“Are all those songs yours?” “Some of ’em. Not all of ’em.”

images-2 The photo at left shows  the B. Altman department store as it looked in 1924, occupying the block between 34th and 35th streets, 5th Avenue to Madison Avenue. Some New Yorkers of my chronology may remember being dragged around Altman’s in an eternity of torpor while their mother looked for a blouse to match her blue slacks.

images-3 Here’s the same building in 2009. It’s been turned into the CUNY Graduate Center on one side and Oxford Univ Press on the other. I attended a talk and performance there on September 17. It was titled, “Bob Dylan: American Poet. The Musical Settings Inspired by Dylan’s Lyrics.” The focus of the evening was the work of composer John Corigliano, and of New York musician Howard Fishman. Mr. Corigliano has taken the lyrics to seven songs and set them to his own music, to create a song cycle he calls “Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.”  Note the very careful preposition in that title, which ambiguously links the work to Dylan. Howard Fishman may be familiar to some of you through his performances of The Basement Tapes material.  Greil Marcus, who requires no explanation, moderated a discussion with  Corigliano and Fishman, then a pianist and a soprano performed songs from Corigliano’s song cycle, followed by Fishman’s performance.

images-1Here is something concrete and immutable and eternal that John Corigliano and Bob Dylan have in common: an Academy Award. They also have  Pulitzer prizes in common but I don’t know if you get an object for display  with that award.  In his conversation with Marcus, Corigliano told the story of his artistic relation with Bob Dylan:  he was not familiar with Dylan’s songs, as he had been listening to contemporary classical music in the 1960s, although he was “fascinated” by The Beatles’ music, which he found “natural and ingenious.” He admitted it may have come to pass that as he sat in a coffeehouse in the early 1960s, “sipping his cappuccino,” Bob Dylan could indeed have been singing within earshot, but Corigliano did not *hear* the song being performed. Folksinging entails “simple melody,” and “the song stays the same—verse, chorus. verse, chorus.”  A folk song “does not change emotionally verse to verse.”  The apparent monotony of folk songs deafened John Corigliano to distinguishing any one song, and therefore he came to Bob Dylan’s work “with innocence.”

images-4 What Corigliano wanted for his project was “an American poet.”  A “great poet,” but a certain kind of great poet: “a great poet who speaks to everyone.”  Something brought Bob Dylan to his attention, and he “sent away” for a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

Bobgonnaflash1 He found the lyrics of this man’s songs poetic, and set about using the lyrics of seven songs, and his own music,  to “tell a story of  political awakening.”  The “Prelude” is Mr. Tambourine Man, followed by what we know as Clothes Line Saga but which was referred to as Clothes Line Blues, then Blowin’ in the Wind, Masters of War, All Along the Watchtower, Chimes of Freedom, concluding with the “Postlude” of Forever Young.

images-6 Corigliano wanted an “amplified soprano” voice to perform his compositions. He wanted the effect of  and opera singer’s “technique” without the sound of operatic singing.  He talked of the amplified voice being more “natural” than the unamplified performance of an opera.

Corigliano and Greil Marcus talked about Masters of War and Clothes Line Saga. Marcus mentioned Viggo Mortensen’s cover of Masters of War at a Howard Zinn tribute, in which Aragon’s performance  “cut the song free” while still retaining its “vehemence” and “desperation.” Corigliano  sought “ways of treating emotionally dense material” by “play(ing) against it.”  The music is “distant (distinct?) from the savagery of the words.”  He talked about the importance of the last line of Clothes Line Saga: the shutting of the door on the political  reality of the world outside–then the door opened again to let the wind of political  awareness come blowin’ in.

images-7Howard Fishman and Greil Marcus talked about I’m Not There. Marcus’s description of the song was Big Letter True, and gorgeous: he talked about the inaudible lyrics as conveying textures of feeling that make the listener feel that everything is at stake for all of us: the singer, the woman in the song, me listening. Howard Fishman was so taken with the song that he wrote lyrics to fill the gaps in Dylan’s rendition. Also a devotee of Marcus’s Old Weird Republic, Fishman sought approval from the authoritative critic, sent him his new version, and Marcus apparently gave Fishman the thumbs up he desired.

