LAURELS FOR A LYRICIST
In a year of the least expected, during times of the unanticipated, in an epoch of the unfolding dynamic of paradox and polarity, a dialectical frisson in which one simply cannot predict much with precision any longer, a briefing from Common Dreams about Bob Dylan’s Nobel literary laureates, a development that one can attack or defend but which must count as surprising and intriguing if nothing else, a topic that has already elicited likely tens of thousands of bits and pieces of reportage, such as a tongue-in-cheek piece from the Jewish Daily Forward, a brief with a pun for its title from TeleSur, a sense of happy surprise from the Times of Israel, a gleeful hurrah from the Washington Post, and more traditional breaking news reports from all the usual suspects and more–Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast , The Guardian, The New York Times, and Atlantic Magazine –a more or less completely astonishing situation that the first rush of commentators have tended to treat in favorable terms, as an opinion essay in The Times illustrated, along with accompanying materials from multiple other outlets, like The Conversation, New Yorker, Salon, and The Guardian—kudos and positive takes on a surprising turn of events that Poynter justified in the most appropriate fashion when it noted how attention to the boy from the Mesabi Range could lead to better writing, and that Rolling Stone clearly called without knowing it when it published Dylan’s top one hundred hits and had to leave multiple favorites off the list, and that Atlantic foretold almost two decades ago in lionizing Dylan’s textual and narrative capacities; not to say that critique was entirely absent, quite the contrary, in environs that will almost certainly lead to plenty of ‘Monday-morning-
With dozens of original albums and thousands of songs written over more than five decades, Dylan is not only known as one of the most accomplished lyricists in the history of modern music, but his early career was notable for coinciding with the rise of both the folk revival in the United States and the rise of the counterculture movement. Seen by many as bridge between the Beat poets and writers of the 1950s and the socially-conscious music and culture of the 1960s, Dylan—though he often begrudged, and ultimately fled, the role—was often revered as the voice of a generation that questioned the American status quo in an era of upheaval. …
Following his first self-titled album in 1962, Dylan’s second album was his first dominated by original compositions. Many of those songs—including ‘Blowin’ In The Wind,’ ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ ‘Oxford Town,’ and ‘I Shall Be Free’—blended his folk sensibilities with political messages that captured the radical shift of the American public at that time. And in 1964, with the release of The Times They Are A-Changin’—which included such as songs as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,’ ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ ‘With God On Our Side,’ and the era-defining title track—Dylan expanded his musical stylings while deepening his reproach against social ills and injustice. In Hattie Carroll, which retells the real-life story of a black house maid in Maryland murdered by her wealthy employer’s son, Dylan makes poetic narrative out of the injustice when the offender goes lightly punished while also turning the mirror of that horror on the reader (or listener) of the song. …
(An essayist in New York Review of Books stated the case like this). ‘Dylan’s achievement is vast and hard to distill, but part of it surely consists of the way in which he expanded the scope of his chosen form to the point that, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a four-minute song might contain anything he felt like throwing into it. No songwriter before him would have thought to include Paul Revere’s horse, the ghost of Belle Starr, Jack the Ripper, the Chamber of Commerce, John the Baptist, Galileo’s math book, Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, and the National Bank in a single song, as Dylan does in the rollicking phantasmagoria of ‘Tombstone Blues’ (1965), a fairly typical example of his output at the time.’ …(Or), (a)s Danius of the Nobel Committee explained, ‘Homer and Sappho—they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments . . . it’s the same with Bob Dylan.'”—Common Dreams
Mr. Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., in 1941, was inspired when young by potent American vernacular music, songs by performers like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson. When his voice became fully his own, in his work of the mid-to-late 1960s that led up to what is probably his greatest song, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ no one had ever heard pop songs with so many oracular, tumbling words in them.
When Bruce Springsteen inducted Mr. Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, he described the opening seconds of that song this way: ‘That snare shot sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.’ The words that followed pulled that door from its hinge. In the chorus, they posed a question that has not stopped ringing over American life: ‘How does it feel/To be on your own/with no direction home.’
Everyone has his or her own private anthology of favorite Dylan lyrics. Mine come from songs including ‘Idiot Wind’ (‘blowing every time you move your teeth’), ‘Brownsville Girl’ (‘Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content’), ‘Hurricane’ (‘How can the life of such a man/be in the palm of some fool’s hand?’), ‘Sweetheart Like You’ (‘It’s done with a flick of the wrist’) and ‘ ‘Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,’ written with the Band (‘Pack up the meat, sweet, we’re headin’ out’). …
Before this Nobel Prize, Mr. Dylan has been recognized by the world of literature and poetry. In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded him a special citation ‘for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.'”—The New York Times
We think of great musical artists as distinctive in their genius. But the greatest — and most popular — turn out to be the easiest to imitate: Louis Armstrong, the Andrew Sisters, Elvis, The Beatles, Dylan. Here is the big lesson. Before you can sing in your own authentic voice, you have to imitate the voice of others. And before you can write in your own authentic voice, you have to imitate the writing voices of others.
