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    Dylan's Nobel and the State of American Literature

    I was very pleased when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize today. But I understand a number of people were not. Almost immediately upon the announcement my social media stream was full of disgruntled poets complaining that Dylan should not be eligible for the prize. (The silver lining was that one of the talented poets I know was immediately pushing back on this.) And by mid-afternoon the websites of major periodicals were full of think pieces, ready for tomorrow's print editions, about why Dylan should not have won.

    So Friday morning America's newspapers will be filled with these editorials about how our fellow American Dylan does not deserve this prize. That will be a change from most years, when those same newspapers have no earthly idea whether or not the new Nobel laureate should have won, because even the editor of the books page does not really know who the new Nobel laureate is.

    Do you see the connection? This year, the Nobel committee gave the prize to a figure with global stature and an international audience. That is not the only benchmark of merit, obviously, and I have always been glad that the Nobel sometimes elevates lesser-known writers. But to say that fame should not matter at all, in the terms of a global literary prize, is absurd.

    Let's be clear: the idea that a songwriter is not a writer is transparently false and historically ignorant. By that standard Homer would not be eligible for the Nobel Prize. The Prize does not specify particular genres. It says only "in the field of literature" and the definition of literature changes over time. The novel was once a despised junk form, as was live theater before it, and the migration of low genres to high places will always continue. The real complaint is that a popular artist won. The horror!

    The complaint is that a famous pop artist won something that "rightfully" belongs to more "serious" artists. But that complaint only masks the real problem. The real problem, for American poetry and all of American literature, is why none of the "serious" artists has a broad popular following.

    The truth is that there is not a single living American poet who is a serious contender for the Nobel Prize. I wish that were not so, but it is. That is not meant as an insult to any of wonderful poets who are working today, or to the talented poets among my friends, or to my friends' accomplished mentors. Those poets are wonderful. A few are unsung national treasures. But they are, nonetheless, mostly unsung, and not one is a legitimate national figure, let alone an international figure. I saw someone today, in a serious publication, negatively comparing Dylan to Richard Wilbur. Now, Richard Wilbur is a gifted artist who deserves respect, but to say that he is a global figure in real contention for the Nobel Prize is simply delusional. If I could put an American poet up for the prize I would nominate Ferlinghetti, but I do not for a second expect that Ferlinghetti will win. No living American poet has that kind of international stature.

    This is not because the individual poets lack talent or dedication. It is because American poetry, with its institutions and ambitions and professional culture, has turned away from wider relevance. No American poet is even attempting to write for a broad national audience today, and a young poet who attempted it would be considered a hack. More importantly, there is no infrastructure in place for an American poet to write for the general public. But if you ignore for the wider public for decades on end, it will ignore you back and then forget about you completely.

    And, lest we forget, the Nobel Prizes are specifically intended for those who have done "the greatest benefit for mankind" and the Prize in Literature specifies "the person who in the field of literature the most outstanding work in the ideal direction." The "ideal direction" part clearly specifies some attempt at public uplift, which has not been part of American poetry's general ambitions for some time now. "The Times Are A-Changing" does display that ambition, pretty clearly, even if many working poets would find that corny. The finding-it-corny part, actually, is the heart of the problem. I get it, poets, I get it. You don't want to be Carl Sandburg. Congratulations: you're not.

    Now, I have also seen a number of complaints by and on behalf of novelists and fiction writers, with whom I still strongly identify despite the long lapse of my artistic practice. But to them, too, I say: be honest. There may be, and I would say that there are, a handful of American novelists who are plausible candidates for the Nobel. But they are merely plausible, and perhaps even dark horses. If Oates or Pynchon or DeLillo or Roth won I would be happy, but I would never say that I had expected it all along. And I recognize that many people would have said, "Hmm. Okay." My own favorite for the prize is Le Guin, who would surely be a controversial winner in her own right, and who has done her work in a despised popular field. There are a few people who could win the Nobel, but no one who is an overwhelming favorite. None of them are culturally central in that way. Toni Morrison? Sure. But she's won already. There are other Americans whom I would like to see win, but none of them can say that they were robbed if they don't. None of them, much as I love them, are owed that prize.

