A Tale of Two Dylans
“I did more for Dylan Thomas than he ever did for me,” replied Bob Dylan to an inquisitive journalist asking him for the umpteenth time about his relationship with the Welsh poet born October 27, 1914 whose centennial we celebrate this year. Bob Dylan changed his last name from Zimmerman to honor one of the major poets of the 20th Century when he launched his career as a folk singer in NYC in 1961 just 8 years after his namesake Dylan Thomas had died in NYCs Bellevue Hospital of a “massive insult to the brain” from consuming 18 straight whiskeys at his favorite drinking hole The White Horse Tavern on November 9, 1953. However, like many aspects of his constantly changing biography Dylan (Bob) often shied away from the obvious truth and hid behind a barrage of obscurantist tall tales, such as that he had taken his name from an uncle in Hibbing, Minnesota—yes, one of the many middle-class Jewish “Dylans” in the North Country—or had named himself after Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke fame before some reporter misspelled it in a story and it became “Dylan.”
Believe it or not, sometimes, as Freud once observed, a cigar is just a cigar, so when presented with hoof-prints look for horses, not zebras, as a wise old doctor once advised his student diagnosticians. Dylan (Bob) took his name from Dylan (Thomas) because like so many Jews in the entertainment industry he may not have wanted his ethnic origins to be so transparent, and he wanted a name that suggested poet not shopkeeper.
It has proven to be one of the more inspired name-changes since Hiram King Williams became Hank Williams or Elliott Adnopoz, son of a Jewish surgeon became “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott,” the last of the Brooklyn cowboys.
Bob Dylan has long since stopped denying his family’s origins as middle-class Jews in Hibbing, Minnesota, or claiming that he “ran away to join the circus” when he was 13. When he was 13 he was being Bar Mitzvahed like all the other Jewish boys in town and his Bar Mitzvah paperwork is still available.
But he certainly has become what he set out to become—a poet. So during this Centennial year of Dylan Thomas’s birth the long-ago connection between the two has finally become inescapable and Bob Dylan has even been invited to join the official celebration by giving a concert in Swansea, Wales as a part of it. (As of this writing he will be performing at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood the weekend of the Centennial. See his website for date, time & ticket info to his Dolby Theatre concerts.)
The mythology surrounding Dylan Thomas is little short of that surrounding Bob Dylan; he became famous in America not just from his poetry but because of his romantic poetic lifestyle which included binge-drinking, many affairs during his reading tours of colleges in the late forties and early fifties, and his instantly recognizable and memorable voice which seemed to have been made for reading poetry aloud. Indeed, it was Dylan Thomas who virtually created the job of reading poetry aloud. Though many other poets had been recorded before, none had achieved Dylan Thomas’s heights of popularity for spoken word performances of their work. It was Thomas who inspired two college graduates Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney in New York in 1952 to start a record company for the sole purpose of recording poets reading aloud and dramatic performances of plays and prose. Caedmon Records was the first and best-known label for a growing library of spoken-word recordings that began with Dylan Thomas’s public readings—recorded live at the 16h Street “Y” in New York City. Dylan Thomas created a modern art form and an academic discipline, that of oral interpretation of literature.
So it’s important to add that Bob Dylan took the name not just of a poet but a performing artist—just the combination of art forms he was to pursue as a folk singer-songwriter.
Of course this raises the question of whether a songwriter warrants the name of poet at all, but since I have addressed that question in a number of previous essays on Bob Dylan I will only summarize it here: while Dylan’s work was pointedly dismissed by academic poets in the 1960s as undeserving of the term “poetry,” he has since won enough of them over that I think it is largely semantic at this point. His songs have been published in academic textbooks, including the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and from that there is no escaping the conclusion that, as Walt Whitman once argued, Dylan (Bob) has “created the audience by which he would be judged.” Call it what you will behind the ivory-covered walls of academia, the world at large has had no problem in—once again—accepting the obvious—Bob Dylan’s incredible creative outpouring over fifty years is the work of—in the largest sense of the word—a poet.
So who better to pair with the great Welsh bard of the mid-twentieth century than America’s greatest songwriter of the second half of the 20th Century? The Found Theatre People’s Celebration of the Dylan Thomas Centennial is the result—combining the best of both worlds—Dylan Thomas’ poems with Bob Dylan’s songs—to show how many of the same themes ravel through them both—death, war, youth and innocence, the outsider, and the craft of poetry itself.
To begin with, the poetic life of Dylan Thomas has a poetic frame that begins with his first book 18 Poems and ends with his last drinking binge—18 straight whiskeys, 18 being the Hebrew letter Chai—which stands for life. Both his life and death are defined by the same number, which has an eerie almost mystical character. “In my end is my beginning” said another famous poet—T.S. Eliot—and never was it more true than in the life and death of Dylan Thomas. “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs…time held me green and dying as I sang in my chains like the sea” he wrote in Fern Hill, his poem on the relation between youth and death and the hold that time has on us even when we least expect it. At the other end of the continuum he wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” about his father’s dying. Bob Dylan wrote in a similar vein though reaching different conclusions in Forever Young and Death Is Not the End, a much later song which sounds like his answer to Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” But even as a 20-year old making his first album—the eponymous Bob Dylan he too was obsessed with death with traditional songs like Bukka White’s In My Time of Dying and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Kept Clean speaking for him.