OK,  Not Ideas About The Thing, But The Thing Itself:  singer Amy Burton and pianist Stephen Gosling performed four of the songs in Corigliano’s project, Mr Tambourine Man, Blowin’ in the Wind, Chimes of Freedom, and Forever Young. Ms. Burton sang in a lovely operatic soprano, doing her best to get the words across currents of  music that swelled and dropped and lingered and halted in the way of contemporary classical music. She sounded in every way like an opera singer. In Chimes, she emphasized with great vigor the word “not” in the 5th line, so we could definitely appreciate the irony of a warrior who refrains from fighting. She lengthened and flailed with alarmingly effective histrionics in the verse cataloguing the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandon’d and forsak’d, so there was certainly no mistaking the great flashes of these chimes of freedom for the outcasts of the world. Forever Young was set to a comfortable melodic structure, Ms. Burton sang it straight,  and I hope her friends will be begging for her  Forever Young at weddings, anniversary parties, and brisses, which is right where it belongs.  I had to leave before Howard Fishman’s performance, and I can say that I did see him play at Suze Rotolo’s reading for her memoir, A Freewheelin’  Time, and his covers were professional and faithful.

images-8 That I simply do not have a taste for John Corigliano’s music is neither here nor there. That he began this project with a  conclusive disparagement of the entire, apparently inexpressive, genre of folk music,  a claim that many of us in the audience could have challenged right then and there with our own iPods–that is also neither here nor there. Ignorance and arrogance can certainly precede good art,  and they often have. That a 71 year old American musical artist is not familiar with the tune to Blowin’ in the Wind–that’s a tough one, but, I want people to take me at my word, so we will take Mr Corigliano at his.

It’s the whole implicit  propriety of the experience that I hated. The whole effete conferral of   legitimacy, the presumption of significance, the gloss of authority given by Marcus’s presence, and Corigliano’s utterly complacent tone—there just was no sense that one artist was hungry for something he found in another artist’s work and wanted to grab it fast. Corigliano condescended to the moral depth he hadn’t expected to find in Dylan’s lyrics, yet, as a musician sensitive to poetry,  made no mention of the musicality of the words, the patterns of sound that are still present in the printed lyrics. He wanted a great and inclusive poet to transfuse his work with  greatness and inclusivity, and perhaps for some listeners the bloodless operation was  a success, and they didn’t notice there was no love and theft at work, none at all.

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6 thoughts on ““Are all those songs yours?” “Some of ’em. Not all of ’em.”

  1. I just stumbled upon this brilliant blog, and have quite enjoyed getting caught to to the most recent posts.

    You sum up quite accurately what I always felt was the essential strangeness of Corigliano’s project. And how does one miss the rhythm in the words? His “use” of Dylan betrays a rather limited view of a “great poet”…

    In a way, my dislike of Christopher Ricks’ book hinges on this notion of propriety too, but from the other side, as it were. Protests to the contrary aside, Ricks’ exhausting punning-for-the-sake-of-punning style suggests a lack of “seriousness” about the endeavor. Why not write about Dylan as he writes about Beckett or Keats or Milton, i.e., in a style he finds fit for a “great poet.”?

  2. Hello Robert and welcome–and I hope that you’ll pay another visit or two even after you find all the non-brilliant moments here….I’ve been thinking and thinking some more about your comments on Ricks, which hit on something very important. On the one hand, we could argue that Ricks saw this project as a chance to free himself from the constraints of academic discourse, to bring a playful energy to his prose. But on the other hand, the wordplay and the levity make it too easy to dismiss Visions of Sin as Christopher Ricks’ hobby, as opposed to the real work of Milton, Keats, et al. Ricks comes off as eclectic or eccentric, and Visions of Sin becomes a marginal work of art criticism, the intellectual darling of Dylan nuts, and not a project that brings Dylan to the table of great artists. I don’t want Bob dylan to get the lip service of the canon–I want the people who, as human beings, not as professional scholars, turn to Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Beckett to help them feel and think about mortality, faith, passion, beauty and the nature of language, to come to *need* Dylan’s work as the same kind of companion. Asking scholarship/criticism to validate or confer value is for Philistines, but strong scholarship can serve as a guide who refreshes, introduces, defamiliarizes our own attention. Visions of Sin can do all this, but Ricks’ style makes it too easy to see the book as the marvelous whimsy of an important scholar. So I am with you on that. Thank you enormously for provoking me to think about this.