    But it's important to ask why not. It is not about lack of literary gifts. Nobody could ever say that Pynchon or Oates does not have enough talent. And some of this is audiences turning away from the written word to various electronic media. I know that. But American fiction has also lost part of its claim on the public arena by relinquishing that claim. Are we even trying to write the Great American Novel anymore? Maybe. But I'm not so sure. I worry that American fiction has ceded something of its public ambitions. If we don't have a Tolstoy among us, it is partly because, of course, the conditions are not there to create a Tolstoy may not exist any more, but also because American letters, not simply the writers themselves but the agents and editors and teachers and critics, have lost interest in producing one. I would like our ambitions to be greater and our horizons wider.

    Forgive me if this post has been negative. It was prompted by a wave of public grumbling and complaining, of the kind I like least: the claim that an artist does not deserve something. To say that Dylan does not deserve this prize is ungenerous and small-minded, because many more artists deserve than get. To say that someone else was owed the prize instead is vainglorious and delusional, because no artist is ever owed anything but the chance to make art. And the worst trap for any artist, or any artist's backer, is to complain about what someone else has achieved, when the answer -- the only answer -- is to try to become better. Talking about taking something away from Dylan is petty and mean. We should talk about making our "serious" literature more serious.

    Comments

    Sorry, Doc. I can't get behind this at all. If the Nobel folks want to have a prize for music, they should make one. To give this prize to Dylan while Philip Roth is kicking around us an insult.  Also, all of the writers you mentioned. This was a stunt. If they did want to break with tradition, they should have gone for a film writer/director like Scorcese -- more narrative thrust of literature than any tale that of a hurricane. Not trying to be sour about this. I know the choice has made some people happy.  But I am disappointed, which Is no doubt of great concern to Nobel's heirs, if not to Dylan.


    Sorry. We disagree. Roth isn't owed it.

    You can say Roth is better than some people who've won it, but that only says that he could win, not that he must. It's like the Baseball Hall of Fame: being better than the guys who maybe shouldn't have gotten in is not the criterion.

    Roth (like Oates, Pynchon, and DeLillo) is better and more important than Sinclair Lewis or Pearl Buck. But he's not nearly as important as, say, Faulkner.


    I don't know any of the authors you've both cited.

     

    I know Dylan.  I like his writing. I don't like his music.  But his writing makes me think.  It makes me compare my life to his words and his words to my world. 

     

    Isn't that what poetry is supposed to do?


    What any art form is "supposed to do" is a huge can of worms and maybe unknowable, but certainly making us think is a valid and perhaps welcome option, and I would say the Academy's choice also makes us think.


    Fascinating piece, Doc, and a nice break from the election insanity, so thank you. I believe that your concerns about literature reflect a broader and deeper decline in American cultural ambitions. Not only do we lack Hemingways and Faulkners, we lack Dylans. What contemporary songwriter stands a chance of achieving his stature? And where are our world-renowned artists, directors, playwrights, philosophers?

    (You might say that we need to make American culture great again.)


    A jeremiad for another day, but our lack of cultural ambitions is rooted in politics. American literature actively turned away from politics, for explicitly political reasons.

    It is literally the case that the CIA (through fronts) funded the first graduate creative-writing programs in the US, and promoted an artistic approach that left out "ideas" or any political agenda in favor of concrete details. This is not a conspiracy theory, but something documented; it was done as a way to resist Communism. Really.


    Damn.


    That was not the only thing that happened. There were a number of movements away from "politics" (almost always in terms of moving away from left or liberal politics), by a number of parties over the decades. But, well, a lot of those things happened.


    Is literature really less political these days? Maybe. But graphic arts seem more political. Basquiat vs Homer. Music is mixed. Dylan was obviously political and Lennon in his later years but Holly, Presley, Stones, and early Beatles not so much. Whereas philosophy and lit theory became extremely political in 80s and 90s.


