Nobel Prize in Literature

Bob Dylan: Song and dance man

Print edition : November 11, 2016

Bob Dylan at the 22nd annual Bluesfest music festival near Byron Bay, Australia, on April 25, 2011. Photo: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP

A 2009 handout photograph. Bob Dylan refused to be cooped-in and categorised by labels. Photo: VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS

Performing during a civil rights rally in August 1963 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Rowland Scherman/National Archive/Newsmakers

With his songs, Bob Dylan, who won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, has served as a reluctant conscience in a world torn by prejudice, strife and greed.

“OH I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” That was Bob Dylan in 1965, upon being asked whether he saw himself as a singer or a poet.

Fifty-one years down the line, having changed the course of popular music, redefined the art of songwriting, elevating it to the realm of poetry, and having emerged as one of the most influential cultural figures of the modern age, Bob Dylan was at long last awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Think of culture today in its all-inclusive entirety, and then consider for a moment that Bob Dylan had never existed. It would not really be an exaggeration to state that the world would have been a different place. For more than half a century, Dylan, with his songs, has been responsible for making people think in a different way. He has been giving them an alternative perspective of life and society and has served as a reluctant conscience in a world torn by prejudice, strife and greed.

“Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song

’Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along

Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn

It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born” (Bob Dylan, 1962).

But he is also a poet of love and beauty, of fleeting moments of pleasure and pain, and a teller of stories of humanity, with all its greatness and folly. He has been the voice of protest, the poet of the oppressed, a composer of enduring anthems, a linguistic genius and troubadour who liberated the world of art from narrow compartmentalisation and pushed the boundaries of creativity to the very limits. All this and much more and never once forsaking the stage—after all he is a song and dance man.

Hard work and discipline

The fact is that Dylan has long transcended the label of a rock star, or a singer-songwriter, or even a poet. The boy, whose ambition in high school was to play alongside the maverick rock ‘n’ roll piano player Little Richard, has become a cultural symbol, and a figure of contemporary history. For those purists who balk at the idea of someone being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for writing songs, one would remind them of the views of Rabindranath Tagore (who won it in 1913 for his Gitanjali in English), who believed that his songs alone would ultimately survive the ravages of time, and they did. Similarly, songs that Dylan wrote more than 50 years ago are as relevant today and sung all over the world as they were when they first came out, and they will no doubt remain so in the years to come.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, to a Jewish family in Hibbing, Minnesota, young Bob was brought up in the time-tested tradition of hard work and discipline. “I was born very far from where I was supposed to be,” he later said. He learnt to play the guitar at the age of 10, and like most children of his age came under the influence of rock ‘n’ roll music.

In 1959, he moved to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota but, by his own admission, did not attend any class. He was too engrossed in the folk music scene of Dinkytown and it was around this time that he changed his name to Dylan. In 1961, he moved to New York City. There Dylan soaked in all the styles and genres of music that he came across and from all of that emerged his own unique form. But it was Woody Guthrie and his guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists” inscribed on it that was his true inspiration. “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live,” Dylan had said of Woody. As Woody lay in the hospital with Huntington’s disease, young Dylan would bring him cigarettes and would sit at his bedside and play the guitar and sing for him.

Playing around in the bohemian quarters of Greenwich Village, he was spotted by the legendary record producer John Hammond, and in 1962, Columbia brought out his first album, the eponymous Bob Dylan. But it was not until 1963, with the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan that the sensation that was Dylan struck home. “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”—three of the greatest songs ever written were in that album. He was almost immediately accepted in intellectual circles, and the literary vanguards of the past decade humbly and happily gave way to a new prophet. The iconic poet and voice of the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg, remembered weeping upon first hearing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation from the earlier bohemian or Beat illumination and self-empowerment... and I was really knocked out by the eloquence,” Ginsberg said.

Voice of protest

When Dylan burst on to the scene, people were spellbound—here was a slight, scruffy cherub with “eyes bluer than robins’ eggs”, a voice harsh and nasal, strumming an acoustic guitar and blowing on a harp/harmonica, and singing words that struck the listeners at the very core of their beliefs. They had never heard anything like this before.

With the next few albums, The Times They are A-Changin’ (1964), Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964), and Bringing it all Back Home (1965), Dylan emerged as the most powerful and artistic voice of protest. Songs like “Times they are A-Changin’”, “With God on our Side”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Chimes of Freedom” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” spoke out against injustice and captured the spirit, angst and restlessness of the youth and the times and gave expression to their feelings as had never been done earlier. He sang of what was happening around him and never flinched from the truth.

“Oh, but you who philosophise disgrace and criticise all fears

Bury the rag deep in your face

For now’s the time for your tears.”

He wrote thus on the death of a coloured kitchen maid, Hattie Caroll, who was killed carelessly and accidentally by a rich, spoilt youth.

