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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bob Dylan on lyrics and literature: The Million-Dollar Nobel Lecture

Bob Dylan's million-dollar Nobel Lecture is available to all on youtube, and I recommend listening to what he has to say. He takes on the issue of poetry v song lyrics and makes some important (it not exactly original) observations. First, he he begins by emphasizeingthat he is part of a long tradition of American songwriting, in particular part of the traditions of blues, country, and, to a lesser extent, popular music and rock; he includes a strange anecdote about a brief meeting with Buddy Holly shortly before Holly died in a place crash - a meeting that seems to have mystical significance for BD. I do think he sells himself short unduly, as he's not only part of a long tradition but he radically changed the way we think about folk and rock lyrics, almost singlehandedly establishing the concept of singer-songwriter. Second point, at the end of the "lecture," he puts the whole issue of lyrics as literature to rest - finally, I hope - by stating that people should experience his lyrics (and by extension those of other song-writers) as they were meant to be experience: on record or, as he dryly notes, however people are listening to music today. Most interesting, to me, however, is the central part of the lecture in which he reflects, at much great length than ever before publicly, on literature that his influenced his work, and gives a detailed if eccentric plot summary of 3 works he says he read as a teenager and that have shaped his music: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. This is a surprise, and Dylan tantalizingly never says precisely how these works shaped his music and lyrics - he leaves that to us to figure out. I believe these 3 works mostly influenced his early, formative music (which would make sense, as he says he read these works in school- h.s. English teachers take note: You could run a great class on these 3 works, and you could inspire students to reading them by playing Dylan's lecture). Starting w/ All Quiet: it's a work I've never read (but will), although I saw the movie in h.s. and was deeply moved my it and I know it shaped my then-held views as a pacifist. BD describes the horrors of war as Remarque depicts in that work, and it's no stretch to see how this book lies behind Masters of War, John Brown, with God on Our Side, et al. As to the Odyssey, I would not have thought of this as formative but on reflection I think a lot of his early music was about find one's way home, from the obvious (Like a Rolling Stone, Hard Rain) and less so, such as Bob Dylan's Dream, From a Buick 6, or Lot to Laugh/Train to Cry. Moby-Dick is the most intriguing on the list (Dylan says in the lecture that it influenced at least 10 of his songs), partly because Bob Dylan's 115th Dream includes specific references to the novel but gets the novel completely wrong, even the name of the protagonist, whom he calls Captain A-rab. But we can see that the quest for an out-of-reach ideal was hugely important in early Dylan work (Visions of Johanna, probably all of the love songs on Blonde on Blonde); also the vast inclusiveness of Moby-Dick and powerful imagery throughout the novel may have shaped Dylan's imagery on some of his large-canvas early works, such as Desolation Row, Gates of Eden, Chimes of Freedom. What's missing? Surprised that Dylan says nothing about the French poets who were such an obvious influence (Baudelaire, Rimbaud), nor about his spiritual quests, his political commentary (License to Kill, Groom's Still Waiting), his social commentary (Hattie Carrol, Oxford Town, Neighborhood Bully), and especially  many beautiful love songs (from To Ramona and Love Minus Zero to Feel My Love). His work is vast; I'd love to know what he's reading now.

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