The movie Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer delves into the same territory with Pfeiffer’s former U.S. Marine-turned-English teacher in an inner-city school (based on the true story My Posse Don’t Do Homework by LouAnne Johnson) using her lesson plan called “The Two Dylans” to introduce her students to poetry. In the movie (which departs from the book in that Ms. Johnson used rap lyrics) Michelle Pfeiffer’s character uses Mr. Tambourine Man and Do Not Go Gentle to awaken her reluctant students to the power of language and poetry. But what turn out to be her gifted African-American and Hispanic students add something of their own to her assignment—they find one of Dylan’s (Bob) lesser-known songs Let Me Die In My Footsteps about refusing to go into a fallout shelter to play off of Dylan (Thomas’s) Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It’s a brilliant take on the two works, in the hands of her students, each shedding light on the other.
Both poets also identify strongly with the outsider, none more eloquently than in Dylan Thomas’s poem The Hunchback in the Park and Bob Dylan’s song Only a Hobo. They each bring their respective characters to life—anti-heroes to be sure—who represent something emblematic about the artist-in-society as well. Thomas’s hunchback is bullied and abused by the kids in the park but responds to their insensitivity by becoming an artist, a sculptor who transfigures his own deformity into “a woman figure without fault” that “she might stand in the night” after the park is empty of them all. It is a metaphor for poetry itself, akin to Yeats’ description of the poet as one who fashions his verse out of the dung heap of life and “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” In Bob Dylan’s Only a Hobo he makes no romantic claims but focuses instead on the gritty details of his crushing defeat:
A blanket of newspaper covered his head
A stair was his pillow/the street was his bed
he face was all ground in the cold sidewalk floor
and he looked like he’d been dead the whole night or more.
And yet in the chorus the singer becomes the very thing he says is missing from the picture:
He was only a hobo
But one more is gone
Leaving nobody to sing his sad song
Leaving nobody to carry him home
He was only a hobo
But one more is gone.
But he hasn’t died completely alone or an unsung hero, for Dylan was there “to sing his sad song.” It’s a kind of earthly redemption, for out of Dylan’s song the hobo will live forever, to epitomize the outsider, even, dare I say it, a Christ figure in the end, left to die as another modern folk song has it, “like a Tramp on the Street.”
Yet another major theme inextricably links these two great poets—that of war. Dylan Thomas responded to the Nazi’s firebombing of London during World War II with one of his masterpieces: A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, Of a Child in London:
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter
After the first death there is no other.
Dylan (Thomas) refuses to mourn her not because her death wasn’t tragic—it was—but rather she too has become Christ-like in her suffering—the “first death” referring elliptically to the Crucifixion. And like Bob Dylan becoming the mourner for the hobo who seemingly has none, Dylan Thomas even in his “refusal to mourn” has crafted the most moving elegy allowing the reader to mourn in his stead.
Both of Bob Dylan’s classic antiwar songs Masters of War and With God On Our Side engage with this theme: In the first he sings:
Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water that runs down my drain
…there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.
And in the second Dylan laments
Through many a dark hour
I been thinking about this
That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.
Both Dylans are acutely aware of the biblical threads that hold their poetic visions together and give them a transcendent solemnity.
Finally, Dylan Thomas’s In My Craft Or Sullen Art places his work squarely in the ranks of the “towering dead” poets who inspired him, but to whom he pays no regard, preferring to write:
For the lovers
their arms round the griefs of the ages
who pay no praise or wages
nor heed my craft or art.
Dylan (Bob) too writes:
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
As we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
The Dylan Thomas Centennial is the perfect time to tell their story of the lovers, outsiders and unsung heroes for whom they wrote.
In observance of October is Arts Month The Found Theatre and Ross Altman host a very special celebration of the Dylan Thomas Centennial on Sunday evening October 26, 2014 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Found Theatre, 599 Long Beach Blvd. in Long Beach. This is a participatory event for lovers of Dylan Thomas’ poems—with a little extra thrown in for lovers of the other Dylan’s songs. Come read a poem/sing a song and celebrate the Welsh Bard and America’s “Original Vagabond” in a memorable evening of poetry and songs.
Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; when he left the classroom for the stage he turned the stage into a classroom. Every so often he produces literary events such as this to uphold what Matthew Arnold called the best that has been thought and said. Ross and Found Theatre Director Virginia DeMoss have invited a few of their favorite fellow performers to guarantee a good show. Don’t you dare miss it!
Signups are also welcome at the door to perform a poem or a song; The Found Theatre is making this available to the community at large and all participants are donating their time and talents. Audience donations are suggested and all funds raised at the door will be donated to Interval House in Long Beach, which provides emergency aid and support for women and their children who are victims of domestic violence.
To guarantee a slot on the bill, sign up to perform at 562-433-3363 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Come gather round people wherever you roam and celebrate two great poets and singers of song; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This not-for-profit Dylan Thomas 2014 Centennial Commemoration is a © production of Grey Goose Music (BMI) and The Found Theatre; all works to be performed are copyrighted by their original authors or estates and therefore performances may not be videotaped, photographed or tape recorded; all cell phones to be turned off.
See John Malcolm Brinnin’s book Dylan Thomas in America for a first-hand account of the poet’s American odyssey, his influence on this country and vice versa.
Check out the previous “A Tale of Two Dylans: A Concert Review – September 3, 2008” by Ross Altman”
Ross Altman may be reached at email@example.com