"I consider myself a poet first and a musician second"
"I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet."
Bob Dylan 1978
When, in 1996, it transpired that a Norwegian academy had decided to nominate singer-songwriter Bob Dylan as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, literary circles greeted the news with general derision. 'In that case they might as wel give it to Freek de Jonge,' Harry Mulisch commented.
This was the same Mulisch who was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres
by the French Minister for Culture. Bob Dylan - yes, him - had been accorded this honour 10 years earlier - except that Dylan was not made a Chevalier
but a Commandeur
. You can't win 'em all...
The Nobel Prize for Dylan? On what grounds? Surely not for Tarantula
, the novel he wrote in the 1960s but only published in 1973. In the book he showed himself a smooth writer and a good pupil of the beat authors, but all in all the novel didn't amount to much, and it was his first and last foray into this form of literature.
No, if we want to nominate him, we will have to do so on the strength of his songs, the lyrics of which he has published in several volumes. Lyrics from which virtually all his contemporaries - and surely a lot of others too - are able to quote a few lines.
Don't follow leaders / Watch the parkin' meters
But to live outside the law, you must be honest
She knows there's no success like failure
And that failure's no success at all.
He not busy being born / Is busy dying.
And you know something is happening
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
But the post office has been stolen / And the mailbox is locked.
An' he just smoked my eyelids / An' punched my cigarette.
(Did you know that he uses a very old literary figure of speech called a chiasmus here?)
All these phrases have become part of the collective unconscious of an entire generation. Even Professor Jaap Goedegebuure, who said that 90 per cent of Dylan's lyrics could safely be consigned to the wastepaper basket, managed to dig up some lines from his memory before the NOVA cameras: 'Yonder stands your orphan with his gun/ Crying like a fire in the sun.'
A fine and pure image, he thought, even without the music.
Another Professor, Christopher Ricks, compared Dylan's lyrics with Keats's poetry, especially his Ode to a Nightingale ('My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains...'
You surely know it). And Betsy Bowden, no mean expert in this field, has pointed out that there are several literary genres that should not be read from the printed page but must be experienced. Shakespeare's plays, for example, or the poetry of the mediaeval wandering scholars, the music of which has long been forgotten, but which was later set to new music by Carl Orff. Bowden was also the author of the 1996 recommendation to the Nobel Prize Commission in which she reminds the committee that in 1953 Winston Churchill was awarded the same prize for, amongst other things, his 'brilliant oratory.'
And while we're on the subject, in 1977 the prize was awarded to Italian playwright Dario Fo who - and I quote from the jury's report - 'had rivalled the mediaeval court jesters and has made a stand for the human dignity of the oppressed.' An argument that could easily be applied to Bob Dylan's works as well.
In his early songs of protest - The Ballad Of Hollis Brown, Only A Pawn In Their Game, The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
- he took up the cause of the oppressed minorities in America. At the same time he firmly placed himself into the tradition of the mediaeval minstrels - not only by singing centuries old songs like The House Carpenter, Black Jack Davy
en Love Henry
(all of them known under several other titles), but also by the timeless quality of original compositions like All Along The Watchtower, Blind Willie McTell
or Man In The Long Black Coat
. In his long strophic ballads - A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall
is a good example, just like Mr. Tambourine Man
- Dylan knows that he is harking back to the tradition of the 19th century American poetry of poets like Walt Whitman.
The English poet Philip Larkin, more a jazz fan than a lover of pop music, also wrote an interesting comment about Bob Dylan: 'I'm afraid I poached Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited out of curiosity and found myself well rewarded. Dylan's cawing, derisive voice is probably well suited to his material I say probably, because much of it was unintelligible to me and his guitar adapts itself to rock ('Highway 61') and ballad ('Queen Jane') admirably.' But he was critical as well: 'There is a marathon 'Desolation Row' which has an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half baked words.'
At the same time, Dylan is rooted - say authors like Wilfred Mellers, Greil Marcus and others - in another, invisible literary tradition, viz. that of the virtually anonymous American folk and blues singers of the early 20th century. In a time in which virtually none of the modern means of communications existed, their songs often painted heartrending portraits of their era and gave expression to personal suffering and the injustices done to them. These anonymous singers. You will find many of them on the invaluable six-CD compilation Anthology Of American Folk Music
, als known as the Harry Smith Collection
. In a 1997 interview Dylan said about this collection: 'These records contain the full richess of folk music. In particular it was the language: pure poetry, without a doubt. A totally different language than spoken language, and this is what I liked about it so much.'
The folk tradition was more or less finished off by the mass media, but according to Dylan it remains a reliable medium for telling the truth. 'Sing the truth as honest as you can,' was folk singer Woody Guthrie's advice to his followers - and probably to the young Bob Dylan as well. Dylan has generally stuck to Woody's words. He even sang the truth when he seemed not to be doing so.
`The only thing I have added to rock is this very simple folk element which wasn't very popular back then (in the '60s),' said Dylan in 1997, 'In those days no one knew who Leadbelly was, no one had heard of Blind Willie McTell or Woody Guthrie. Now pop music finds itself in exactly the same position. If you present yourself as a serious musician, no one is interested, just as when I grew up. We knew something was fake in the music of that time and we turned our backs on it. That's why we listened to people like Leadbelly; we knew they told the truth. I have been a musician for many years, and musicians listen to music in a different way from the average record-buyer. To me it is not entertainment.'
'For me he [Bob Dylan] was first of all a bridge between Elvis
,' colleague Roel Bentz van den Berg said, 'between rock & roll and literature. The world invoked in On The Road
fitted seamlessly together with what rock & roll invoked in me. Dylan had the gift of the word and carried on what the Beat Generation had started, underpinned by the beat of rock & roll.'
And Bruce Springsteen once said: 'Just as Elvis liberated our bodies, Bob liberated our minds.'
And so say all of us. Bob Dylan's songs painted - certainly in the 1960s - a poetic and philosophical portrait of the era. After his famous motorbike accident in 1966 and certainly after his conversion to Christianity more than 10 years later, he set his sights more towards all things eternal and - much more than before - his work became a quest for 'redemption.' Any day now, any way now, I shall be released
An important part of Dylan's work acquired a distinctly Biblical, often apocalyptic character. His songs are modern psalms, hymns, parables and allegories. Like a prophet he indicates that this world of ours is on the wrong track: World Gone Wrong
. 'All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie,' he sings on his latest album Time Out Of Mind
, 'People are crazy and times are strange.' This most recent work still breathes a 'mysterious enchantment' - I am quoting Sjoerd de Jong (in the NRC
): 'The enchantment of charred beauty.'
For a long time Dylan hasn't been aiming for an audience of 'hip' or 'cool' youngsters, but for people of all ages and from all walks of life. His heart lies with the weak and underpriviliged. He is a poet, a folk poet through and through, who harks back to great musical and poetic predecessors like Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. When we honour Dylan, we honour them as well: great artists who had nothing to do with the world of the 'high arts' that probably hasn't even heard of them. But to numerous hard working Americans and non-Americans their work has been of inestimable value. This is why the decision to nominate a folk poet like Dylan for a prestigious literary award like the Nobel prize is to a large extent a political one.
The mediaeval minstrel, the Walt Whitman of his day, the Jack Kerouac of rock 'n' roll, the folk poet who has outstripped his master Woody Guthrie, the white bluesman who carries the essence of this music in his soul...
Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize? It's about time!
So: Roll over Harry Mulisch and tell Hugo Claus the news...
Opening speech of the 'Bob Dylan de Nobelprijs' event at De Melkweg Amsterdam, September 20 2000.
by Bert van de Kamp