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Dylan’s Nobel Prize

by William Routhier

My mother couldn’t stand Bob Dylan. The fact that her 12 year old son had become, by early 1964,
so enamored of this unusually serious and persuasive young voice in music made her quite perplexed.
Two things stuck in her craw. The first was “The Times They are ‘a Changin,’ ” with its verse -

come mothers and fathers throughout the land,
and don’t criticize what you can’t understand
your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
your old road is rapidly aging
please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your had
for the times they are a’ changing.

This hit her, as it did many parents of the time, directly to the core. It shook her up, rattled her, but Mom’s reaction wasn’t to examine her parenting (which was for the most part fine) – rather, she mocked his “winey voice,” (which was the other thing) singing me the offensive lines, getting the words all wrong in a bad Dylan impression. It had zero effect, except disappointment. I thought Dylan was being rather polite and respectful in the song, using the word “please” and putting it out on the table that lending a helping hand was welcome.

Today, if she were still with us, my mom would have to admit, grudgingly, that Dylan has earned an indelible place in history by receiving the Nobel Prize for literature. Indeed, many Nobel prize winners’ spots are now secured in the pantheon. Tagore, Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neil, Herman Hesse, T.S Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Solzhenitsyn, Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Others less remembered, like Belgium’s Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel prize winner of 1911. Maeterlinck did however say “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.” That line may be his popular lasting footprint.

This year’s Nobel prize laureate for Literature, Bob Dylan, awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” was given the Noble for poetry and songwriting, the first time songwriting has been acknowledged by the Nobel committee. In a lifetime of firsts, this is certainly a fitting cap to the immense body of work as well as incalculable cultural influence Dylan has created.

Before Dylan, songwriting was broken roughly into two camps - one, writers of the “American Songbook” like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart. While these writers penned magnificent, emotionally sophisticated classics, such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Always,” “Night and Day,”“My Funny Valentine,” and some Broadway songs with social messages, like “Ol’ Man River,” or the songs of West Side Story, they were confined to certain acceptable standards. On the other side was traditional folk, country music and the blues, which told gritty everyday stories of love and betrayal, weariness and existential pain, and there was more freedom of expression in the latter styles, but also the confinement of form and accepted rules. Dylan appears, writes songs in the folk tradition that are better than anyone who was writing at the time, often better than the traditional classics. Then, growing bored, he takes the rules and begins to bend them to the breaking point. When they break, they break, he shrugs “I accept chaos,” and goes with it. This ushers in the surrealism of “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde.” I include here the entire lengthy lyrics of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) to address the first point of argument which the “It isn’t Literature” folks seem to be making most often – my counter-argument being that Dylan’s lyrics, though meant to be sung, often do indeed stand on their own as read from the printed page. The poetic merits of the following, I believe, are self evident.

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

In the wake of Dylan’s huge influence, songwriting blossomed in the 60’s and 70’s, with such writers
as Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and many others freed from the confines of what was previously acceptable or done. Culturally, artistically, the walls came down. It was a greater revolution than any political trend Dylan might have helped along, had he stuck, as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger would have liked, to playing strictly folk music – this was a revolution of the mind. The flowers of creativity that blossomed in Dylan’s wake were myriad and diverse, influences cropping up here, there and everywhere, including The Beatles, with Lennon’s songwriting in particular.

In this period, however, doused with drugs, Dylan sometimes strayed off-track lyrically, into images
and metaphors that might have been vivid inside his head when he wrote them, but were pretty much untranslatable to the listener. In the comedy film, “Walk Hard – The Dewey Cox Story,” Dylanisms are parodied to hilarious effect, because they reflect, through a fun house mirror, Dylan’s actual lyrics of the time. For example, from “Blonde on Blonde,” “Visions of Johnna” –

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

Now, sung – this actually sounds kind of mysterious and cool, and vaguely conveys a comical picture
of the pretentiousness in the way art is viewed by elitists, but it’s hard to say what the images are about and who the mule is exactly. Which obviously didn't bother Dylan, since being vague and mercurial was his style at the time.

Another example, from "Farewell Angelina"

King Kong, little elves
On the rooftops they dance
Valentino-type tangos
While the makeup man’s hands
Shut the eyes of the dead
Not to embarrass anyone

Another verse, from Dylan’s arguably most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” has similar baffling lyrics, which Dylan in recent years admitted had kind of gotten away from him.

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discover that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal

The last line salvages the verse, as many of Dylan’s last verse lines do, but to some poets who have spent their lives polishing poems to the degree that not a single word contained in them is not meant to be there, Dylan’s sometime sloppiness can be a galling, disqualifying trait. 

