Decoding Dylan, a Servant of the Text

Bob Dylan’s work proves not only that he's an autodidact, but also that he understands the importance of structure, form, and tradition in both literature and music.

A Hard Rain's A-gonna Fall: Dylan Stumbles Into the Void

December 1963

Nothing is immaculately born.
Bob Dylan was the guest of honor as NECLC (National Emergency Civil Liberties Union) bestowed upon him its Tom Paine Award, recognizing what NECLC saw as his distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty. Already, even without the comfortable hindsight of over 50 years later, it should have been a recipe for disaster. Dylan was still a scruffy wunderkind not yet three years into his career, the beatnik sponge who could uncannily absorb influences from Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, and scores of other unsung folk stars of the age. The extent to which he absorbed and re-appropriated the works of others for his own purposes was not yet fully understood by the mass market music media, but Dylan had yet to become a marketable commodity.

What he obviously proved to be that night, a mere three weeks after the murder of President John F. Kennedy, was a scared and fragile young 22-year-old man brilliant with his understanding of the folk tradition but painfully awkward and often woefully ignorant when it came to common sense and social propriety. Imagine the thoughts that must have been swirling through Dylan’s mind as he sat at the head of the table that night in the Grand Ballroom of New York City’s Americana Hotel. This was many years before the comfortable packaging of TED talks and dynamic presentations. This was a time of carbon-copied typed notes, stained with coffee cup rings, smudged with tobacco ashes, and damp with frustration’s tears. James Baldwin, 39 at the time, was by Dylan’s side.

Since 1953, ten years before that evening, Baldwin had built up a career of absolute, uncompromised, fierce and focused works as Go Tell It on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son. Compare that with Dylan’s two albums in a span of 18 months, only the second of which was filled with original material, and the explosion of attention Dylan was receiving must have been overwhelming. Baldwin’s 1963 book of essays might have been called The Fire Next Time, but Dylan was living a creative conflagration of his own, and the nature of his comments that night (much apparently fueled by a mixture of nervousness and inebriation) proved he would have a difficult time effectively getting his message across in a speech. Music would always be his medium.

“I haven’t got a guitar,” Dylan begins, and soon enough he starts sliding down towards a dark well filled with strange defensiveness and naiveté. There are some lines that would be adapted in later songs: “…it’s took [sic] me a long time to get young and now I consider myself young” would become “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now” from 1964’s “My Back Pages”. This is a man who would never become comfortable with any mantle as spokesperson of his generation. “…There’s no black and white… there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground…” he adds, dismissing the triviality of politics and trying to connect himself with the disenfranchised.

It’s when he tries to make a half-hearted, woefully misguided personal connection with a topical reference that he loses himself and the crowd. Here was this carefully packaged folkie superstar, clearly uncomfortable outside the context of his music and dramatically failing as a public speaker. Again, a mere three weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Dylan takes Oswald as a character (not a reality) and tries on his shoes: “I don’t know… what he thought he was doing… but I got to admit honestly that… I saw some of myself in him.” Here, obviously, he loses the audience and never has the temerity to follow through on this connection. Was he alienated? Did he have a sense that Oswald was, as he’d write about Medgar Evers’s killer “Only a Pawn in the Game”? The speech dissolved under a flurry of boos, hisses, and a splattering of patronizing applause. The evening had been meant to celebrate the Bill of Rights (then 172-years-old) but it deteriorated through Dylan’s apparent inability (or unwillingness) to follow through on a train of thought.

In the immediate response, particularly an impassioned defense of Dylan from ECLC Chairman Corliss Lamont, there are particular lines that resonate even through the tough transom of time that brought is to the Nobel Prize Banquet Ceremonies nearly 53 years later. “Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, the cultural antecedents of Bob Dylan, were not appreciated by their society until they were very old.” Later, he notes “…our history is too full of disregard for important messages which were unrespectable at the time.” In a response/apology from Dylan after the negative reaction to his speech from those in attendance, he offered some lines that were more Beat Poetics than a clear-headed elaboration of ideas he failed to define that night: “my life runs in a series of moods… I can not speak. I can not talk. I can only write and I can only sing.” He rambles and drifts through ideas both brilliant and mundane in his response, not clearly comfortable in the skin of his chosen form.

Had this happened in 2016, he might have tweeted a trite and cleverly phrased 142 character response that served as a defense and something to solidify his reputation as a folk singer, but Dylan doesn’t tweet. For those willing to read it, Dylan’s response regarding the reaction to his speech that night set the table for a career of second-guessing and hand-wringing that will probably never be resolved.

Ceremonies of the Horsemen: Dylan and the Nobel Prize Academy

December 2016

The protest that followed the 13 October 2016 announcement from the Prize-bestowing Swedish Committee that singer/songwriter Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was followed by 15 days of radio silence from Dylan’s camp. Those inclined to protest, including an unnamed member of the selection committee, quickly concluded that Dylan was “impolite and arrogant”. The arguments about poetry as literature, and Dylan as an original artist or facilitator of the folk tradition -- merely the means through which these ancient songs are transmitted -- were revived. Leonard Cohen, perhaps the only other reasonable choice for the honor, noted that giving Dylan the Nobel Prize “was like pinning a medal on Mount Rushmore.” Cohen would be dead less than a month after making that statement, but it remained the most compelling way to put this honor into perspective.