He sang of the despair of a disappearing illusion:

“The empty-handed painter from your streets

Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets

This sky, too, is folding under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

Drawing inspiration from the folk and blues traditions, he created his own style and began to evolve his own sound. For example, the great American balladeer John Jacob Niles composed a love song in 1908:

“Go ’way from my window

Go ’way from my door

Go ’way, way way from my bedside

And bother me no more

And bother me no more.”

In 1964, Dylan wrote an entirely different kind of love song—one that became one of the most powerful songs of protest against the war in Vietnam, “It Ain’t Me Babe”:

“Go ’way from my window

Leave at your own chosen speed

I’m not the one you want, babe

I’m not the one you need.”

Or the old Scottish ballad “Lord Randall”, which reveals a story of murder through a series of questions and answers:

“Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall my son?

O where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man?

I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,

For I’m weary wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

Dylan uses the same format in the apocalyptic and prophetic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

“And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?

And what did you hear, my darling young one?

I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’

Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.”

It was a time for change and Dylan was universally hailed as the prophet of the age. “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast / The slow one now/ Will later be fast /”, he foretold, and everyone paid heed.

But the role of the new messiah was not something Dylan was comfortable with. “I never really was any more than what I was—a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze,” he later wrote. He refused to be cooped-in and categorised, and by 1964, with his fifth album, Bringing it All Back Home, he was already shifting away from being typecast. He began to experiment with new styles in his writings, and introduced for the first time an electric guitar to the sound of his music. Songs like “Tambourine Man”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, “Its Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, “She Belongs to Me”, “Gates of Eden” and others introduced new imagery and form in popular music.

Shattering conventions

Dylan had brought in a new era in popular arts. He invented new logic of rhythm and metre, told stories, painted pictures, created worlds and shattered conventions with words and tunes. With a single line he brought down your defences and exposed the sham in all that is considered sacred.

“Disillusioned words like bullets bark

As human gods aim for their mark

Make everything from toy guns that spark

To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark

It’s easy to see without looking too far

That not much is really sacred” (It’s Alright Ma).

Meeting the Beatles

Around the same time, another force was simultaneously dominating the cultural world from across the sea—The Beatles. The meeting of the two would be one of the momentous occasions of cultural history, and that took place in August 1964. Dylan supposedly introduced the Fab Four to marijuana and cheap wine, opened up their horizons and freed them from the stifling confines of pop lyricism; and the Beatles in turn inspired Dylan towards greater musical sophistication.

What followed was the greatest period of Dylan’s creative output. In 1965 came Highway 61 Revisited with the groundbreaking number “Like a Rolling Stone”—a sneering masterpiece of a rock song, showing Dylan at his nastiest and most brilliant form:

“You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns

When they all come down and did tricks for you

You never understood that it ain’t no good

You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you.”

With its sardonic refrain, “How does it feel / How does it feel / To be without a home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone?”, it is considered among the greatest rock songs ever written.

By this time Dylan had completely shed his folksy image and was an out-and-out Fender Stratocaster-wielding rock star, complete with shades and leather. But the transition was not easy for his fans and admirers to accept. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when he went on stage with an electric guitar, and in 1966, playing at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, he was cheered for the first part where he played the acoustic guitar, but was booed again when he came on stage for the second set with his electric band. “Judas,” cried out a fan in what has now become one of the most famous incidents in a live performance. “I Don’t Believe You, You’re a Liar,” Dylan snarled back, before launching into a blistering version of “Like a Rolling Stone”. The same year he brought out “Blonde on Blonde”, one of the greatest albums of all time. With songs like “I want you”, “Visions of Johanna”, “Just Like a Woman”, “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, and practically all the others, Dylan soared to new heights of lyrical genius.

Reinventing his style

After a motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan dropped out of the scene and re-emerged in 1967, with the allegorical John Wesley Harding album. The psychedelic imagery that pervaded his earlier rock albums was missing here. The songs were of a completely different nature, being shorter and less expansive in imagery and more symbolic in suggestion. While the music harked back to the old country and blues tradition, the lyrics, with their biblical references, and even a tip of the hat to the “baul” tradition of India, once again showed Dylan’s constant compulsion to reinvent his style. The songs are like little stories from the same book expressed with a unity of purpose and style.

