What Bob Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech tells us about Dylan’s songwriting.
By Tony Attwood
Until now I have felt that the speech Bob Dylan gave at the Music Cares festival (and which I have often quoted elsewhere) was the most important key to our understanding of Bob’s compositions.
Now with his speech to the Nobel Prize Committee, Bob has given us a second real insight into his work. I believe these two speeches, both of which were prepared in advance, are much more important than the off the cuff answers he has given to journalists about his songs in the past. These are our two main sources of information concerning what Dylan thinks about his work, and I think they do indeed inform us in a way that can easily be lost if we either just listen to the songs in isolation from each other, or worse start from a position of believing that Bob is thinking about this or that, or has a specific point of view to relate.
In the speech Bob lays down three fundamentals that we need to note.
First the simple statement: ‘If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important’. Briefly he is saying, songs are methods of conveying emotions, not logical messages or polemics. Emotional points can have many contexts – love, lost love, desire, anger, pain, jealousy, rage, humility etc, and so if you experience, as a result of hearing any of these songs, a strong emotional surge, the song has worked.
When Bob has engaged in polemics such as “With God on our Side” he is still using an emotional approach to express the horrors of the defence industry, he’s not quoting figures. He is appealing to us to be moved to outrage by what the defence industry does, he’s not counting the number of people that have been killed as a result of their search for profit.
Second Bob says, “I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard” – which gives us some insight into his musical approach, but also further illuminates his choice of themes. He said at the MusicCares speech “These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now.” The same theme is present again.
Of course Bob doesn’t always do this – his endless fascination with the 12 bar blues could make us think that he is often far from this ideal in his writing. But pieces such as “I once knew a man” and “Ballad for a friend” show just how far he can stretch the style, when he is on the top of his game.
Third Bob cites his sources. In the early part of the lecture, as with the MusiCares lecture he talks about the music he listened to in his youth and how important that influence was, and went as far as saying, “Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow. I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write, Highway 61.”
But now Bob has said, “Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school”. The books are Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.”
Bob is saying that his reading has influenced him – and of course we know this in one real sense because of the number of times he quotes from books – be it the Bible, or a line from a novel.
Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward….
This gives us something of a clue – it is the book that makes demands of its readers. My immediate thought here was that so many of Bob’s greatest songs make demands of the audience. And it is not the storyline that makes those demands. Just think of two masterpieces from either end of Dylan’s career: “Visions of Johnanna” and “Tell Ol Bill”. In neither case is there a plot, there is no storyline. And my goodness, those songs make demands of the audience.
And then Dylan talks about the characters – which is incredibly interesting to anyone who has studied Bob’s characters in his tales.
The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.
This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience….
Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology…
We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.
All one has to do is go to any one of a hundred Dylan songs to see where this all fits in. Try “The Drifters Escape” – one line of music in a song that pulls you every way imaginable.
Moving on to All Quiet on the Western Front Bob says, This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination.
It is not only the horror of the events but the horror that the events are endless.
Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family.
This is real Dylan. I can completely imagine a Dylan song in which he says
Or later “Death is everywhere. Nothing else is possible. Someone will kill you and use your dead body for target practice.”
At the end of his description Dylan breaks off and says, “Charlie Poole from North Carolina had a song that connected to all this. It’s called “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me,” and the lyrics go like this:
I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too…
And so Bob is linking the literature he has loved with the blues songs he knows, and seeking to join them together to allow himself explore new worlds that other writers of songs have not yet ventured into.
Finally Bob moves onto the last book, The Odyssey and here he does relate the book even more firmly to songs. And undoubtedly the linkage Bob sees here is with the eternal traveller, the wanderer who is so much part of his songs. We are back to The Drifter’s Escape, as well as Restless Farewell, One too many mornings and all the other songs of moving on.
He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.
Or shall we say, The Never Ending Tour.
He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted.
And then a perfect Dylan line, thrown into the mix, just for fun
his courage won’t save him, but his trickery will.
We think perhaps of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
And so finally he reveals all.
I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.
And to make it quite clear what he is saying Bob concludes with a couple of examples.
John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.” I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
And he concludes…
When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
And now I think we know for sure.
“Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
As it turns out, for Bob (and maybe for most of us) that is one hell of a lot better than “I just died, that’s all”.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.
2: The Chronology. We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums. The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site. We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year. The index to the chronologies is here.
3: Bob Dylan’s themes. We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions. There is an index here.
4: The Discussion Group We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link
5: Bob Dylan’s creativity. We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further. The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.
And please do note The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.