I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan lately. Early stuff – Witmark demos, basement tapes, that sort of thing. Raw and rough, but with such immense power.
Do his lyrics constitute poetry? I’ve often considered this question, and argued with others about it, not just in relation to Dylan but to other songwriters whose lyrics are held up as shining examples of the art. I don’t think there is any absolute answer.
Many brilliant song lyrics absolutely only work when they are sung. On the page they might seem flat and clumsy, but when you hear them they take wings and fly and soar and take your heart with them. To be a great songwriter does not require one to be a poet – Lennon & McCartney rarely achieve the kind of lyrical brilliance that I would want to defend as poetry; for the most part there are moments, rather than whole songs, as sublime as those moments are. The brilliance of Holland, Dozier & Holland does not lie in their lyrics, and whilst Smokey’s are witty and clever, and less prone to ‘confusion/illusion’, ‘burning/yearning’ cliches, I can think of no individual songs that I would want to present as poems. R Dean Taylor’s wonderful ‘Love Child’ works because of the way the lead vocal and backing vocals are woven together, especially in the coda where Diana Ross’s voice takes the melody with ‘I’ll always love you’, with the urgent rhythms of the backing singers pleading with the lover to wait, and hold on. On the page though, all that is lost.
So do I believe that Dylan is a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Yes, yes I do, despite all of the caveats that so often apply.
Firstly, the lyrics are quite clearly the driving force of his songs. Not accompaniments to the music, nor a vehicle for the voice (indeed the voice divides opinion considerably more than the lyrics), rather the reverse. Secondly, the immense variety of his work deserves recognition. Even just considering his earlier work, which is what I know best, you have the pared down, desperate simplicity of ‘Hollis Brown’, the jaunty viciousness of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the surreal imagery of ‘Hard Rain’… Thirdly, these are words of visceral power that stay with you and whose portent transcends the time of their writing and the specific concerns that inspired them.
Take ‘Hollis Brown’. The relentless rhythm is matched by the relentless words, the repetition hammering home the hopelessness
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
You looked for work and money
And you walked a rugged mile
This kind of repetition is a feature of many folksongs, presumably to help with their transmission in an oral tradition, but here it’s more than that. Hollis Brown walks his rugged mile, walks the floor and wonders why, and his babies’ cries pound on his brain, on and on until he can see no way out other than to spend his last lone dollar on those shotgun shells.
Critic David Horowitz has said of this song:
Technically speaking, “Hollis Brown” is a tour de force. For a ballad is normally a form which puts one at a distance from its tale. This ballad, however, is told in the second person, present tense, so that not only is a bond forged immediately between the listener and the figure of the tale, but there is the ironic fact that the only ones who know of Hollis Brown’s plight, the only ones who care, are the hearers who are helpless to help, cut off from him, even as we in a mass society are cut off from each other….
On the same album as Hollis Brown, there’s ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’.
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The invocation of Medgar Evers’ name and brutal death set up expectations which are undercut at the end of the first verse as Dylan asserts ‘He can’t be blamed’. And the final verse contrasts Evers’ burial, lowered down as a king, with the unanmed assailant’s future death and his epitaph plain, only a pawn in their game. I know I was not the only person who found those words circling in my mind after the murder of Jo Cox, and again after the upsurge in racist harassment and attacks post-referendum.
Then there’s ‘Hattie Carroll’. That killer final verse:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warning
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six month sentence…
Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
If that weren’t enough the album also includes ‘With God on Our Side’, ‘The Times they are a Changing’, ‘North Country Blues’ – and from the viscerally political to the personal and the melancholy of ‘One Too Many Mornings’.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind
which reminds me of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘You and Me Baby’
Except for you and me baby
This is journey’s end
And I try to hang on to all those precious smiles
But I’m tired of walking and it must be miles
That’s just one album, by a man in his early twenties. And his first two albums had given us the satire of ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’, ‘Hard Rain’ and, in real contrast to the melancholy and reflective farewell expressed in ‘One Too Many Mornings’, this:
I aint saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
A much less well known song than some of those above, one which I might not have come across had Jimi Hendrix not covered it, is ‘Tears of Rage’.
We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
Oh what dear daughter ‘neath the sun
Would treat a father so,
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, ‘No’?
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief
Andy Gill, in his 1998 book, Classic Bob Dylan: My Back Pages, suggests a link to King Lear:
Wracked with bitterness and regret, its narrator reflects upon promises broken and truths ignored, on how greed has poisoned the well of best intentions’, and how even daughters can deny their father’s wishes.
and to the Vietnam war:
In its narrowest and most contemporaneous interpretation, the song could be the first to register the pain of betrayal felt by many of America’s Vietnam war veterans. … In a wider interpretation [it] harks back to what anti-war protesters and critics of American materialism in general felt was a more fundamental betrayal of the American Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
Sid Griffin in his Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, the Band, and the Basement Tapes, noted the strong Biblical theme running through the song, particularly the ‘life is brief’ motif which links to Psalms and Isaiah, and Greil Marcus wrote that
in Dylan’s singing—an ache from deep in the chest, a voice thick with care in the first recording of the song—the song is from the start a sermon and an elegy, a Kaddish.
So should we worry that this prize is the thin end of the wedge, that, as some BTL commentators have claimed, this means the next Nobel Prize for Literature could go to Lady Gaga or Elton John, or whoever. Seriously? The prize has been awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Who could really dispute that Dylan has done that? His influence on other musicians has been extraordinary and creative – Sam Cooke wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in direct response to hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’; Jimi Hendrix drew on Dylan’s work to create his innovative take on the blues; John Lennon’s songwriting was challenged by Dylan’s songs to become rougher and edgier and to go beyond the teen romance preoccupations of the Beatles’ early ’60s output; Bowie parodied Bob Dylan’s 1962 homage to Woody Guthrie, “Song to Woody”, addressing Dylan by his ‘real’ name: “Hear this, Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you”.
And undisputed poet Simon Armitage has talked about the impact of Dylan’s songwriting on his poetry:
1984 was also the year I started writing poetry. I wouldn’t claim that there’s any connection, that listening to Dylan made me want to write, or that his songs influenced my writing style. But I do think his lyrics alerted me to the potential of storytelling and black humour as devices for communicating more serious information. And to the idea that without an audience, there is no message, no art. His language also said to me that an individual’s personal vocabulary, or idiolect, is their most precious possession – and a free gift at that. Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.
Of course Dylan resisted being ‘the spokesman for a generation’ – who would want that pressure, that endless demand? In the past, too, he’s demurred at being described as a poet, calling himself ‘only a song-and-dance man‘. He’s been said to have chosen his nom de plume in tribute to Dylan Thomas, but has (at least sometimes) denied that. Indeed Dylan has given us many different narratives – that’s how he has defied definition, alternating between telling us stories about himself, often contradicting the previous story he told, and telling us nothing at all.
As is the case right now. From Dylan himself, on the subject of his award, not a word from this man of powerful words. An acknowledgement appeared on his website, and then disappeared again.
So who knows? And who, in any case, would want it to be any different?