Roxanne Tellier .. Dylan and the Nobel
Bob Dylan, the prior winner of a litany of top-shelf awards (Pulitzer, Album of the Year Grammy, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Academy Award .. just to name a few) won the Nobel Price for Literature last week.
And – typically – Dylan has yet to so much as acknowledge the honour, although his management company did emit a short tweet from the bobdylan.com Twitter account.
“Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 #Nobel PriceLiterature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
He’s a man of few spoken words, though his lyrics would seem to scream of verbosity.
My first husband was a Dylan fanatic. We’re talking .. way deep into the catalogue. As in, there wasn’t a situation either of us could encounter that he couldn’t match up with a Dylan song. Michael was adamant – Dylan had been there, done that, and wrote the songs to help us work through what life was about, and what it all meant.
At the time .. I wasn’t sold. Even though I considered myself a folkie, Dylan wasn’t such a done deal for a lot of women back then. We idolized Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, even Joan Baez, though she seemed a little too political and awfully forward. And Dylan was so political! Or at least, from what I’d gathered, because gawd knows, his words were garbled and hard to decipher. But that’s what I’d heard from a lot of my girl friends.
But Dylan, in the first days of the sixties, was an American living in a highly politicized time; the kids were politically savvy because there was life and death on the line .. their own death if they didn’t make it back from Vietnam. America was in a stew of political unrest, and his first songs, “The Times They are a Changin’” and the like, perfectly jibed with the sentiments of the civil rights and anti-war movements. He wrote songs that spoke to those that yearned for progressive change, and to the troubled kid that hoped the war would end before his number came up …”I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government.”
Desolation Row, Ballad of a Thin Man, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Masters of War … songs of protest and civil disobedience, spoke to the Angry Young Men of the 60’s.
Girls like me preferred “Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, and feather canyons everywhere.” I ignored the harder conclusions in Joni’s lyrics; her ethereal look and voice better captured the dreaminess and the cool, hippie culture that I wanted to wallow in – the culture that I’d never actually embrace, but that I could wear as a fashion statement. Yes, I was that shallow.
And yes, I had THAT Dylan poster on my bedroom wall.
So, although I learned a few Dylan tunes on my Sears guitar, to whip out at a hootenanny or a gathering of other, also fashionably hippie/folkie teens, I was content to have “Blowing in the Wind” type songs, or tunes co-opted by The Byrds or The Turtles in my repertoire. Oh, and I liked “Lay Lady Lay,” and “Just Like A Woman” because they seemed a little naughty, and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” – because .. everybody must get stoned!
And there my teenaged knowledge of Dylan pretty much began and ended. He was relegated, in my mind, to protest singer, cheek by jowl with Sergeant Barry Sadler, Phil Ochs, Country Joe and The Fish, or Barry McGuire, with his gravelly voiced, “Eve of Destruction.”
And yet, as I learned over the years, his songs couldn’t really be pegged or dismissed as being of any one genre. The early albums spoke to his admiration of the socially conscious writers who went before him – Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson. As he grew as an artist, his writing became more and more poetic, and wove in and out of folk, blues, country, gospel, rock, rockabilly, and the sounds of English, Scottish and Irish folk. And through all of his changes, he still retained that connection with the Every Man and the every day emotions that drive and perplex us all.
He is a prolific writer, and, with sales of over 100 million records, is one of the top selling artists of all time. He wrote so many songs, in fact, that he often couldn’t even remember what he’d written or recorded, once asking Joan Baez who’d written a song he’d just heard on the radio and liked. “You did, Bob” she said.
He wrote the way most of us breathe, inexhaustibly, but with the ability to capture, in a tossed off phrase or chorus, profound words that, to this day, we find ourselves still repeating like mantras.
“Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe – It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”
” he not busy being born is busy dying.”
” Don’t follow leaders – Watch the parkin’ meters”
” But something is happening and you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?”
“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows”
And you don’t need to hear the music behind those lyrics to get what he was saying. He wrote in the 5000 year old tradition of Homer and Sappho, who wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed. His epic song stories echo Byron‘s Childe Harold. He’s been described as ” one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, musically and culturally.” Since 2004, Harvard University has had a a freshman seminar called “Dylan” meant “to put the artist in context of not just popular culture of the last half-century, but the tradition of classical poets like Virgil and Homer.” The Pulitzer Prize jury awarded him a special citation in 2008 for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
” William Arctander O’Brien, literary scholar and professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of California San Diego, memorialized the significance of Dylan’s contribution to world literature when he created a full academic course in 2009 devoted to Dylan that analyzed and celebrated the “historical, political, economic, aesthetic, and cultural significance of Dylan’s work.” Kevin Barents, lecturer at Boston University, teaches a class on Bob Dylan’s lyrics, focused on the mechanics of poetry, while also examining the relationship between the lyrics and music itself. Literary critic Christopher published Dylan’s Visions of Sin, a 500-page analysis of Dylan’s work, placing him in the context of Eliot, Keats and Tennyson, claiming that Dylan was a poet worthy of the same close analysis. Former British poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion argued that his lyrics should be studied in schools. – Wikipedia
His Nobel Prize for Literature win places him amongst previous winners in the poetry category – Dario Fo, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett. And I believe it is a righteous win.
I never thought of him as a ‘brilliant musician,’ though many have called him one. I figured that if I, a non-gifted guitarist, could bash out most of his songs, so could anyone. His playing improved as he aged, and through collaboration with more accomplished players, like the fellows in The Band.
But as a lyricist, Dylan is most definitely a poet. And a game changer, without whom many of those we revere today would not have existed.
It’s only in retrospect that I can see how musically spoiled we were in the 60s and 70s. The standards were high, and the gatekeepers stern. And yet, somehow, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and the British Invasion that followed, the talents of Motown … kept breaking through and astounding our ears, changing all that had come before, dialing the needle of our musical sophistication higher and higher.
In 1965, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” single forever changed radio, with it’s time defying six minute length, paving the way for artists who were no longer bound to a three minute or less format. His conversion from Judaism to Christianity caused as much of a stir as did his first donning of an electric guitar and discarding his acoustic at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. His songs, covered by an astounding quantity of artists of every genre, from Hendrix to Sonny and Cher to Adele, made his poetry available to everyone, regardless of their musical tastes.
From Wikipedia: ” Dylan is considered a seminal influence on many musical genres. As Edna Gundersen stated in USA Today: “Dylan’s musical DNA has informed nearly every simple twist of pop since 1962.” Punk musician Joe Strummer praised Dylan for having “laid down the template for lyric, tune, seriousness, spirituality, depth of rock music.” Other major musicians who acknowledged Dylan’s importance include Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Syd Barrett, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waits. Dylan significantly contributed to the initial success of both the Byrds and the Band: the Byrds achieved chart success with their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the subsequent album, while the Band were Dylan’s backing band on his 1966 tour, recorded The Basement Tapes with him in 1967, and featured three previously unreleased Dylan songs on their debut album.”
The man has had his detractors along with the acclaim, with even Joni Mitchell once describing him as a “plagiarist” and saying that his voice was “fake” in a 2010 interview with The Los Angeles Times. And certainly, there’s been cries of ‘foul’ over this extraordinary literary honour, though most of those claiming his win to be unfair, due to his cultural reach through his music and a lack of ‘book learning,” can’t deny that his lyrics transcend pop sensibility and are the logical continuation of poetry’s long arc.
Academics lobbied the Swedish Academy for 20 years to give Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature, and their tenacity finally paid off, just days ago.
Congratulations, Mr. Dylan. And may you continue to write and perfect your poetry for many years to come.
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
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Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.