THE DARK SIDE OF THE ROAD: DYLAN’S NOBEL PRIZE
“I guess I was never one of those rock and roll singers who was going to win any Nobel Prize—is that what you call it, the Nobel Prize?” Bob Dylan in an old interview opening Lisa Finnie’s The Dylan Hour, Sunday, October 16, 2016: “Dylan Lit 101: Poetics, Lyrics and Prose,” KCSN 88.5 FM, 11:00 AM-1:00pm—a special two-hour broadcast—the definitive radio tribute to America’s poet.
“For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
—The Nobel Prize Committee, Stockholm, Sweden, on awarding Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – October 13, 2016
If Bob Dylan had listened to Joan Baez when she pleaded with him to rejoin the peace movement “still marching in the streets” in 1972, “There’s a place for you,” she assured him in her song “To Bobby,” he never would have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s doubtful he would have received the Nobel Prize for Peace either, but it never even crossed his mind to strive for it.
He made his choice back then, and it was irrevocable. He was an artist—not an activist—nor would he settle for being “the voice of a generation.” He had no interest in leading a march; he was on the road not taken—as Robert Frost called it—and it was a much more lonely path he chose; he was the singer and the song; let others quote Blowing In the Wind, Masters of War and With God On Our Side; his words and music would animate their marches and civil disobedience he had no time for.
In short, he was not the hero Achilles; he was the poet Homer, who would sing of his exploits. It was that certitude that made him willing to alienate so many friends who wanted something from him that he couldn’t give, and to pursue his muse wherever she directed him to go—from folk to folk rock to Nashville to Christian to traditional blues to classic American pop styles from the 1930s and ‘40s; always one step ahead of his audience.
Well it ain’t no use in turning on your light, Babe;
I’m on the dark side of the road.
He might as well have been speaking to the audience as to a former lover like Joan. That is the road he has been on ever since—until the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm, Sweden shone a light on it even he could not ignore: The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Suddenly, as my rabbi Jeff Marx put it so well, “Bob Dylan becomes now not a folk musician or a rock n roller who writes good lyrics but rather, as we’ve known all along, a poet, bard, a chronicler , who accompanies his verse with guitar and harmonica.”
Dylan made the implications of that choice clear in volume 1 of his memoir Chronicles; when he describes in riveting detail the early years he spent buried in the stacks of the New York Public Library when he was also presumed to be marching in the streets like the rest of our generation’s counter-culture warriors. While Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton were reading the morning’s New York Times, he was going through reams of microfilm of century-old newspapers from the Civil War, searching for a language, for rhetorical tropes, for a lost world through which he could speak to this world. He found it in an anti-slavery song from the abolitionist pre-Civil War era: No More Auction Block:
No more auction block over me
No more, no more;
No more auction block over me
Many Thousands Gone.
He adapted the tune and extended the scope of the lyrics to include war and peace as well as freedom—and recalled an old blues song from Big Bill Broonzy—When Do I Get to Be Called a Man?—and in the mystery of artistic alchemy it became Blowing In the Wind. The fruit of all that research, from being drawn into the bardic past, was the central image he hit on to epitomize the “rumors of war and wars that have been” of which he sang in another song,
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
When all the other topical and protest song writers in Greenwich Village and overseas in London (such as Pete Seeger’s brother-in-law Ewan MacColl) were writing songs about “banning the bomb,” Dylan made his song timeless by ignoring the bomb, and reached back to the cannonballs of the Civil War. It was a stroke of genius. He also came across an old saying of Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.” That’s how the president of the Civil War was able to sum up Dylan’s satirical talking blues about an imagined nightmare of World War III.
They both made it on to his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—two ways of paying tribute to both history and literature. He also adapted the traditional English ballad Lord Randall for a cautionary tale about the Cold War: A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which prompted Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to say the first time he heard it, “It brought tears of illuminated joy.” Before Freewheelin’ he paid tribute to America’s greatest songwriter up to then—Woody Guthrie—in his first album, from 1962—the eponymous Bob Dylan—with his first published Song to Woody:
Hey, hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
making the very act of writing an integral part of the song itself.
He might as well have said what he came around to declaring three albums later, in I Shall Be Free No. 10 from Another Side of Bob Dylan,
I’m a poet, I know it, I hope I don’t blow it,
with five long “o” vowels in quick succession—showing his listeners as well as telling them in one line.
Dylan may have believed it, but many of the World War II generation academic poets of the 194s, ‘50’s and ‘60s, like Howard Nemerov and Richard Wilbur and Karl Shapiro certainly did not. I still remember academic conferences in the 1960s, when I studied English Literature at UCLA, the purpose of which was to entertain the proposition that Dylan had no claim to be considered a poet at all. To their generation poetry had to bear witness on the page alone; it was not a discipline that could require “a guitar and a harmonica” as Rabbi Marx said to achieve the status of literature. There was no way to understand this at the time, but they were exactly the Mr. Jones to whom
something was happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?
