, the mechanics, the shoemaker, the carpenter," Masterson said. "They're all adding their unique voices to the sound of America. That's what I hear in Bob Dylan's voice - the multiple pitches of many possible interpretations. It's as if a gathering of people were also singing the song, each using their own slightly different set of pitches and rhythms."
That realization prompted Masterson to write about the cultural revelations to be found in listening to Dylan. In his essays, he looks across the spectrum, from Gregorian chants to Native American dance music, explaining how the tenor of the originating culture is heard in the timbre of the voices that sing from it.
Masterson will share audio and video examples of his talk, including "Bob Dylan Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert," the famous bootleg album that was finally delivered to the general public 32 years after the fact. He calls that concert a "watershed moment in American music."
Dylan was raw to the bone during the second part of the concert when he was booed for abandoning the acoustic folk music of the first set to deliver a rock set with his band The Hawks.
"The way he was singing was just as important as the words," Masterson said. "He was snarling and making all kinds of noise with his voice, hitting so many pitches and sounds while he was avoiding the pitches that are centered, the ones you would write on a staff. He was in the moment, on the spot, inventing music. Making it larger than life. Singing the sounds of a culture."
Bob Dylan isn't Masterson's first exploration of the relationship between music and culture. He extensively researched the music used in Buffalo Bill's late 19th century Wild West Show for his doctoral dissertation. His study led to a modern-day recording of the music by the Americus Brass Band which was later used in the musical score for the movie "Hidalgo."
Masterson began teaching in the Music Department at Northwest College in 1977, just two weeks after Elvis died. He's directed the college's perennially popular Studio Singers for almost as long and now serves as chair for the Visual and Performing Arts Division. He holds a bachelor's degree from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., a master's from Arizona State University, and a doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico.
Admission is free to Masterson's Tuesday night presentation for the Northwest College Writers Series.