    Right, which one came out of Woody Guthrie-inspired protest and which out of heavily censored and government-monitored radio play? It's interesting tracking which singers and bands were counterculture and which were groomed as Top 40.


    Well, maybe better to say that the official "high" literary forms are apolitical, or reflect the narrow politics of a narrow class, while the "low" forms with less official sanction are much freer. It wouldn't be the first time that happened

    When the main Oxford University library opened in 1602, the chief donor specified that it not collect "play books" or similar trash. You work out for yourself who was writing plays in England in 1602.

    During the 1700s, it was the novel that was trashy popular form, while satires in iambic-pentameter couplets was the way to go.

    This has happened before, and it will happen again.


    Interesting. But from what you're saying it sounds like political may not be the right word, more like radical or subversive. I assume that those iambic-pentameter satires dealt in politics, but perhaps they didn't challenge the status quo. Lower literary forms can be more rebellious and disruptive. On the other hand, "trashy" makes me think of commercial fluff--soap operas and bodice-ripping romance books. Both rap and pop music are "low" art, but the first has been subversive, while the latter is just commercial trash.

    So perhaps that real problem is that American culture has lost its raw edge.


    Maybe. We're trading in pretty thin descriptions of art forms at various moments.

    But as for this moment, yes: our culture does not have enough bite.


    So perhaps that real problem is that American culture has lost its raw edge.

    I definitely think this is an issue.  I couldn't imagine American Psycho getting a fair reading today and I take stand up comics like Chris Rock at their word about the environment on campuses today, which are places where edgy art is supposed to be at home.


      Well, students certainly aren't going to take that many chances these days, and I wonder if relying on campuses to be our incubators is really that radical. Were the Paris Communes about students from the Sorbonne, or were they examples of people off in "real life"? The American Revolution wasn't launched from campuses, and I don't think the French Revolution was either. Sure, 1968 used that model worldwide, but Civil Rights marches took place off campus with sit-ins in buses and diners. We've gentrified protest, which is probably why the Bernie Sanders "revolution" looked a bit too pat and expected to me. Where's the "On the Waterfront" or "Last Exit to Brooklyn" showdowns? Wobblies & police, anyone?


      To PP's point, edgy art's home probably isn't the college campus. Historically, universities were the bastions of the elite; artists lived in squalid urban apartments.

      There were moments from the 1960s - 1990s, when some campuses sought to be more disruptive--beatnik literature, post-modern art--but it quickly morphed into what Doc is calling "high" art.

      PS It's telling that some of the most compelling art these days is street art


      Well, I'd be careful about oversimplifying college campuses. Colleges are very different from one another, and I have plenty of students who enjoy edgy work.

      And there's not only one edge. A particular campus crowd might be quicker to take offense at perceived misogyny now, but more welcoming of frank talk about race, where twenty years ago it would have been the reverse. Ethnic stereotypes might be less welcome, but complaining about The Man might be more welcome. The line is always moving, and it's always more than one line.


      Huh? Didnt some school presidents lose their jobs recently over slow response to racial questions?

      Update:

      Halloween, Yale professor resigns (and her husband resigns for the crime of defending her), while it looks like a a a fraternity had been turning away non-white girls from a party weeks before

      Missouri President, Chancellor resign over perceived racism on campus

      Minor flareup re: some black tape on photos at Harvard (possibly a hoax) - meanwhile 3 sheaves of wheat removed from Harvard seal


      Okay, are these meant to be evidence of liberal suppression of free speech?

      The only case I know in detail is the Yale Halloween case, which isn't quite the way it is spun.

      What happened is that before Halloween a bunch of the Yale admins, including a bunch of the chaplains, sent out a letter to students that said, literally, "be thoughtful" about Halloween costumes that might offend other people. The female Yale professor, who were serving as deans of a residential college, sent around a public letter denouncing the letter from the chaplains, saying that it was oppressive to ask people not to offend other people and that a free exchange of ideas allowed ... I don't know what. Blackface? Because that would be intellectually productive.