  3. Hard to believe to that Marcus would take this at all seriously, after what the guy said about the lack of emotional divergence in the verses of “folk songs’ {whatever that means, now, much less to him}. This should have moved him to anger – if Greil Marcus still was the firebrand of his youth, which he is not: he merely confers a kind of hip propriety to anything he DOES nowadays, be it a book, a conference, or whatever. As the writer said, he “requires no explanation,” and while to “those in the new” – disturbing as THAT notion is – this seems true, it is utterly absurd. It’s just that Marcus represents a memory of when popular music was first “taken seriously” {by whom?} and when fans actually read this “serious”-ness, and made decisions based on it. Nowadays, critics are yesterday’s news. Forturnately, Bob Dylan isn’t. The young have discovered him! Now, young people see him as new, and what they hear is generally unencumbered by criticism, finally. Too see this sort of thing now, something the more youthful Dylan would have found extremely unsettling {he clearly ok’d this}, is disturbing. Dylan is not “a poet,” and he knows it: he’s often a “bard” in the old sense, but sadly, often in the newer sense. Sometimes, as in 1967, in that rowdy “basement,” he and his musician friends gave us a glimpse of what people’s music once was: and it was not “weird” at all. And some was deadly serious: Dylan cries his way through a version of “Tears of Rage” – a meditaion on a betrayal with emotion so deep it had to be a love that was not sexual or romantic. And so on. He imagines the pain of another performer on another song {never bootlegged because perhaps Dylan kept it closely garded}, and YOU feel it. But it never was meant to appear ANYWHERE. The others contribute where they think they ought, and it’s incredibly moving: but not for others to hear in 1967. Was that a “song” or just a feeling that coalesced from thoughts to words to music that needed those words. A composer who clearly does not hear the musicality in Dylan’s words doesn’t hear the poetry in them either. A young and maybe scared Bob Dylan, recovering from a life-altering crash, struggled with enormous emotional discord on “I’m Not There,” and sometimes there’s a song coming, and sometimes, it flutters away from him and he tries, and fails to grab it back. Sure, one day that melody will become a famous song {I’m not telling: you can hear it, if you’re not just reading the words}, but back then, something: a photograph perhaps, a broadcast, who knows . . . propelled him into singing something, with words, on the fly, and there are no “gaps”: it all belongs. The other musicians, both “audience” and colleagues, lay out, and DO NOT HELP HIM! And that is the key here. To “help” with this music, which never was a song in 1967, would have been to do it violence. They let him struggle, suggested it ought to be “finished,” but it was just a suggestion, and they had just let him rage and struggle until he could do no more. One of them tagged a “strange” year on to the title. We cannot know but what we hear. To get a chance to hear genuine people’s music again, and then to have this man not only disparage it, the young Dylan, and US, by filling in “the gaps” is loathesome. Marcus should know better.

  4. Oh, I realized that there were two “helpers” here: one with the lyrics on “I’m Not There,” which is profoundly offensive, and the other composing “music” to words that were already “music.” In any case, one of the songs in the “piece” can be heard in “I’m Not There,” but you’d have to listen to Dylan’s version, however messy and “gap”-ed it was.
    Sorry for the couple spelling errors: “guared” – or course, and “in the know” not “new.” Sorry for the error: perhaps the moderator . . .

  5. RM–You see what can happen sometimes? John Corigliano’s graceless project inspires your animated and informed response. Writing new melodies for Forever Young and Chimes of Freedom is a particular kind of waste of energy, but adding lyrics to I’m Not There is vandalism.
    Marcus seemed pleased with Howard Fishman’s admiration, and also seemed professionally objective regarding Corigliano. One wishes he had thrown objectivity out the door when Corigliano declared that folk songs lack emotional range.

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