Dylan is undoubtedly the greatest storyteller in the world of music. With metaphors, images, rhythms and rhymes, he has created a universe that has continued to intrigue and fascinate the world for more than half a century. A world where “They are selling postcards of the hanging”; where the “motorcycle black Madonna / Two-wheeled gypsy queen / And her silver-studded phantom cause /The gray flannel dwarf to scream”; where “Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail / The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder”; where “The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face” and “inside the museums infinity goes up on trial”; where “Just a table stands empty / By the edge of the sea”; where “to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”; where “beyond here lies nothin”. It is a world where darkness and paranoia live alongside breathtaking beauty. Sinister forms lurk in the shadows, and forces of darkness and evil menace one’s cherished world. A place where “wicked birds of prey” feed on one’s “breadcrumb sins”; where you run the risk of giving your heart to “the man in the long black coat”; where “she just sit there as the night grows still / She say who gonna take away his license to kill?”; where “something is happening but you don’t know what it is”. Surreal and cinematic, poignant and vicious, hilarious and frightening, Dylan’s created universe is all-encompassing. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true. They’re like strange countries that you have to enter,” he said.

Amidst the splash of colours and the maze of symbolism, behind the sometimes facetious and sometimes bizarre, and often the profound, one cannot miss the compulsion of the genius that cannot rest from creating, and the honesty of the passion of the creator. “All I ever do is protest,” he once said in exasperation when asked by journalists why he does not write “protest songs” anymore. When by the mid 1960s he moved away from composing what one may call overtly protest songs, it was the narrowness of the vision of his critics that prompted them to lash out at him. For Dylan’s protest statement became a far more subtle and an infinitely more artistic affair. “It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large / Nor is it my intention to sound a battle charge,” he sang (“Wedding song”, album Planet Waves, 1976). A new voice emerged—a voice of stark, blazing individuality. The voice of one who defied his own legend and refused to conform to the image the world had of him. This individualism found its ultimate expression in the magnificent 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. It is a masterpiece of sounds and images, the ultimate lyrical expression of personal pain: “I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read / Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead / Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy / I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory / And all your ragin’ glory,” he howled in impotent rage in “Idiot Wind”.

Dylan’s has been the most supreme kind of protest. It is the protest of an individual for the right to reject systems and mindsets that insist upon categorising him according to their interpretations. He can never live in the image someone else makes of him. Nobody could have put that better in verse than Dylan himself:

“Gentlemen, he said

I don’t need your organisation, I’ve shined your shoes

I’ve moved your mountains and marked your cards

But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination

Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards” (“Changing of the guards”, Album Street-legal, 1978).

Yet, in that fierce individuality lies an unwavering commitment to strike out at injustice and prejudice with the most lethal weapon at his disposal—his words. He took up the cause of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the black ex-middleweight boxer who was wrongly convicted of a triple murder in 1966. With his explosive and angry “Hurricane” in the album Desire (1976), he laid bare the racial prejudice prevalent in the society and the lapses in a legal system that sends an innocent man to prison.

“Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties

Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise

While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell

An innocent man in a living hell.”

But it is not just social causes and the larger canvas that inspired Dylan. The poet in him is equally tormented by the smaller tragedies that make up the life of the insignificant. From a weary prostitute he encounters in the elevator of a hotel comes the inspiration for the hauntingly beautiful “Dark Eyes” (Empire Burlesque, 1985):

“They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes,

They tell me revenge is sweet and from where they stand, I’m sure it is.

But I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized,

All I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes.”

One of the reasons for the continuing obsession that people have with Dylan (one of the longest obsessions in cultural history) is the aura of mystery with which he has always cloaked himself. With his songs he has created myths, turned fairy tales on their heads. He has changed his name, dismissed his past, created his own identity, and along with it, his own myth. His lyrics have continued to mesmerise and puzzle one generation after another. He is taught in universities and his works have been interpreted and reinterpreted and yet people still have not got enough of him. Countless books have been written on him; even a film— I’m Not There (directed by Todd Hayes, 2007)—has been made, exploring the different aspects of Dylan’s public persona, and in which six different actors play the role of the protagonist. But the question—which is the real Dylan—still remains unanswered.

Often the persona of a writer is revealed through his works, but here too, Dylan has remained elusive. He has hardly ever bothered to explain his lyrics. Like a painter he has created scenes with words and symbols that are always open to interpretation, and can often be understood or appreciated only at an extremely subjective level. Sometimes it even appears to be a little private joke that he shares only with himself, watching people trying to unravel the enigma that is Dylan. In his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, referring to an album of his, Dylan wrote: “Eventually, I would even record an entire album based on Chekov short stories—critics thought it was autobiographical—that was fine.” Typically, he does not name the album. Most would assume it was Blood on the Tracks, but one can never be certain. His fans all over the world celebrated the news of his winning the Nobel Prize. College students brought out their guitars and sang his songs. Everybody had something to say about it, except, of course, Bob Dylan. Days went by after the award was declared, and still not a word from the recipient. Like the “little neighbour boy” from the song “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” (John Wesley Harding, 1967), who walked along, alone “with his guilt so well concealed”, Dylan too may be somewhere muttering to himself, “nothing is revealed”.

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