      She wasn't ambushed by the sensitivity police. She went out of her way to encourage people to be more offensive, for no reason I can imagine. And the letter she objected to, um, asked students to think.

      Asking students to think is always allowed, I hope.


      "A particular campus crowd might be quicker to take offense at perceived misogyny now, but more welcoming of frank talk about race, where twenty years ago it would have been the reverse." - i'm still not seeing your "welcoming frank talk about race", and if I were living in the US and concerned about my career and survival, I certainly wouldn't broach the topic. Incindiary still, in my eyes, and that's not discussing who's right and who's wrong (I specifically left out the discussion about the Woodrow Wilson school as being much more complex than these other situations)


      Hey Doc, wouldn't it be nice to have one of these guides to wade through *all* of the myriad of political and life issues? Have a look-see, see if you agree... I can imagine extending the current discussion both with "which writer should get the Nobel?" as well as "which Dylan work has the most literary value for which reason?" rather than just another playlist (tm).

      But from Rolling Stone, as might befit you (or outrage you - I don't believe you...):

      The best argument for Dylan's Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though he died a century before Shot of Love. His 1850 essay "Shakespeare; or the Poet," from the book Representative Men, works as a cheat sheet to Dylan. For Emerson, Shakespeare's greatness was to exploit the freedoms of a disreputable format, the theater: "Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads."

      This is a key point – Shakespeare was a writer/actor/manager hustling in the commercial theater racket for live crowds. He didn't publish his plays – didn't even keep written copies. Once it was onstage, he was on to the next one. (After his death, his friends had to cobble the First Folio together, mostly from working scripts, hence the deplorable state of his texts.) Low prestige meant constant forward motion. The theater was becoming a national passion, "but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap." He aimed his poetry at the groundlings: "It must even go into the world's history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement."


      Doctor Cleveland, I just discovered that Buffy Sainte-Marie, the singer/songwriter who made her name in the 1960s, who was born in Canada and raised in the US, claims that she was blacklisted and her career in the US was ruined on the express orders of Lyndon B Johnson, who considered her work subversive.  It wasn't just literature that was tampered with.

      On a separate note, I wonder why so many good singer/songwriters of the 60s and 70s came from Canada?  Aside from Buffy, there were Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson....

       


      The Guess Who and Supertramp and Rush, and that's it? Now there's Celine Dion and Justin Bieber to reckon with too....

      Compare that with Dylan/The Band/Creedence/Tim Buckley/Springsteen, Dick Dale/BeachBoys/Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Willie Nelson, Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell/studio sound of LA, Iggy/Lou/Patti Smith/Blue Oyster Cult, Doors/Janis/Dead/Airplane, Zappa/Little Feat/Captain Beefheart, Allman Brothers/Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker/ZZTop, black sound in Memphis/Muscle Shoals/Philly/Detroit/New York along with Phil Spector, James Taylor/Carole King/Carly Simon, B-52s/Talking Heads/Jonathan Richman/Television, Plasmatics/X,Ramones/Blondie, Johnny Winter/Ten Years After, Doctor John/Leon Russell/Buckwheat Zydeco, Buckingham Nicks, James Brown/Sly/Parliament-Funkadelic/Prince, Aerosmth....


      I'm not going to look them all up, but The Band, at least, were Canadian.


      Oops, also Steppenwolf. I'll take MC5 and Santana instead. Bonnie Raitt? anyway, it's not like Gordon Lightfoot was a seminal act of the 70's.


      Dion and Bieber were not big in the 60s-70s.  I'll take Paul Anka and The McGarrigles instead.

      It's no surprise that there are more American singer/songwriters, the surprise is just how many Canadians make the list.  Your names total about 50.  The Canadians have reached 13, so far.  Americans outnumber English Canadians by more than 10 to 1.


      As for Lightfoot, his Early Morning Rain has been covered by at least 13 other artists, including the Dead.  That's What You Get for Loving Me has also been widely covered, including by Elvis.


      What a year, so many immortals make their last bow to mortality.  


