Whether or not Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature is uninteresting to me: if lines such as ‘Inside the museums/infinity goes up on trial’ aren’t literary, I don’t know what is. Rather than making a case for whether Dylan should be allowed to fight with Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot in ‘the captain’s tower’, I want to point towards why it may be that Dylan’s words have prompted such joy and speculation for a broad spectrum of listeners.
When I started studying English Literature, I thought I would be convinced that artists who had inspired me in my teenage years, such as Dylan, would be shown up as junk food against the caviar. But the more I learned about literature, the richer Dylan’s songs became. When listening to albums such as Blonde on Blonde now, I am always picking out different strands of meaning each time I return. I’ll use the example of ‘Visions of Johanna’ to show what I mean. On one hand, the song sounds as if it could be a hallucinatory ode to a former lover – at the same time, the title has biblical resonances (a common source for Dylan), Joanna being one of ‘certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities’ in the Gospel of Luke. This fleshes out a religious vision in which Johanna contrasts with the depraved scenes of ‘peddlers’ and ‘all-night girls’. This sentiment (of degraded general spirituality) harks back to the famous line ‘not much is really sacred’ in ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and could suggest that the ‘one with the mustache’ in ‘Visions of Johanna’ is actually Marcel Duchamp’s revision of the ‘Mona Lisa’, reinforcing the idea that all previously venerated symbols are being defaced. The juxtaposition of Duchamp and the singer’s amorality hint at a connection between sixties iconoclasm and the seeming moral lack that make Dylan’s spiritual visions ‘seem so cruel’. However, there is no reason to choose between these contrasting interpretations of secular heartbreak and the spiritual longing. Johanna can be seen as a vessel for the singer’s primal yearning, something like Stella in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella; an absent presence that can represent any sort of need for deep meaning. Such repeated resonating symbols (‘Johanna’ reappears fleetingly as the ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ on the same album) are part of what makes these songs so engrossing. As with the registers and allusions hinted at in ‘Visions of Johanna’, they offer – on various levels – simple romance, spiritual yearning and social commentary, or a mix of all three.
Bob Dylan – ‘Visions of Johanna’, video directed by John Hillcoat
Dylan’s words do not live on the page, but in a voice that waltzes between the tonal and the non-tonal. A certain indeterminacy of melodic lines means that Dylan songs are ripe for radical re-interpretation. I can imagine another singer, for example, emphasising the repeated ‘nothing’ in the first verse of ‘Visions of Johanna’ to plant a seed of spiritual bereftness from the beginning (as opposed to Dylan who hurries past it with a sense of impatience, creating a slightly different atmosphere). A busker in Glasgow will sing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ in an entirely different way to a Californian rock band. The breadth of Bob Dylan covers really is staggering (only the Beatles are more extensively covered) and more often than not his songs are made completely new by the cover artist. The Somalian songwriter K’naan adapted ‘God on our Side’ to his own struggle, adding lyrics that referenced the Somali Civil War to give Dylan’s already charged words a contemporary urgency. Nina Simone’s spine-tingling rendition of ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ includes a hypnotic repeating piano line that mirrored the sense of inevitability of the cycle of oppression hinted in the ending:
‘There’s seven people dead
On a south Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born’
Such re-interpretations are possible because of the malleability of Dylan’s voice and words. However, these covers also point to the universal relatability of Dylan’s songs and their capacity to affect people in different ways. Songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times they are A-Changing’ acted as the collective voice for a generation; as Piero Scaruffi puts it, Dylan ‘turned music into a form of mass communication’. Whereas his protest songs articulated a particular zeitgeist in the U.S, however, other strains of Dylan’s music speak to more personal moods. The best songs often combine personal drama and historical moment as in ‘Visions of Johanna’. At once Dylan is universal and particular, public and private, here and everywhere, and it is the words that make this so.
This is not to say that music comes secondary. In Christopher Ricks’s neat analogy, songs are like water, in which hydrogen is no less nor no more important than oxygen; Dylan’s words only find completion in the voice and the music. Why wasn’t Dylan a page poet if his words were so special? I can’t really answer that in any other way than ‘because he’s a songwriter’ – to pose that question is like asking why Martin Scorcese never painted. When Dylan chose to operate in the literary tradition of the American song he had to attend to the temporal and tonal effects that music has on meanings of words. As an example, the words ‘She was born in spring, and I was born too late’, haunting the end of ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, are beautiful on their own, but their emotional sense is only realised with the strained elongated ‘laaaaate’ and the preceding melancholy sliding chord change that leaves an E sitting uncomfortably on the second chord. All of this makes up the ‘text’ of the song, the words are an important part of that ‘text’, but do not alone constitute it. As a song-writer myself, I know how difficult it is to wrap words around music and vice versa, but I also know how lyricists can cut corners to facilitate the main thrust of melody. Sometimes words are dropped to second fiddle. Dylan rarely suppressed lyrical expression: he spent days at the type writer (often at the expense of personal relationships, as documented by D.A. Pennebaker in Don’t Look Back), before the words got anywhere near a whirring harmonica or electric guitar. Once the words were put to music and recorded, they went through several minute changes (often differing only by a word from one take to the other) before a final version was arrived at.
