A Dylan Encomium

So they have him. The bard who has spent a lifetime one step away, out of step, keeping us guessing, not playing the game, any of them, finally tripped up. Fated to turn up in Stockholm in white tie with the world’s press? Assimilated in grand style? Maybe the shortest Nobel acceptance speech ever? (“I’d like to say, thankyuh.”) But how does it feel? Tell us, how does it feel? Maybe, on his own, with no direction home? https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/17/nobel-prize-bob-dylan-unable-to-reach

When I was a teenager and early adult, besides the usual Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Richard Rodney Bennett and Cornelius Cardew, I was into guitar music, sounds. Bob Dylan was an acoustic singer-songwriter – ugh – and I didn’t listen. When I did, invited by a pal convinced Dylan was a philosopher-poet, I disliked his singing – or, rather, non-singing – style, and that shrill harmonica. For me, Baker, Bruce and Clapton became the Cream of the new world disorder.

One of my favorite songs was the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man. Byrds? Another was the enigmatic Hendrix anthem, All Along the Watchtower – Hendrix? (still so accredited in some on-line lyric collections) – with its incomparable first line, to that teenager at that time, “There must be some kinda way outa here.” A phrase in Mixolydian mode and insistent syncopated rhythm which needs to be sung to solicit its impact. There was a way outa here. It took this young man to California, where a decade later I learnt what that musical style was all about. When I arrived in 1973, it seemed every second uni student could pick up a guitar and sing a song. It took me a few years to appreciate, then I got into Anglo-American-Irish traditional music and have been hanging around and about ever since.

Bertrand-Henri Lévy said – I venture to summarise, as one does with BHL – why shouldn’t the Nobel Committee recognise a bard? https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/dylan-nobel-prize-critics-by-bernard-henri-levy-2016-10 Bards have a long history: Chanson de Roland, Trobadors, Trouvères, Minstrels, Minnesänger. The English-language tradition appears to be mostly without music – Piers Ploughman, Langland, Chaucer – but now, we have, have had, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lennon-McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim, Kate Tempest. There are literature prizes, music prizes, and now sometimes a bardic prize. Long may they all continue.

Some matters work in song which don’t work in words alone, or in music alone. Take the phrase from Watchtower – words, rhythm, melody work together. Words alone are just a frustrated father in a supermarket which doesn’t stock his kid’s breakfast cereal. Add rhythm and it sounds weird, but with the Mixolydian intonation it becomes ethereal, existentially pertinent, just as it was to that teenager in Walsall.

Consider another song, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Written a decade later, for a movie about old gunslingers. The title is the refrain (nothing more). The verses are just two:

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it any more
It’s getting dark, to dark to see
I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them any more
That long black cloud is coming down
I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door

Notice the repetition with mild variation. It’s hard to be briefer, to be more simple. The melody is four notes, forming thirds, more of a wail. You only need two chords, not even reaching Billy Gibbons’s “same three guys, same three chords,” but the sophisticates do use three (see below).

What can possibly be interesting about this piece? But it’s in my repertoire – that is, it will be when I have it down. Because performing this material isn’t easy, whatever one may think from Dylan’s ad-hoc stage manner. Many songs can be sung right away, but almost none of his. Figuring out how to sing this song is taking me months. The melody – too simple. The articulation takes work. The words – too simple, with literal and conceptual repetition. To those four notes, there are really just four lines. Yet it can form an entire five-minute song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJpB_AEZf6U ; for others too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH-TLcpvgdA

The key is that first call. A man, getting older, losing it, a tough man, his persona disforming and he cries out. In the literature he might call to “Mary, Mother of God”, but he doesn’t. He calls for his Ma. That one word, that high, lonesome call of two notes, right at the beginning, encapsulates it. Ma has probably been dead a long time. But Ma is forever helper and rescuer, since he was a small boy and she was still Mama, not yet Ma. He can’t see well; his light is fading. But he can’t give up; another must lead him to it – he is pleading to be relieved of duty. He is not raging against the dying of the light, he is resigning to it. He is about to be engulfed by the black cloud. Of despair? Oblivion? He pleads for his tools of trade to be buried, as he soon may be. Religious, but familial. The symbols are common; the symbolism is rich. All in four notes arranged in thirds, and a lilting rhythm to match the rocking of early childhood, Mama rocking the cradle, all the way to the grave. In way fewer than half the words I’ve used. The retelling, in this stark brevity, can take five minutes.

This is not easy. It’s almost too simple. The riches must be brought out through apt delivery, which takes application and work. It’s so with almost every one of this great man’s songs. It’s not great poetry; it’s not great music; it’s great bardic literature. Many others sing his compositions, as Byrds and Hendrix did when I first came across his work. Bob Dylan has been radiating for over half a century.

Who are the modern bards? Besides Dylan, I mentioned Guthrie, Seeger, Beatles, Cohen, Sondheim, and, recently, Tempest. Woody misses out, surely only because he died before the Nobel Committee considered bards. Pete is also gone; in any case his greatest work was with other people’s songs. The Beatles only lasted a few years. Leonard Cohen is not really to my taste, but he speaks to many. Sondheim? A definite Maybe, now that bards are considered. I’ll be long dead when the wonderful Kate Tempest has been at it half a century.

Today it’s Dylan. Back a half-century, there would have been another choice. Consider Woody’s song “Riding in My Car” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmcrlvNPTJw Simplicity, and complexity. All six notes within an interval sixth. The entire chorus a noise – “brrmm”. How on earth do you keep it interesting? That’s bardic skill. A delightful, cheery, elixir of freedom through technology. Try to sing it yourself, then go back and listen to Woody. It’s not easy, is it? Emotional simplicity made cogent through complex articulation, and – let’s say it finally – genius.

The Nobel Committee have it so right.

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