      And here's you the great defender of women, then putting Canada down.

      Joni. #1 amongst them all. 

      Now, some are post-70's, but you get my drift.

      Then kd lang. 

      Alanis.

      Shania.

      Avril Lavigne.

      Feist.

      Margot Timmins and the Cowboy Junkies.

      Sarah MacLachlan. 

      Celine.

      Emile Haines from Metric.

      Nelly Furtado.

      And Holly Cole and Loreena McKennit and Diana Krall and others I find unlistenable.

      But look. For the men, the Tragically Hip. 

      Which, for anybody who does not know their story right now, or their music, well... go chase it down.

       

       


      I'm all for. It was a pretty punk move that caught almost all flat-footed. I remember a friend saying the Beats had killed poetry, and it took me a while to understand him, but largely the Beats turned inward, were too elitist for a general following.

      Dylan's words were universal, "popular" while biting, understandable. His approach to words was pre-minimalism - not affected by cut-up where Gysin/Burroughs' scissors have inspired Bowie to go from a few phrases to a computer churning out dozens of possible lines for him.

      The Dylan choice can offend everyone while pleasing everyone. It harkens back to an age when political speeches had literary merit - now they're marketing exercises. 

      I stopped writing largely because lyrics were no longer en vogue - people only heard the music and the beat, and the language became largely embarrassing and uninspiring. Even the Brit pop rockers like Oasis and Blur were lagely ripping off and recycling the 60's up to Bowie, so much so that Oasis' big hit simply stole John Lennon's idea for an album he never finished. The biz became Tarantino for stadiums.

      I'm appreciative of The Travelling Wilbury's even if I don't listen to them - a natural extension of Dylan's fun but mischievous side when he could be Elton John doing soundtracks and gala queen's events.

      But I imagine the Academy chose Dylan because the words always and indisputably came first. My first response was that he single-handedly kept poetry alive for another generation. No one would read Leonard Cohen if there hadn't been Dylan. A whole branch of American music with its lyrics grew out of him, pre- and post-Newport, including Byrds, CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel,The Dead, but Warhol's Velvet Underground and cross-ocean Bowie and arguably even rap via Debbie Harry/Blondie - compare Subterranean Homesick Blues Again with a variety of rap (acknowledging Dylan's debt to a multitude of black blues and folk artists). There's an engrossing simplicity to Dylan's music because it follows the cadence of the words. Imagine an African drum circle around a fire chanting out "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" - not too much adaption required. And like the Berber musicians of the Atlas Mountains, Dylan wouldn't quit - not "3 verses and a chorus and I'm outta here", but marathon adventures pushing 12 or more - I'd guees he could keep Desolation Row going long into the night... what's that wild long dizzying song about Ahab ending in "good luck"? An enlightened choice for a crazy Twittered-out world - "...now you're gonna have to get used to it" yep, no running away from the lyricism of the world - it'll catch up to you no matter how much we try to pre-package and contain it.


      "No one would read Leonard Cohen if there hadn't been Dylan."

      They were already reading Cohen before there was Dylan.  Cohen's first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, came out in 1956, his second, The Spice-Box of Earth, in 1961.  By the time Dylan began in Greenwich Village, Cohen was already considered the most promising poet of his generation.

      His second novel, Beautiful Losers, is one of the great novels of the century.  Totally amazing.

      Without detracting from a A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, which is great, the rhythmic "cadence of words" is so effective because it copies an old English ballad, Lord Randall.


      From 1961, "The critic Robert Weaver found it powerful and declared that Cohen was 'probably the best young poet in English Canada right now.'" Impressive, but not quite the same as Dylan streamrolling New York in 1 very quick year.

      "Cohen published another book of poetry, Parasites of Heaven, in 1966,[31] but by then it became clear to Cohen that he would be unable to make a living as a writer. He shifted focus to music, particularly after becoming interested in Bob Dylan in 1966. That year, he decided to devote himself seriously to a singing career.[32] It was his music for which he later became well known.[33] "

      Dylan of course copies lots of stuff, as did Bowie. Owning it and expressing it anew is the real deal.

