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Monday, November 14, 2016

“Things Have Changed” : Nobel to Bob Dylan for Lit

Bob Dylan, the 75-year-old singer-songwriter of “extraordinary poetic power”, who made the world at large know of his artistic independence by a simpler but honest expression, “I am just a song and dance man” has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Although Dylan, the “poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll” has been on the fringes of Nobel Prize discussions for more than a decade, few experts from the literary world expected the academy to bestow the honor to a gener such as popular music. And this stunning announcement of the Academy has piqued some writers. Purists expressed shock, indeed felt offended with the Academy considering lyrics like “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”; “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”; “Lay, woman lay” as poetry and honoring Dylan with a place alongside of William Faulkner, Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison and the like. In the colorful words of Irvine Welsh, it as “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
On the other hand, writers like Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison have welcomed the award. Interestingly, joining Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who said, “If you look far back, 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to and performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan,” Salman Rushdie, describing Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”, praised the Academy’s selection as “Great choice.”
Controversies aside, for long, scholars have been debating if Dylan’s lyrics can stand on their own as poetry and produced astonishing volume of research work praising his music: The Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song “Desolation Row,” in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” in 2009, which confirms his reputation as a brilliant literary stylist. American historian, literary critic and novelist, Ron Rosenbaum says that Dylan managed to “mine and undermine language, speech and emotion, crystallize feelings in a way that remains still mysterious and magical…I think he’s had a kind of subtle effect on language, on the deadpan, put-on, sarcastic way we talk.”
Gordon Ball, an English professor at Washington and Lee University proposed Dylan as a Nobel candidate as early as in 1996 citing “the almost unlimited dimensions of Dylan’s work, how it has permeated the globe and affected history.” Randall Fuller felt of Dylan’s work that hoovered around the “questions of human freedom” with, of course, a clear appreciation “about its limitations”—“No one is free, even the birds are chained to the sky”—resembles 19th century literature, literature of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickens.
Dylanologists like Christopher Ricks, former professor of English at Cambridge University has compared Dylan to the great poets: Dylan’s “Not dark yet” has been compared to Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. In the words of Ricks, “For fifty years, all the world has delighted in Bob Dylan’s books of words and more than words: provocative, mysterious, touching, baffling, not-to-be-pinned-down, intriguing, and a reminder that genius is free to do as it chooses. And, again and again, these are not the words that he sings on the initially released albums.”
Billy Collins, the former United States poet laureate, admitting that “lyrics don’t really hold up without the music” argued that Dylan deserved to be recognized as a poet for his “lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice.”
As is thus evident that Dylan is certainly not a mere musician, the lyrics of his early 20s sounding almost philosophical, raising weighty questions about peace, war and capturing the spirit of the times had become anthems for the anti-war and civil rights movements of the US of 1960s. The commercial success that Dylan enjoyed all along is more due to his ability to connect with the angst of two generations of the US and the world growing up under the threat of atom bomb with lyrics such as:
“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?  …
I have been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard … 
I saw a new born baby with wild wolves all around it  … 
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children 
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard 
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall).

He warned the American society about the civil rights that were ‘blowing in the wind’ through his mind-blowing  lyrics:
“How many roads must a man walk down 
Before you call him a man?  … 
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly 
Before they’re forever banned? … 
The answer is blowin’ in the wind  …
Yes, and how many ears must one man have, 
Before he can hear people cry? 
Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows 
That too many people have died?  … 
The answer is blowin’ in the wind” (Blowin’ In The Wind, 1962).

Dylan, the icon of an age of protest, pleaded with the senators and mothers of the US to see the shifts in America and the post-colonial world when he sang:
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call  … 
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’ 
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls 
For the times they are a-changin’  …. 
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly ageing” (The Times They Are A-Changin’).
To say Dylan’s classics lessening the language barrier by the force of their immediacy that indeed is universal and timeless, unite strangers even, one simply need to listen to this one piece that taunts every traveller on the planet: 
“You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns … 
After he took from you everything he could steal 
How does it feel  … 
To be on your own 
With no direction home 
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?” (Like A Rolling Stone). 

This song of four verses and a chorus was perceived by his close followers as Dylan’s  ‘vomit’ directed at an unknown antagonist written after his return from a tour of England in 1965, and when the disc was finally released, its opening snare shot was felt as if it “kicked open the door to your mind.” The lyrics delivered in Dylan’s sardonic tone in a tumbling, cascading style hypnotized the listeners, including Paul McCartney, who felt: “It seemed to go on and on forever. It was just beautiful.” 

As I talk about these songs, old memories flashed in mind: in the 60s, sitting in the far corner of our college pavilion in the evenings—much before the usual lot assembled in it or, after it had left for good—used to hear some of the songs aired by Radio Ceylon in its evening programmes… or in the summer holidays sitting before annayya’s (elder brother’s) Phillips radio, of course, well before his returning home from hospital heard Bob Dylan singing some of those old songs.…..  And that listening coupled with the reading about the ‘Beat generation’ and Jack Kerouac and his philosophy (?)—the anti-conformist youth of post war USA… bumming   all around or, hitchhiking everywhere, all in the belief that they were turning over a new leaf —in bits and pieces from here and there and reading about Martin Luther King and his electrifying “I have a dream….” speech….we often simply wondered if the world is set to change so dramatically… at least, it gave us enough stuff to spend late nights with good-to-hear arguments… of course, for the heck of it(?), or to prove to the bookworms in the hostel that we are a different lot… or simply to show off … I don’t know …. but that stupidity was certainly an interesting entertainer of those days…. 

Now, returning to Bob… it must be said that interestingly, with every passing decade, Dylan, as some of the critics observed, experimenting with the intersection of the literary and musical world, reinvented himself to constantly fathom the depths of darkness and deliver hope to his listeners. In 1975, Dylan released the album, ‘Blood on the tracks’, the lyrics of which testifies the trump of the troubadour:
“Little red bike 
I ain’t no monkey but I know what I like. 
I like the way you love me strong and slow, 
I’m taking you with me, honey baby, 
When I go.”

At 60, Dylan released the album, ‘Love and Theft’ in 2001 that is abound with cracked and ruined love affairs. In ‘Mississippi’, the ravaged love travelogue, Dylan sings,
“Your days are numbered, so are mine  … 
I need something strong to distract my mind  
I’m gonna look at you ‘til my eyes go blind  …    
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind 
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine  …”

but none of these heartaches can find solace. In the last song of the album Dylan, standing with his back to the sun, “cause the light is too intense” sings to a woman pleading her to open her eyes to his love:
“Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love not an evil thing  … 
You went years without me, might as well keep goin’ now…” 

In all, the lyrics sounding just like running commentary about the relations of man and woman, make the past strange, haunted and alluring as the future.
Dylan, fusing the worlds of music and literature together with his unique voice and unforgettable lyrics—lyrics that are sure to free us for brief moments from this prosaic world, indeed some of them made many of us “feel physically as if the top of my [our] head[s] were taken off”—has kept himself relevant to the listeners for more than five decades. Irrespective of the definitions of poetry, as the Academy observed, he acquired “the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
Way back in 1963, watching the solo performance of the then 21-year-old Dylan, a reviewer of New York Times observed: “Dylan’s words and melodies sparkle with the light of an inspired poet.” And 53 years later Nobel Jury, dramatically redefining the boundaries of literature—“Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear”, has confirmed it. So to conclude, without comparing and contrasting ‘music’ and ‘literature’, and ignoring the purists and their angst about high and low art, “I‘ll just say fare thee [Bob Dylan] well”.
 Portarit - By Sri Sattiraju  Shankaranarayana garu



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