The Sound School Of Dylanology

by Larry Fyffe

First, a little Poe-try:

Ring them bells ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep, and they're wide
And the world is on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride
(Bob Dylan: Ring Them Bells)

In friendly competition with the Auto/Biographical School Of Dylanology, as the name Sound School suggests, it’s the rhyme and rhythm of the music and the words of the oft fragmented songs of Bob Dylan that analysts thereof ought to focus on rather than on a search for any plausible, unified meaning contained therein, whether it’s literal, figurative, symbolic, or whatever.

It follows that the main criticism of this school of sound is the tendency to ignore meaning within the lyrics, of the words. Said by some critics that its advocates get rather tangled up in their determination to uphold this ‘sound’ approach; that is, the focus on the flow and rhythm of the words and music of the song.

So you might find such an analyst of Dylan’s fragmented “Ring Them Bells” asserting that if one searches for meaning in the lyrics, just as soon as you come up with a reasonable explanation for an allusion, such as the ‘chosen few’, one is immediately confounded by another that pops up, like the bride that runs backwards.

On the other hand, a critic of the school might point out that if the line about the bride is considered a creatively revised rendition of the Red Queen running fast just to stay in one place from “Alice Through The Looking Glass”, then a plausible and unitary meaning can be proffered without much trouble; though on guard an interpreter must be since the singer/songwriter loves to throw in a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t appear to fit in order to divert the hunting hounds from the track.

The demand by this structuralist school, the Sound one, that a piece of art should have a unified meaning results in its advocates throwing their hands in the air upon examining  fragmented songs by Bob Dylan that certainly appear at first hearing not to have one. So say critics about this school.

Continue some of these critics of the Sound School that there are “Sounders” who go so far as to insist that the fragmented lyrics, or at least parts thereof, simply do not make any sense at all, are nonsense, with any plausible meaning displaced by the demands of rhythm and rhyme.

Rather the critics say that the inclusion of references to figures such as Martha, and to Saint Cartherine in ‘Ring Them Bells’ are there to show that the song is no less confusing than the Holy Bible, and accompanying extra-biblical lore. Sweet Martha, whose brother is revived by Jesus considered to be Mary Magdalene’s sister by some religious interpreters, but not so by others; Catherine, claimed to survive torture on a Roman wheel by it breaking apart with absolutely no hard historical evidence that  such an event ever happened.

That the ‘bells’ worn on the hems of their garments perhaps be  metonymy for the High Priests of the ‘chosen few’. Friedrich

Nietzsche breaks down the distance between right and wrong;  says those ruled speak of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the rulers of ‘good’ and ‘bad’; priests act as middle men who work both sides of the street – which side depends on the social and economic circumstances of the time.

Critics note that Bob Dylan is using a Postmodern literary technique that relies on word associations, like metonymy and allusion, associations picked up by informed listeners to the song, and unconsciously by others, or not at all.

I’d argue that Dylan himself is not a Postmodernist per se, but a “poststructuralist” who believes that there is a ‘higher order” in an apparently uncaring Cosmos that can be tapped into through studying different sources and points of view that seek to give meaning and purpose to the human condition.

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