By Tony Attwood
It seems to me that in suggesting that something is amiss, because some of Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize lecture was lifted from online critiques of the books Dylan mentions, those correspondents who make such a claim are a long way from understanding Bob Dylan, his work, the notions within his lecture and indeed the very essence of great art.
There are several points to make here, and so I’ll break them down into sections.
1: The summaries of the three stories are not the important part of the lecture.
What happens in Moby Dick etc is not actually the essence of Bob’s Laureate lecture. The point of citing the books is to say that he read them in his youth and they had a profound influence on him.
It could be argued that if he was going to cite these books that he read 50 or more years ago, he ought to go back and read them again, but as we all know, Bob has a touring commitments and a working lifestyle that can’t suddenly be interrupted.
And for what? So that we have yet another summary of Moby Dick? What is the point of that? If we are concerned about the books we can go back and read them ourselves, but that is not what Bob is suggesting we do.
2: The essence of the piece is that these weird stories showed him that anything is possible in story telling.
Listen again to Dylan’s work and one finds strange tales. Popular music has rarely if ever told really weird stories within its restricted verse and chorus format, but Bob has repeatedly found a way to do that from Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues to Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and onwards to Tin Angel.
I can’t think of anyone else who has tackled the issue of the outlandish and outrageous story form within the realms of popular music in such a diverse and divergent manner. Of course the form existed way back with songs like Nottamun Town, but Dylan gives the whole form a totally new twist.
3: Dylan has never seen words as sacred.
Although all of Bob Dylan’s songs have been copyrighted, they have also been made available for all of us, by placing the lyrics on the internet on the official Bob Dylan site. Yes, his publishing company requires that copies of the songs from his albums which are put on the internet are taken down, as otherwise he would work for nothing, but the lyrics – they are all there on line. And as far as I know the publishers don’t take action over films made at Dylan concerts.
Also Bob Dylan is part of the tradition of reusing other works – indeed time and again on this site we’ve pointed out that the idea, the lyrics or the melody of a song is based on a much earlier piece. I’ve mentioned Nottamun Town as the source of the notion of nonsense songs. It was also the source of the melody for “Masters of War”.
To be surprised that Bob is lifting a summary of the books that he is quoting from an online review (if that is what he has done – I haven’t checked) seems to have missed the entire point of Bob’s work, which is that we are now within an incredibly rich tradition of music stretching back to the 15th century, and as it is there, then why not draw on it.
4: Are we to say that “Beyond here lies nothing” is of no value?
The phrase that is at the heart of that song is itself one that is lifted from classic literature. Does that invalidate the song?
That is an argument that we can have, but it seems to me a rather unexciting point to debate.
In short I think that those who criticise the lifting of some text relating to books that Bob mentions that he read in his youth, are really not getting the point of Dylan’s music at all.
He has entered an art form that upon his arrival was pretty much restricted to writing songs about love, lost love, dance and (in the case of the blues) poverty, and he has given the form new topics that can be held and explored within these songs.
Indeed Bob Dylan has also given us the notion that songs don’t have to mean anything. Rather as he says, ‘If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important… I don’t have to know what a song means.”
Judgements of lectures, rather like judgements of work of art, have to have a grid of standards upon which these judgements are made. Yes it is possible to make up one’s own grid of standards and then say, “Bob Dylan is a failure because he doesn’t meet this standard which I have set up,” but in the end that is fairly pointless. Why does your standard matter? Why is this the right standard to evaluate Bob’s work against?
This doesn’t mean we don’t have standards, but rather that standards change all the time, and one needs to be clear that the standards of judgement one is using themselves have a validity.
All brilliant artists in all the arts, not only create works of art that move us in some way, they also rip up the rule book. It is a bit of a shame that the people writing these criticisms don’t actually seem to understand that important point about art. Nor indeed what is important in Dylan’s lecture.
5. Schools teach us not to copy, artists teach us to copy
Go to school and your a told not to copy someone else’s work. Read almost any book on creativity in any area of the arts, and you will find encouragement to copy. All artists copy; the great artists move on from that copying and go somewhere new.
Bob Dylan has written over 100 songs based around the 12 bar blues format so these are all technically copies, but there is no reason to worry about this because in each case he gives us something new.
I have on the bookcase in my study where I write this blog, a copy of Austin Kleon’s bestseller, “Steal like an artist”. It opens with two quotes:
“Art is theft” – Pablo Picasso
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn” – TS Eliot.
It would have been good if those who criticise Dylan over his lecture had considered what other artists have said about copying. But then again, that might be asking too much.
What is on the site
1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs. There is an index to these in alphabetical order below on this page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages. Also a list of the most read articles on this site.
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.