Dylan has his own creative influences, from Woody Guthrie to Dylan Thomas (hence the name) to the surprising professional wrestler Gorgeous George (who also influenced James Brown and Muhammad Ali). George, according to biographer John Capouya, showed young Bobby Zimmerman how you could draw a crowd by re-creating your persona, inspiring a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota to become America’s troubadour.
(Dylan helped me write a wedding sonnet for my daughter. A gig atPoynter also incorporated this new bard). Back in March, Poynter helped celebrate the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes with a theater production based on the themes of civil rights, social justice and equality. There were readings and visuals and music, including a gospel choir. Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, so I knew I wanted to include one of his classic songs. I chose ‘The Times They Are a-Changing,’ (from which two stanzas stood out).
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.“—Poynter
Dylan obviously saw himself as a poet. He was steeped in poetry, even if when he burst onto the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961 as a University of Minnesota dropout he tried to give the impression that he was a guitar-slinging Tom Joad whose lyrics spoke the wisdom of the common man. True, Dylan’s early topical songs — the ones that got him published in the period’s folk bible, Sing Out!, and signed by Columbia Records — were diligently modeled on Woody Guthrie. But the wordier songs he soon became identified with, such as ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘Desolation Row,’ with their breath-length measures and apocalyptic imagery, owed more to Allen Ginsberg than to Guthrie or any other folk singer. With these songs — and with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ in 1965 — Dylan put folk music, and then pop, in touch with the bardic strain of one branch of American literature. This strain is usually traced to Walt Whitman, though its actual origins may lie in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, who took it verbatim from the Old Testament. To judge from the striking image of an orphan ‘crying like a fire in the sun,’ in ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ Dylan also knew his French Symbolists, and in his 1971 novel Tarantula as well as in his song lyrics he often aspired to surrealism. Something about the English language — or perhaps the American character — must be unconducive to dreaming aloud: like most American writers who have taken a stab at surrealism, Dylan fell victim to logorrhea.
Just as in the late 1940s some jazz listeners thought Thelonious Monk wasn’t a facile enough pianist to do justice to his own compositions, in the 1960s many preferred their Dylan sung by Joan Baez, the Byrds, or even Peter, Paul & Mary. These people objected chiefly to Dylan’s unmellifluous voice. But the problem, I think, was something more subjective — something perhaps best illustrated by example. One of Dylan’s best songs, and one of only a handful you can whistle, is ‘Just Like a Woman,’ from his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. Its stop-and-start melody is a perfect match for its speechlike lyrics about an ex-lover who ‘takes just like a woman,’ ‘makes love just like a woman,’ and ‘fake[s] just like a woman’ (orgasms?), but ‘breaks just like a little girl.’ Predictably, these lyrics earned Dylan a reputation as a misogynist: he delivers them almost too convincingly, his voice dripping disdain for the woman in question, with ‘her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls.’ Sexual politics notwithstanding, it’s a great performance. Yet the singer who really did ‘Just Like a Woman’ justice was Van Morrison, who never recorded it for commercial release but frequently performed it in the early 1970s, including as part of the live show captured on the bootleg Van the Man (good luck finding a copy).
Despite his identification with the insurrections of the 1960s, Dylan’s appeal cut across ideological lines. In 1997, when he was honored at the Kennedy Center, the only politician who made a bigger fuss over Dylan than Bill Clinton was Newt Gingrich, whose pop futurism and delusions of grandeur as speaker of the House made him seem every bit as much a child of the sixties as Clinton — the confessed adulterer and accused moral relativist whom Pat Robertson once condemned as that decade’s ‘poster boy.’ Gingrich told reporters, ‘The sheer magic, for I think everyone in my generation, is to finally have our nation recognize Bob Dylan.’ …
(One might well focus on Dylan’s difficult relations with ‘folk music,’ his self-confident swagger as a ‘rocker,’ the way he redefined the potential for musicians to disregard audiences, or his complicated intersection at seemingly every crossroads with a political and economic and social culture that seemed as likely to fall apart as to ‘rise to whatever occasion’ was at hand). Perhaps none of this has much to do with Dylan, yet it goes a long way toward explaining why his music and that of others in the 1960s holds greater than nostalgic fascination for those of us who grew up with it (and in some ways long ago outgrew it). Whatever was at issue in the music for its original fans remains at issue, however irrelevant Dylan himself has become.”—Atlantic Magazine