Saturday 29 October 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Think what you want about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature (and believe me, the blogosphere is awash with polarising opinions) but the famously recluse troubadour has unwittingly opened up an interesting and necessary debate: can song-writing be considered literature in its own right?

My gut feeling would probably shout out to let songs be songs and let literature be literature. Yet, somehow with Bob the lines get pretty hazy. He is one of the few performers who can lay claim to having a foot on both genres.

I first came to Dylan in uni. When I say “I came”, I mean that I began to listen actively to Bob in my first year of university. Before that, the only tune by Mr Zimmerman I knew was “Blowin’ in the Wind”. I think it was also the only one most Cuban radio DJs were acquainted with. Certainly it was the only one they played. Through a series of recommendations from friends in my freshman’s year, my journey through Dylan’s back catalogue started and I can safely say, I’m still on the same trip.

I cannot write about Dylan’s work chronologically, for I got stuck in his 60s phase and I still have not managed to get out. I did listen to his 80s collaboration with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, namely, The Travelling Wilburys, but that was not as satisfying as listening to his early albums. My first Dylan tape, recorded at one of my classmate’s, with randomly added Janis Joplin’s songs at the end (remember how we used to record from long play to cassette, or cassette to cassette, filling up the remaining empty space with whatever was at hand? In those days most albums lasted between 45 and 60 minutes and tapes were sometimes 90 minutes long. I still have silence-cancelling mini-compilations I used to make, some of which were better than the record that preceded them. Go figure) was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The album opened with, yes, you guessed it, Blowin’ in the Wind, but by track 3, Masters of War, I knew that there was more to Bob than just a man asking too many questions.

This first Dylan shared space with my very tiny, minuscule, almost invisible cassette collection. It was 1990s Havana and a tape could set you back between 15 and 20 Cuban pesos. Add to that the fact that I still lived with my mum, cousin, her mother and my grandmother in a cardboard-sized, one-bed flat in downtown Havana and any collection-building ambitions were dealt an immediate harsh reality check. Yet, my lifelong affair with Bob’s music was born in this confined space.

I used the word troubadour in my opening paragraph on purpose. It is not a term often used in English. Most critics and music enthusiasts prefer to talk about “singer songwriters”. In Spanish, though, the word “trovador” still denotes a musician who writes complex, poetic compositions in which both the music and poetry worlds are indivisible. To me, that is Dylan. Let us take for instance one of his signature melodies, Masters of War.

He sets the pattern very early in the song. He is talking directly to the weapons manufacturers, the arms traders; the big businesses that cash in on creating and fomenting wars in order to make money (Come you masters of war/You that build the big guns/You that build the death planes/You that build all the bombs You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know I can see through your masks). His tone is defiant throughout the song; his narrative is stern and edgy. I love the totally uncompromising (from a humanist point of view) last stanza (And I hope that you die/And your death'll come soon I will follow your casket/By the pale afternoon/And I'll watch while you're lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I'll stand o'er your grave/'Til I'm sure that you're dead). Show that to an impressionable eighteen- or nineteen-year-old and you have an immediate follower.

But Dylan is capable of writing more than passion-stirring lyrics. On Bringing it All Back Home we have a perfect example of composition as an existentialist statement. The track It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) contains some of the more pessimistic - and yet, beautifully poetic - words Bob has ever written such as: 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. It is also one of those pieces that works very well as a standalone poem, especially when the only musical backing is an up-and-down two-chord folk-blues riff. Personally speaking, it is one of my favourite Bob’s creations. I used to have the line “And if my thought-dreams could been seen/They'd probably put my head in a guillotine/But it's alright, Ma, it's life, and life only” on my blog banner. It meant a lot, especially for a young Cuban growing up in the shadow of Fidel’s totalitarian state at the tail end of the 80s and beginning of the terrible 90s.

The true measure of an artist should not be gauged only by their immediate impact – hits and accolades – on the music world and the fanbase they create, but also by their epoch-defying legacy within and without their own geographical borders. In this sense Dylan has transcended his own time and place as both a singer-songwriter… and writer.


Next Post: “Diary of Inconsequential Being”, to be published on Wednesday 2nd November at 6pm (GMT)


  1. He is certainly a great talent. I think he's one of those people who leave everything they have on stage, leaving little else for interacting with people, which is why he always seems so aloof.