      Nicely, Dylan did a cover of Cohen's Hallalujah in 1988 in Montreal, long before fashionable.

      Note the heavy influence on Lennon's "You've Got to Hide your Love Away" et al...

      Though The Beatles stayed fairly up to date on popular music in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan wasn't on their radar until the spring of 1964, a full year afterThe Freewheelin' Bob Dylan established the young songwriter as American folk music's premier voice. Once the band heard that record, during a tour of France, it had an immediate impact on them. "For three weeks in Paris, we didn't stop playing it," Lennon would later say. "We all went potty about Dylan." The band's early hits, though deceptively complex, were clearly intended for a teenybopper audience more interested in dancing to backbeats than listening to poetry and acoustic guitars. After hearing Freewheelin', The Beatles—and especially John Lennon—were inspired to write more mature, narrative-driven folk songs in the manner of their new hero.

      More on Dylan & Cohen including a nice 1966 Cohen interview here. So long, Marianne.... Built my time in Holland around it, where they love his stuff.

      BTW, just discovered Brian Jones played percussion on Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" - a major inspiration for Hendrix that took him months to dig out & re-record with more and more tracks, and ultimately the Experience's biggest hit. Ironically, Dylan says when he plays it he feels it's a tribute to Hendrix, and plays it a bit his way.

      Dylan also connected up with the Nashville scene after his bike wreck and dropping out of sight, a pilgrimage other 60's artists made afterwards as well, including Neil Young's inspired Harvest.



      Thanks for the Cohen interview.  A recent (and very long) article about him in the New Yorker is here:

      http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker

      Perhaps we can compromise and say:  "No one would listen to Leonard Cohen if there hadn't been Dylan", but that's not true either, strictly speaking.  I and many others were listening to Cohen's poetry readings (live and on record) long before Dylan became popular.  So, adjust it to:  "No one would listen to Leonard Cohen's music if there hadn't been Dylan".


      Perhaps simpler, "many fewer would have followed Cohen if Dylan hadn't turned the folk poet/musician profession into counter-culture superstar". That goes for Joni Mitchell and a host of others too.


      I am late.

      But I discovered that there is a search engine here at Dagblog, a site that will not advertise. hahahah

      I bring up this old blog of mine because of two things I read:

      Mailer evidently said decades ago that if Dylan is a poet, then Mailer is a basketball player.

      Another link (that I cannot find right now) accused Bobby of stealing his lines.

      Anyway, I wrote about a Hard Rain years ago because I had discovered this fine Mideval poem and it related to A Hard Rain!

      The poem was called:

      http://dagblog.com/arts/ballad-lord-randal-8659

      ​The ballad of Lord Randal.

      Here was a kid who signed up at the University of Minnesota and never caught a class.

      And he had found the ballad of Lord Randal. hahahaha

      And I was 60 or so when I found it and this old poem stuck in my ear.

      Then I discovered that Wiki had authors who had discovered this many years ago.

      hahahahah

      So in my search, I discovered that I play this song all the time here at Dagblog. By different bands of course.

      Anyway, here is one rendition of one of the greatest poem/songs I ever heard:

      Does this take away from my favorite poet.

      NO


      Thank you for this.  I'd never heard them doing this.  Nearly everybody can sing Dylan songs better than him, but the Dead manage to treat them with respect at the same time.

      Lord Randall isn't that obscure:  it was often taught in English courses in the 1960s.  Even if Dylan skipped the class, he might have learned it from Suze Rotolo.


      I do not agree that Dylan songs are mostly done better by others. I like a lot of covers. They have their own virtues. But many of those songs just seem diluted when done by others. There are many better singers than Dylan. That is for certain.

      His discography is huge and what appeals to one listener is meh to another.

      Considering his albums, the covers I have heard that do not capture all the qualities his songs do, are many: Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, New Morning, Highway 61, Blood on the Tracks, Infidels, oh wait. I am on the way toward listing them all...