Was Dylan worthy of this honor? How (or would) he absorb this ultimate indication of embrace from history into the work he was doing that night? For Dylan, the ultimate traveling troubadour, the day of the announcement was just a prelude to another of his nights on the road, heading for another joint. Was his initial silence simply in keeping with his strange temperament, or was he just grasping for ways to properly and effectively respond?

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The speech Dylan prepared but did not deliver was, at least by his standards, remarkably humble in its concise ability to put his career and legacy into proper historical and cultural context. Delivered by United States Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji, Dylan’s words evoke the feelings of a curious person who was familiar with the works of Kipling, Shaw, Camus, Hemingway and others. A cursory look at Dylan’s work proves not only that he's an autodidact, but also that he understands the equal importance of structure, form, and tradition in both literature and music. Nothing is immaculately born. All the work Dylan has ever produced can be traced to inspirations and concrete origins. What he has done with the work that so inspired him over these many years is what makes Dylan such a singular figure.

“These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.”

Dylan’s speech, less than a thousand words, humorously reflects upon the practical concerns William Shakespeare might have had while trying to launch a production of Hamlet.

His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read… I’m sure he was thinking ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ … ‘Is the financing in place?’ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’ I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?

It’s that last question, the status of what is or isn’t literature, that has dogged Dylan for as long as the plagiarism accusations. Is it? Or is this only after the Nobel Prize? Have any other songwriters won the Nobel Prize for literature? A quick Google search mentions a 1913 poet. The fact that his work is now safely and permanently ensconced in that highest of Academic prestige institutions probably won’t change many opinions about the man. For as long as Dylan the figure has been and will continue to be active, so too will be those who want him simply to play the old songs exactly as first recorded. For those gatekeepers, the immortal power of the work is always subordinate to the idea that Dylan has long surpassed his expiration date. The problem with those who have long ago relegated him to the role of the clever plagiarist is that they cannot accept the idea that he’s maintained for so many years, in one form or another.

It was within such a context that on 10 December 2016, singer/songwriter Patti Smith, standing in for Dylan at the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremonies and Banquet performed an impassioned version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” one of the remarkable songs that was in the atmosphere during heady the heady times of 1963, when Dylan received his Tom Paine Award from the NECLC. Visibly nervous, Smith fumbled one of the lines early in the long, complex song and asked to start again.

This song, an adaptation of traditional Child ballads such as Byron’s “Lord Randall”, is a question and answer look at the coming Dark Age, which was on the minds of many during the song’s December 1962 recording, less than two months after the Cuban Missile crisis. The Child Ballads, named after Harvard Professor and folklorist James Child, were a series of folk songs adapted and re-purposed over hundreds of years. They were sweet celebrations of innocence and absolute recognitions of mortality. Byron’s “Lord Randall”, based on Child Ballad No. 12, itself a long and cumbersome series of questions and answers, took from the first two sections: “Where have you been / my blue-eyed son” is followed by a testament of what has been seen: hunger, devastation, a black branch dripping with blood, “Ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken”.

What’s most remarkable about Patti Smith’s performance before that stuffy, reserved crowd of fossilized academics was its fragile vulnerability. She was backed by a supportive and tasteful orchestral arrangement, but she still managed to let the punk anger glow around her vocals. This was a singer who would not go quietly into the blanket of dread that was starting to cover the world in those weeks after Donald Trump’s election. In these quiet weeks before the storm, before the hard rain that would come with the arrival of the Trump administration, this was a perfect match of song and interpreter. Dylan had adamantly walked away from political posturing by 1964, justifiably leaving the songs to serve whatever purpose anybody wanted from them. Though her vocals were interrupted by nervous fumbling within the first few minutes, she recovered enough to reflect clearly, several days later, on the perfect connection between content and context:

“It was not lost on me that the narrative of the song begins with the words ‘I stumbled alongside twelve misty mountains,’ and ends with the line ‘And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.’ As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure, but also the strange realization that I had somehow entered and truly lived the world of the lyrics.”

Surveying the American Songbook

February 2017

Dylan’s latest album, Triplicate, scheduled for 31 March, will be his third release of American songbook covers since 2015. Like most moves Dylan has made throughout his career, reactions were clearly divided. That Triplicate will be his first three-record release in his 55-year career only made for more frustration from loyalists who for years had been waiting for the man to release an equal amount of new, original material. These cover songs, ostensibly a Frank Sinatra tribute project, feature the clearest, sweetest vocals of Dylan’s career. What does it say that the first post-Nobel release from Dylan is a collection of stylized interpretations rather than a continuation of folk ballads, murder ballads, 12 bar blues numbers and patchwork quilt interpolations of lines from other songs, other texts, other people? To some, it’s only a continuation of the betrayal that started in Newport, July 1965, when he went electric. To others, though, this latest incarnation of Dylan is purely logical. He has always been the transmitter, the conduit, a servant of the text. That he’s still with us and still finding material to record, original or not, is most important. Bob Dylan, the songwriter, might not be finished, but he’s done his job.


Tom Paine Award dinner speech.

"Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech", The New York Times, 10 December 2016

"Leonard Cohen: giving Nobel to Bob Dylan like 'pinning medal on Everest', The Guardian, 14 October 2016

"Hundreds of Years Old, These Songs Tour Like New", NPR Music, 20 April 2013

"12A: Lord Rendal", Sacred

"How Does It Feel", Patti Smith, The New Yorker, 14 December 2016

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