  2. He is indeed very talented and gives his all. As far as music goes, for some reason I have been stuck in the early 1900's to 1940's music, and then the 50's, 60's and 70's. I do love disco. :)

  3. Troubador is a perfect description. Thank you - and him.

  4. Weren't the psalms, the sagas, and the Greek tragedies sung (and even danced or enacted in some cases?). Suck it up jealous writers. He deserves it.

  5. To me, poetry comes alive through music.
    Leonard Cohen is another superb "trovador". Both are Jewish - I think it's not a coincidence.

  6. He had a poetic mind which made his statements all the more profound, set to music even more so.

  7. Hi ACIL - I'm glad he won ... perhaps more people will 'think on' his words ... that includes me! I just enjoyed the music ... and until I see the words, poems or songs I'm not specifically aware what he's singing or writing about - thanks for posting this ... I'll read more carefully in future ... cheers Hilary

  8. There is much to his words, and everything can be a part of literature in some form, but mostly I think music is its own thing as the tune does flow.

  9. I came to Dylan pretty late in life so had loved many other singers/songwriters first... and yet there is room for all (or there should be) and it's always good to shake prizes up in some way or another. If we must have them let them at least be interesting...

    All I know is that every time I hear 'Make you feel my love' (and you hear it a lot these days - one version or another) I think 'wow that is a lovely piece'. 'Crawling down the avenue...' - we've all been there!


  10. Gracias querido amigo por lo que nos das en tus textos
    Gracias por dejar tu huella impresa en mi blog
    un abrazo

  11. He has a vital place in our social and political history - with so much to say about the way we live and think.

    And for some of us who can remember when he first appeared, he is part of our personal history too. (I can't hear Corrina. Corrins, from Freewheeling, without thinking of those evening spend in snogging practice with the boy next door!)

  12. Another performer with "a foot in both genres" is Canadian Leonard Cohen.
    Personally, I've never followed Bob Dylan, but I agree that he is a poet illustrating the human condition and modern life.

  13. He has an important part to play because of his activism. For me, Cohen is a poet and could well have won too. I think it's good that the Nobel Prize for Lit has finally done something slightly different...

  14. I am glad you like and appreciate Bobby Dylan, CiL. A couple of thoughts:

    I frequently have written that I think music lyricists, especially those since World War II and, most particularly, those of the rock era, have replaced the poets of "yesteryear" in the sense of stirring surreal emotions through words. I guess that would define how I feel about Dylan receiving a Nobel under any literary circumstances: Terrific !! Right on, man !!

    Dylan himself is a symbolic icon approaching a religious context and exists on a mythical plane like no other living musician (or writer), and pretty much has since he left Minnesota for New York in 1961. One of my daughters has seen him perform around twenty-five times (maybe thirty by now, since he seems always to be on tour); I have been to more than a few of his concerts, including an occasion where he simply walked unannounced into a "local" saloon, the doors were locked and he took to the stage for an hour or two for an audience of about fifty .... sort of a right place at the right time thing, but not really ....

    And, just as with Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd and some few others, I remember when and where I was and who I was with the first time I heard a Dylan song. It really hit me at the moment. Still does ....

    So, CiL, as Dylan wrote: "May you stay forever young ...."

  15. When I was a sophmore in high school I had an English teacher who devoted the whole year to Dylan. It seemed such a renegade thing to do and I admired her for getting that curriculum the mid 60's! I'm sure she had to fight for it. No one ever missed the class. She was a Joni Mitchell type person (looks and vibe)and became a bit of a cult figure to young, hungering teenagers.
    She taught the class as poetry. Not from the angle of Dylan as a musician, but for the message and rhythm of his writing. So I've always thought of him as a poet. I'm glad he won and it seems appropriate to his words and his personality that he would not prize prizes.

  16. I have mixed feelings, there are singer songwriters (such as Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Indigo Girls) who write lyrics that are poetry but on the other hand they become so much more with the music and the songs are indivisible. Leonard Cohen's Suzanne was published as a poem before it was made into a song and it is so much less without the music. I mean i can only read those words with the melody running through my head along with them.

  17. lol, will be fun to see if he shows up to the ceremony :) I have to watch :)

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  19. Excellent post. Like you I'm torn on this issue of lyrics as literature, but I also feel Bob Dylan does inhabit both worlds.

    I'm grateful that you shared your experiences with listen to Dylan's music while you were in Cuba. It reminds me how lucky I was to be able to walk into a record store anytime I wanted and buy one of his albums.

    And one of my favorite Dylan lines comes from a later work called "Tight Connection to My Heart"--"What looks large from a distance, close up ain't never that big."

  20. The man is a legend, and deserves the prize.

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