This article by Christopher John Stephens first appeared in Pop Matters.
It’s unlikely that Bob Dylan will retire anytime soon and take up a career as a Professor of Literature, and that’s one of the more refreshing conclusions we can make about his 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture. As delivered on 5 June 2017 in accordance to conditions for the Prize, the audio of Dylan’s speech is a strange, rambling, beautifully coherent reflection on the books that have moved him, the role of the folk song oral tradition, from Homer through Leadbelly, and the difference between songs and literature. “They’re meant to be sung, not read,” Dylan notes in the final moments of his 30-minute lecture. Whether or not Dylan read the flurry of pearl-clutching indignant commentary from literati who immediately took offense that the Prize was going to this song and dance man is unknown. That he weighed in with his verdict is what matters here.
In the days following Dylan’s Lecture, those prone to dissecting texts (especially his) in order to discern motivations dismissed his examinations of Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey as junior-level Cliff notes. In fact, more than a few complained that large portions of this text were generously lifted from other sources. Could he have written this speech by himself? Where did he get these ideas? These questions have followed Dylan since shortly after he arrived in New York City in 1961, the grungy and doughy Woody Guthrie replicant looking for a posse he can call his own.
Now, more than a year after receiving the Nobel Prize and over four months after delivering this typically idiosyncratic lecture (just as his deadline approached), Simon and Schuster has released The Nobel Lectures in a collectible edition, suitable for quick reference and essential for Dylan completists. It’s standard operating procedure for the Nobel Prize Lectures. The price for accepting the prize money and prestige is demonstrating a willingness to firmly enter the establishment, to have your speech printed on thick paper and published in a pocket-sized hardcover that can easily find space in any earnest undergrad’s bookshelf. The Dylan fan remembers lines from his 1965 classic “Ballad of a Thin Man”, where he sings in his typical disdain of the time:
“You’ve been with the professors, and they’ve all liked your looks… You’re very well-read, it’s well-known.”
Are Dylan’s thoughts the dismissible ramblings of an insecure autodidact still trying to impress the professors? Certainly, his reflection that “’Moby Dick’ is a… book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic monologue” doesn’t break any new ground. Later, when Dylan adds “[T]his book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience” we stay with him because we know he understands the text. Herman Melville was writing about the American experience, how all our myths are intertwined to push the story forward. “We see only the surface of things,” Dylan notes. “We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit.” The fact that Ishmael survives from the opening line of the book through the end to float on a coffin in the middle of the sea is the alpha and omega of this story, and the fundamental truth of this is all that matters to him. We are tested, we suffer, and we endure.
Dylan doesn’t shy away from the classics, and it’s refreshing how he finds comfort in their orthodoxy. Some have argued that he’s drowned in them and at 76, in the wake of a music recording cycle that’s had him record scores of classics from the Great American Songbook, his days of giving birth to the greatest new songs are over. The problem with these noble guardians of the Academic Ivory tower dismissing Dylan’s right to pontificate about American literature is that they can’t come up with lines like this about All Quiet on the Western Front:
“This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals.”
Dylan’s summary of the Erich Maria Remarque novel goes on for a while, addressing us directly. “You don’t fit anywhere,” he says. “You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse.” Not only does Dylan draw us into this vortex of pain and brutality that’s the exclusive domain of any warfare, he doesn’t let us go. “You’re on the real iron cross,” he notes, making a painful allusion to Jesus, “and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.” Dylan keeps us in World War I, in those trenches with the enlisted grunts from the novel. He reflects on the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, and makes this definitive conclusion: “…I put this book down… I never wanted to read another war novel and I never did.”
As for The Odyssey Dylan starts his summary in a minor way and the reader gets worried: “’The Odyssey’ is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war.” Don’t we already know this? Didn’t we all read it in high school? What makes Dylan’s observations particularly vivid is that we have no reason to doubt his bona fides as a traveling man, heading endlessly from one gig to another, never staying long enough to plant roots, never knowing if he’ll reach his destination because he has forgotten what home really means. He draws in the songs “Homeward Bound”, “Green, Green Grass of Home”, and “Home on the Range” as he reminds us that they’ve all been swirling together in our collective cultural DNA.
