I Blow It For Ya Free


People are “dissenting.”

Problem 1: He writes songs. It is true that the work of parsing arresting imagery, intricate syntax, subtle characterizations, rich and ambiguous observations, and narratives with difficult chronologies is hard enough when the voices of the text occur in the silence of your own reading. But when your attention to characterizations, imagery, and so on, is also snared by rhyme and melody, you learn to be a different kind of reader.  In the decades since Dylan’s songs have moved and enchanted people with these qualities, good books have been written on the work of learning to listen as a reader.  I’d like to recommend the ones that have served me well and should be helpful to anyone curious about what “new poetic expression” might feel like to a listener attending deeply to musical language. First, let’s hope the Nobel motivates someone to reissue Betsy Bowden’s Performed Literature, the 1982 publication of her 1978 PhD thesis. She takes on the challenge of describing Dylan’s songs as a synthesis of language and music into a new prosody. Other studies that can  enrich your listening-as-reader are Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man III, John Hinchey’s Like a Complete Unknown, Aidan Day’s Jokerman, Wilfrid Mellers’ Darker Shade of Pale, John Gibbens’ The Nightingale’s Code,  and the by now quite familiar Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by Christoper Ricks.

Problem 2: He’s already overserved in two regards. Dylan has enjoyed more accolades and awards than almost any other living artist. And Dylan is an utter First-Worlder, a man born middle-class and American, who sings and writes in English in a commercial, popular genre. His award does no justice to the Nobel’s global cultural mission. The Nobel’s website provides this brief mission statement for the literature prize, “…one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction …”  The award seems to be need-blind.

Problem 3: The Nobel Prize matters. In a moral way.  There are comparisons to Sartre. Now, here is where fans have an advantage. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the distance between right and wrong, the difference between righteousness and vanity, what kind of pressure makes your conscience explode, and whether keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within is authentic virtue. Dylan gives a person an opportunity for moral reflection on every one of his records. My own motto is “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you,”  which I translate as beware of asking other people to be avatars of my conscience.  If I want more readers for more books by more marginalized voices, there are many things I can do as a teacher, writer, or activist  to make this happen, instead of asking the Nobel committee to do it for me. If I think, as Sartre did, that the Nobel Prize institutionalizes writers, then I shall refuse the award when its conferral threatens to institutionalize me.

So bottoms up to us. Like I say, we’ll get more out of this than Dylan will, or needs, or wants.




3 thoughts on “I Blow It For Ya Free

  1. I agree entirely with what you say, but doesn’t it appear that Dylan himself might be one of the dissenters? I half suspect that he’s more than a little freaked out by the load of karma the prize entails. As if it “hit him like a freight train…moving…with a simple twist of fate.” I’m only half joking.

    1. In my own invisible and negligible way, I want to help Bob Dylan appreciate that for him there is no karma entailed. For him it’s a gratuity, for us it’s a boon. I only hope he won’t refuse it–those refusals are always sanctimonious, whether they’re carefully worded like Sartre’s or wearing feathers like Brando’s. It’s not worth refusing.

  2. I wonder if Dylan’s Nobel Award is not in recognition of his great song writing achievement across the many lyrical styles that he has used but, instead, for that very small part of his output that can be seen as possessing qualities recognizable by the literary establishment as poetical. (eg; Visions of Johanna; It’s Alright Ma, Every Grain of Sand,). On reflection, I doubt that the Nobel award is for an album such as John Wesley Harding. John Wesley Harding is just one example among many Dylan albums that illustrates his wide ranging lyrical pallet in which the possibilities of song writing are explored and expanded as opposed to a deliberate attempt to write songs that can stand as poetry. If it is the poetical type of song that the Nobel Committee members want to recognize then awarding Dylan for a small number of his songs is neither a particularly radical step in extending the boundaries of what is accepted as literature nor giving full credit to his accomplishments.

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