While many in the literary community have had their put noses out of joint over Dylan’s award, and there’s been a lot of polite grumbling, (some not so polite), it’s perplexing to understand exactly where the objection and disgruntlement is truly rooted. Tim Stanley of The Telegraph, the UK magazine, for example, screams in his headline, “A world that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize is a world that nominates Trump for president.” Not exactly a measured statement – Stanley goes on to say, “It is a culture uninterested in qualifications and concerned only with satisfying raw emotional need. There is pandering on the Left and pandering on the Right. Much, much easier to go with your gut. It’s not a huge leap from saying ‘Dylan because I like him’ to ‘Trump because I feel like him.’ It's all lowbrow.” Perhaps Stanley has a novel in his drawer he can’t get published and that’s at the heart of his vitriol, or perhaps, he just can’t stand Dylan’s voice, like my mother. Or he is an elitist, a snob, as he says he will be called. In any case, it’s a ridiculous, hysterical statement.

To discuss this whole issue intelligently, not emotionally, we need to go back a ways. A long ways.
Lyric poetry, from the time of the Greeks, has been designated as the poetry of the personal, of feelings, emotions, often love, but whatever strikes individual human hearts. Lyric poetry in classical Greek times was sung, to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument, the lyre, hence the word ‘lyric.’ Dramatic poetry became the Greek play. The finish out Aristotle’s three classifications of poetry, epic poems are long tales or fables – Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost. 

Author Salman Rushdie recognized this, tweeting “From Orpheus to Faiz,song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.Great choice.”

If you look at the list of Nobel prize winners, you find a number of dramatists – Shaw, O’Neil, Pirandello, Dario Fo. Of course you can read a play as literature, but plays are made primarily to be seen, experienced as sight and sound, not the printed word. So this notion of “It ain’t literature because it’s a song,” falls down on the above two points.

Performed words and music were elevated by Dylan to heights they’d previously never reached. On
his second record, “The Freewheeling Bob  Dylan,” delivers not only “Blowin’ in the Wind,’ but perhaps more significantly, to this discussion, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Based on the tradition Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” Hard Rain is astonishing as both a song and poem, even more so considering Dylan was 21 years old at the time he wrote it.

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

And the final verse…

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The lyrics hold up wonderfully as stand alone poetry, read off the page, and could be dissected and analyzed by literature professors endlessly. (Note Jesus reference, ‘stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’ – or is it Peter, who began sinking when the winds grew strong? Is Dylan comparing himself
to Jesus or Peter? Is he expressing doubt in his own mission, or vision?) A thousand MFA poets would sacrifice a limb to be able to create anything coming close to Hard Rain.

Recorded thirty years later, another song of Dylan’s, “Blind Willie McTell,” also reads powerfully off the page. It has an epic sweep of American history with regard to slavery, masterfully condensed into five verses full of visual and emotional detail.

Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard that hoot owl singing
As they were taking down the tents
The stars above the barren trees
Were his only audience
Them charcoal gypsy maidens
Can strut their feathers well
But nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Can any seriously argue that this is not poetry? Author Gary Shteyngart sent out the following snarky tweet, “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.” Shteyngart is a satirical writer, but apparently researching and understanding what you’re talking about is hard for him as well. 

Another groundbreaking accomplishment of Dylan’s was pioneering, in modern songwriting, the extended narrative song. There were long narrative songs in the folk tradition, ballads, tales of shipwrecks, but Dylan brought that form into the present day in such songs as “The Lonesome Death
of Hattie Carroll,”  “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” “Black Diamond Bay,” “Brownsville Girl,” “Tempest,” and of course, “Hurricane,” which addressed in 1975 the currently boiling issues of racism and racial profiling.

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet and songwriter (1759-1796) who is regarded as one of the great
poets, included in Harold Bloom’s “The Best Poems of the English Language,” wrote the following song,
“Jamie, Come try Me,” which is included here with Dylan’s “Wallflower.”

Jamie, come try me,
If thou would win my love,
Jamie, come try me.

IF thou should ask my love,
Could I deny thee?
If thou would win my love,
Jamie, come try me!
Jamie, come try me, &c.

If thou should kiss me, love,
Wha could espy thee?
If thou wad be my love,
Jamie, come try me!
Jamie, come try me, &c.

Wallflower, wallflower
Won’t you dance with me?
I’m sad and lonely too
Wallflower, wallflower
Won’t you dance with me?
I’m fallin’ in love with you

Just like you I’m wondrin’ what I’m doin’ here
Just like you I’m wondrin’ what’s goin’ on

Wallflower, wallflower
Won’t you dance with me?
The night will soon be gone

I have seen you standing in the smoky haze
And I know that you’re gonna be mine one of these days
Mine alone

Wallflower, wallflower
Take a chance on me
Please let me ride you home

The subject of both songs is urging a woman to take a leap into love. Burns’ is more a lighthearted frolic, Dylan’s touched with a tone of sadness, but it shows that Dylan’s lighter songwriting fare in no way disqualifies him as a literature writer, unless we’re going to say the same of Burns.

Finally, an often overlooked classic of Dylan’s, “Every Grain of Sand,” to be read here from the page as
a poem. Again, I submit that its virtues as poetry are self evident.

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand

Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.