“In a lot of ways, some of these things have happened to you,” Dylan notes. “You too have had drugs dropped into your wine.”
The Dylan fan will remember lines from his “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)” and chuckle knowingly about images where railroad men drink up your blood like wine. It’s all there. Everything about the evolution of Dylan as a writer and torch bearer of the oral tradition was there from the beginning, and we see it when he reflects in this lecture about North Carolina blues legend Charlie Poole, whose song “You Ain’t talkin’ to me” pointedly noted to the Generals and Majors in charge: “Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun/ You ain’t talkin’ to me.” From Phil Och’s “I ain’t marchin’ anymore” to Dylan’s own “Masters of War”, the horror of following the tempting clarion call of dying on the battlefield for a futile cause has always been with us.
The most touching reflections in Dylan’s lecture come early, before discussing the books, before concluding that song lyrics are in fact not literature. In his 1998 Album of the Year Grammy Award acceptance Speech for Time out of Mind, Dylan spoke emotionally about seeing Buddy Holly at the Duluth Armory, shortly before the latter’s death.
Nearly 20 years later, Dylan’s picture of Holly is even more vivid:
“He was powerful and electrifying… I watched his face, his hands, the way he stood, his neat suit… He looked me straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something…”
The picture Dylan creates here seems more like the huge, lumbering Gary Busey version of Buddy Holly from the 1978 film than the real one, but there’s no need to quibble about the legitimacy of this recollection. This lecture seems to be more about honoring tradition, identifying direct influences, and then getting down to the business of analyzing literature. It’s about understanding the consequences of language as it travels through its endless forms. In her 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature Lecture, fellow American Toni Morrison noted that “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” In a variation of what Dylan would say later in his lecture, Morrison declares quite conclusively:
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
For Dylan, dangerous language is not about specific singular words but rather how they work in different contexts. Furthermore, the measure of our lives is also about how we adapt the language of our ancestors. How and when and in what form will we receive the message and pass it to somebody else? If that doesn’t happen, the message dies. Buddy Holly shined for such a brief time, from 1956-1959, during the years Dylan was flirting with life as a teenaged rock star. It was the ancient ballads and country blues that came naturally for Dylan, but the rest had to be learned from nothing.
“I had all the vernacular down,” he notes. “I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head… But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed sense of the world.”
How we absorb this lecture will probably depend entirely on our tolerance for sentimentality. Robert Zimmerman, from Hibbing Minnesota, created the myth of Bob Dylan the moment he landed in New York City in January 1961, playing his songs for an ailing Woody Guthrie and following a distinctly American path. This beautifully realized lecture, with piano background accompaniment by Alan Pasqua (who last worked with Dylan nearly 40 years ago) is recorded in the style of the old Jack Kerouac beat poetry performances of the ’50s, where Tonight Show host Steve Allen added non-intrusive keyboards. To argue that everything Dylan’s done (especially in the past 20 years) is simply a cut and paste collection of original ideas from other sources is to miss the point.
Whether it was Woody Guthrie, Buddy Holly, or everyone and thing in between, the truth of Bob Dylan rests in the foundation of his childhood; it’s a way to understand human nature, and a standard by which to live life. The legacy of Bob Dylan is firmly secured in this text. The market of Bob Dylan material coming out in the final quarter of 2017, including the boxed set Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13/1979-1981, continues adding chapters to his storied life and times. With his memoir Chronicles Volume One and scores of other prose ephemera he’s published over the years, he’s on his way to building an impressive paper trail that will entertain analysts for years to come. More important, The Nobel Lectures conclusively proves that Bob Dylan’s body of work warranted this prize.
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