Bob Dylan – ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, live in 1975
The influence of Bob Dylan’s foregrounding of words in popular music cannot be underestimated – it certainly shook John Lennon out of his prejudice that pop lyrics were nothing more than ‘“I love you” and “You love me”’. Bruce Springsteen talked of the effect that ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ had on his conception of what music could be in an intellectual sense. In a speech at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, Springsteen remarked on Dylan’s legacy:
‘The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world.’
Dylan’s immersion in literary sources gave him the conceptual tools to tackle big themes, hinted at by the phrase ‘whole world’, and this opened up new possibilities for pop musicians. Songs could become Whitmanesque secular prophesy (as in ‘A Hard Rain…’), or Modernist fragmentary puzzles (most of ‘Blonde on Blonde’), or vehicles for exploring the stages of romantic mourning (‘Blood on the Tracks’). This would inspire generations of songwriters to push the words as far as music would allow, from Van Morrison to Joni Mitchell, through to Sufjan Stevens and Laura Marling (all of whom have covered Dylan songs). It’s hard to imagine the singer-songwriter archetype so many young musicians inhabit today without Dylan. The Nobel Committee clearly also understood this, as they recognised Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Pretty soon after Dylan’s sixties phase, Van Morrison was using Celtic folk and Jazz for Joycean free-flowing lyrics, and Marvin Gaye was using Soul to tackle environmental degradation and social unrest. Dylan hovers in the distant background of many creative high-points in the history of Rock music.
The music of the U.S.A was another fertile source of inspiration – the raw emotions invested in Blues, Country and Folk lyrics were as informative to the young Dylan as the genre conventions were in a musical sense. The crowd-pleasing direct address of Folk was used as a critique of the military industrial complex (‘Masters of War’). The repetitious structure of the blues was used as a background to stream of consciousness social surrealism (‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’). The austere sincerity of Country provided a foil for his exploration of spirituality and brevity of words on the album John Wesley Harding. Not only did he place himself in these deeply American traditions but he often proved the catalyst in creating new musical genres within them. It’s also interesting to note that all the traditions that I’ve mentioned were developed in the lower strata of American society. Dylan embraced the music of African Americans and ‘Hillbillies’ alike, marginalized in political life but represented in the songs of arguably the most popular American musician of the 20th Century.
It seems a quaint thought now, but in 60’s U.S.A, people genuinely believed in music as a galvanizing force for bringing together disparate groups in common struggle, whether personal or public struggle. In our times of fragmentation and division, where niche groups situate themselves in a discrete corner of cyberspace and form bubbles that reinforce their worlds endlessly, it does feel that this possibility for mass moments of collective catharsis belong to the past along with TV and organized religion. I think we should celebrate an artist who was able to emotionally connect without pandering, who was able to be popular without being populist, and who was able to be intellectual without being elitist. Those that sneer at Bob Dylan will sneer regardless, and some just won’t get why anyone could fall for his nasal grunt. Even I would be first to admit that he is more comfortable sending letters from Corporate Avenue than from Desolation Row these days. However, the music and lyrics that are his legacy touch millions of people diverse in class, age, race and gender for the reasons I have described.
Bob Dylan – ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, live in 1964.
Today’s headlines seem to mirror many of the problems highlighted by Dylan’s sixties albums: prospect of global war, racial tensions, political corruption, and environmental catastrophe. We need to find that sense of collectivity, that sense there is something beyond our inner worlds, in order to change the way we relate to each other and the world around us. Otherwise, we are going to be in that world that Dylan foresees in ‘A Hard Rain…’, but, such is Dylan’s sensibility, even in that apocalyptic vision, a hope of escape through collective revelation is offered:
‘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’
Stephen Durkan is a writer of fiction created in Glasgow and based in Oxford. He studies English Literature at the Department of Continuing Education. He has been published in Structo Magazine and was recently nominated for ‘Best Poem’ at the Martin Starkie Awards. He also writes articles for XXY Magazine and was a songwriter in a previous life. His aspiration is to usurp Will Self as the talking head the BBC calls upon next time the Novel is dying. If you want to ask him something, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.