EAST GREENWICH—Town drug program director Bob Houghtaling took 14 East Greenwich students and teachers to see Bob Dylan perform at the Providence Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, in an effort to offer a fun way to engage with history and society. Students from the Philosophy Club and ASAPP Club (To Assess, seek Support, take Action, Proceed and develop Prevention techniques) were encourage to compare the life, times and message of the reclusive musical artist with their own beliefs and experiences.
“I’ve been doing this for the last fifteen years. We’ve seen Dylan, Ringo Starr and Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Houghtaling said. “It’s the latest generation of my own never-ending tour and one of the key reasons I do it is to show people what you can do with your art and your music, and how you can be influential in using art to talk about social and political issues.”
Indeed, Houghtaling likely could not have picked a better candidate to stir up opinions and develop notions about the relationship between art and influence than Dylan, whose music earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 after a career spanning nearly six decades. According to Houghtaling, Dylan’s role in both talking about and participating in the events that have helped to shape the nation make him an ideal candidate for understanding the issues that Americans face today, regardless of whether they agree with Dylan’s own stances.
“Dylan is a human history lesson. He performed at Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The things he has asked us to question about civil rights and war and these existential issues we all face are important, and I want to give kids an opportunity to explore and examine those issues and have some fun with it,” Houghtaling said. “Even if you’re not crazy about his political stances or his music, you can make your own decisions and still appreciate the real impact he has had on our culture.”
“I view Dylan like an Impressionist painting,” Houghtaling said. “You can reflect on his lyrics and come to this sort of acquired taste. I think that its important too to connect students with his time and offer a comparative reflection on what was happening with the Cold War and with Vietnam with what is happening now.”
Regardless of what the students thought of Dylan’s performance, influence or music, Houghtaling hopes that the concert will give students a sense of place in their own historical context, and help to foster an understanding of how they as individuals might actualize their own values and beliefs in the world.
“It is a chance to talk about social issues out of the classroom and in an experiential setting, and it will certainly be interesting to hear their opinions,” Houghtaling said. “The things Dylan talks about, about the next generation challenging the ideals of the previous generations, about war and race and socio-economic things are really important. This idea of speaking truth to power, and speaking out in a time when people benefit from accepting things the status quo, is very important. Every once in awhile, power needs to be challenged. That’s essential.”
Above all, Houghtaling hopes that by giving the kids of the community the experience of interacting with an artist and living part of American history, they will be empowered to utilize their own gifts to change the town, country and world for the better. Whether it be through reflecting on the message of Dylan’s lyrics, comparing the historical context of the iconic singer with their own reality, or just enjoying the communal experience of music and friendship, the experience will likely help to mold the perspectives of those who attended for the better.
“When you give kids the opportunity to experience things when they are willing to expand their horizons and learn about something, it is just so important,” Houghtaling said. “To think about these ideas that Dylan has made a career exploring, ideas like peace and hope, these should not be anachronisms. Thomas Jefferson said a little rebellion every now and then could be a good thing. And I think that rebellions of the mind are good.”
“Asking questions about who you are and where you fit are essential,” Houghtaling added. “And for the adults involved, it’s amazing to see the reinvention of Dylan time and again from folk to rock to religion to classics, and I think that transformation speaks to our ability to evolve and change and develop as individuals. It ensures there’s a sense of currency in our lives.”