Yet at the same time he was challenging their authority, and the authority of the canon itself, he was doing so in a way that in hindsight pays tribute to their own most cherished literary sources.
Dylan’s love for and immersion in classic literature has been a hallmark of his work from the beginning. He is as literate and literary a songwriter as Cole Porter, but he pays homage to Shakespeare in his own way. Instead of transforming Shakespeare’s London into a modern musical as Porter does in Kiss Me Kate, Dylan brings him into contact with the rumpled life of the urban polyglot in the home of the blues with this magical line from Blonde on Blonde’s Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again:
Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well.
In Highway 61 Revisited’s Desolation Row he puts Ophelia too in a modern urban landscape as the subject of his own age of anxiety:
Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her 22nd birthday
she already is an old maid.
And Desolation Row is also the home of perhaps his best-known line in an ironic tribute to modern poetry:
Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Are fighting in the captain’s tower
Calypso singers laugh at them
and fisherman hold flowers.
Once again he brings two disparate worlds together in what literary critic Kenneth Burke called “Perspective by Incongruity,” each shedding light on the other. Without making any direct reference to the news of the Nobel Prize in his Las Vegas Cosmopolitan show the night after he won it, he put Desolation Row in his set list so the audience could hear some of those lyrical evocations of the writers with whom he would now be in good company. T.S. Eliot after all won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
Dylan often used literary touchstones to dramatize the countercultural point he was making; from the aforementioned classic song he put in his post-Nobel set list at the Cosmopolitan—his way of acknowledging the Nobel without turning the show into a personal curtain call—Ballad of a Thin Man: You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read it’s well known
You know something’s happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
The literary architecture of Dylan’s entire oeuvre is what spoke to the Nobel Committee; here are a few more examples. KCSN Dylan Hour host Lisa Finnie weaves together many of these references in her introductions to the songs she is playing this morning and afternoon. Anthologized in The Norton Introduction to Literature is Mr. Tambourine Man with its “skipping reels of rhyme.” From The Norton Anthology of Poetry is the ballad Boots of Spanish Leather, on The Times, They Are A-Changing. This is the album I mentioned in my recent article about the music of the Spanish Civil War that Dylan personally brought to the Spanish Island of Majorca to give to World War I poet Robert Graves, only to find that Graves had no idea who he was. But Dylan knew who he was, and the Great Tradition he represented. Desolation Row is included in the 2006 Oxford Book of American Poetry. These are now standard texts in university classrooms across the country. Here are twenty indelible literary allusions to writers and poetry, embedded in one great song after another, some of them I’ve been singing for more than fifty years:
1. Huck’s Tune
2. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot are Fighting in the Captain’s Tower
3. You’ve Been Through All of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Books
4. Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud
5. Written By an Italian Poet of the 13th Century
6. Shakespeare He’s In the Alley
7. Ophelia’s She’s Neath the Window
8. The Air Around Tom Paine
9. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
10. I Can’t Even Touch the Books You’ve Read
11. Abraham Lincoln Said That
12. I’ve Read Erica Jong
13. God Said to Abraham Give Me a Son
14. Hey Hey Woody Guthrie I Wrote You a Song
15. Skipping Reels of Rhyme
16. Tiger Tiger Burning Bright
17. I’m a Poet/I Know It/ I Hope I Don’t Blow It
18. Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesy With Your Pen
19. Boots of Spanish Leather
20. The Poet and the Painter Far Behind Their Rightful Time
The 20th line comes from Chimes of Freedom off Another Side of Bob Dylan from 1964; his second song to achieve stature in the struggle for human rights as the official anthem of Amnesty International (and title of their tribute album to Dylan); the first Dylan song AI used to represent its undaunted mission to bring light into the dark prisons housing political prisoners in dictatorial regimes around the world was I Shall Be Released.
From the dark side of the road in Don’t Think Twice to
I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east
Any day now
Any day now
I shall be released,
Dylan has come full circle. FolkWorks is proud to add its voice to the chorus of worldwide joyful tributes for the poet Joan Baez once called “The original vagabond.” His songs have inspired thousands of dreamers and activists around the world to keep marching.
Dylan turned 75 years old this past May 24; in his words, may he stay Forever Young!
Saturday October 29 at 2:00pm at the Allendale Branch Library, 1130 S. Marengo Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 Ross Altman performs his show Ten Songs That Shook the World, originally presented at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in 1999. 626-744-7260. It will include a few songs from the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ross Altman hosts Literary Bob: A Celebration of Dylan’s Nobel Prize; Sunday, December 11, 2016, 7:30pm at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291; 310-822-3006.
Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; he may be reached at email@example.com