Bob Dylan, Nobel laureate

Bob Dylan

I have loved Bob Dylan from the time I heard Blowin’ in the Wind way back in the Sixties. But Bob Dylan Nobel laureate! Winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature! Call me old-fashioned. I prefer to read literature and listen to music.  Dylan’s songs may be poems set to music. But I would rather read the poems of WH Auden and Dylan Thomas, neither of whom won the Nobel Prize. Dylan I will listen to.

Dylan is the first singer-songwriter to win the 115-year-old Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded since 1901. Presumably all these years music and literature were thought to be separate. No more. Poetry was performed in ancient Greece, reminded Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awarded the prize.

“If you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan,” she said in an interview.

“Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear,” she added. “But it’s perfectly fine to read his works as poetry.”

“We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

She is right. Bob Dylan made his name with songs of social commentary, with songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin’. But he could also write traditional ballads like Boots of Spanish Leather. He could be allusive, obscure, describing visions, like Yeats. He could move you even when you didn’t fully understand him. But I liked him most when he was simpler.  As in Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right:

Here are the lyrics.

It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
It don’t matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe
If you don’t know by now
When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone
You’re the reason I’m trav’lin’ on
Don’t think twice, it’s all right

It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
That light I never knowed
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
I’m on the dark side of the road
Still I wish there was somethin’ you would do or say
To try and make me change my mind and stay
We never did too much talkin’ anyway
So don’t think twice, it’s all right

It ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
Like you never did before
It ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
I can’t hear you anymore
I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I’m told
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal
So I’ll just say fare thee well
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

With a wailing harmonica, and Dylan singing in his gruff, nasal voice, it’s plaintive and haunting and beautiful.  I love to listen to the song but, rather than pore over its lyrics,  I would read the poems of Auden and Dylan Thomas.

Dylan win bad for books?

Not everybody is happy that Dylan won the prize.

Stephen Metcalf wrote in Slate:  “You wouldn’t give the literary prize to an economist or a political saint. You shouldn’t give it to Bob Dylan.” He added, “The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.”

Salman Rushdie delighted, ‘great choice’

But Salman Rushdie sounded thrilled Dylan had won the Nobel. “We live in a time of great lyricist-songwriters – Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits – but Dylan towers over everyone. His words have been an inspiration to me ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school,” he said, “and I am delighted by his Nobel win. The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that.”

I agree there’s poetry in Dylan’s songs but there have been greater poets than him who didn’t win the Nobel Prize. The selection can seem arbitrary. Writers like PG Wodehouse, Lawrence Durrell and John Updike never won the prize. That does not make them any less great.

The Nobel Prize does not lift Dylan any higher. He is already great. Still, I would rather listen to his songs than read his lyrics. I like him more as a singer-songwriter than as a poet. That’s not knocking his poetry. He is good. But  listen to him sing  I Want You and then read the lyrics.

Now here are the lyrics.

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

The drunken politician leaps
Upon the street where mothers weep
And the saviors who are fast asleep, they wait for you
And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin’ from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you.

How all my fathers, they’ve gone down
True love they’ve been without it
But all their daughters put me down
’Cause I don’t think about it

Well, I return to the Queen of Spades
And talk with my chambermaid
She knows that I’m not afraid to look at her
She is good to me
And there’s nothing she doesn’t see
She knows where I’d like to be
But it doesn’t matter

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit
He spoke to me, I took his flute
No, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?
But I did it, though, because he lied
Because he took you for a ride
And because time was on his side
And because I . . .

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

 You heard the song played on the soundtrack in the video and  you read the lyrics, too.

Which do you like more – the lyrics or the song?

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