      Let me take a specific song as an example. "As I Went Out One Morning" on John Wesley Harding. Dylan presents a scene and leaves the listener to their own devices as to what to think about it. I haven't heard a cover of it that takes me to that field Tom Paine ran across. Dylan takes me there and then leaves me alone with the man.


      One might argue that mathematically everything has been said before.

      But....here was a guy with no formal education following high school who could take ancient writings and turn them into comtemporary songs.

      As I Went Out One Morning...

      Here is a rendition by someone I never heard of before; Mira Billotte:

      Mira has her own take on this song.

      Where shall we look for provenance?

      Mira has a part of all of this.

      Anyway, I love Mira's take on all of this. She is an artist and she took from B D.

       

       


      Oh here is another rendition by Thea Gilmore:

      (Thea of course is Greek for Mother Earth?)


      I take your point that Dylan's efforts to revive old songs are a part of many other people doing the same. Folk music and that sort of thing.

      I like this version by Mira Billote. The guitar and drums are sort of pushing the song where in Dylan's version there is a strange equilibrium of instrument and voice. Thank you for bringing her to my notice: Clearly inspired by Dylan but with something else to say.

      One thing about having a man hear Paine's apology is that it captures Paine's hope to keep it between the two of them. I like the way the Dylan version shows that as another grab at his arm.


      If you replaced "Tom Paine" with "Mark Twain" or "Claude Rains" or "Garret Swayne" or "John Wayne", would it make the song any better or any worse?  I suggest it wouldn't make a difference.  Which means that "Tom Paine" has no particular meaning in the song, it's just a place-holder with the right rhythm for the melody notes, like the meaningless "dobedobedo" syllables you get in scat singing.


      I suggest that such a change would completely change the song into another one.

      The central tension in the lyrics is the idea that Thomas Paine, the famous Champion for the cause of Liberty, has a damsel in chains on his premises. This can be understood as Paine having the charge of a crazy person. Paine certainly wants people to think that is the case. But the desperation expressed by the damsel points to a darker possibility. What if the champion for Liberty is keeping a prisoner?

      An even darker thought: What if the damsel herself is the Liberty that Paine calls for. In that interpretation, there is the making of hypocrisy or something like what Bjork expressed in the Hunter when she sang: "I thought I could organize Freedom."

      And there are a number of other ways to interpret the scene. So I would ask a question in return:
      If the character selected is of no importance, is the song about anything?


      Your interpretation is interesting and thoughtful, and my well be correct, if we can say that any one interpretation is "correct".  But it seems to me to be stretching a bit.

      If Paine is keeping Liberty as a slave or a prisoner, why should she wish to harm her potential liberator?  Is the harm she intends to do him her offer of sex ("I will secretly accept you and together we'll fly south")?  The harm seems to have already been done by the third verse, since Paine is apologizing for "what she's done".  If the promoter of freedom is himself a slavekeeper, and if the enslaved wish malice upon their liberators, what sort of mess are we in?

      My answer to your question is:  I don't know.  Maybe it's not about anything, it's just using words and music to create an atmosphere of foreboding and danger.  It's said that art, especially modern art, isn't about anything except the way paint looks on the canvas.

      I think that poetry has two stages.  The first is dredging up images and emotions from memory and the subconscious.  The second, which is where art comes in, is arranging and adjusting the material to fit the chosen form and rhythm and mood, in order to communicate what the poet wants to get across.  I think that Dylan is a genius at the first stage, but sometimes gets lazy at the second. 


      "Tom Paine" certainly wasn't accidental. In 1963, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a more radical version of the ACLU, awarded Dylan the Tom Paine Award "in recognition of distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty." He received a lot of flack for his rambling acceptance speech, especially when he expressed sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald.

      In response to the controversy, Dylan wrote:

      I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me but I can return what is rightfully yours at any given time. I have stared at it for a long while now. it is a beautiful award. there is a kindness t Mr Paine's face an there is almost a sadness in his smile. his trials show thru his eyes. I know really not much about him but somehow I would like t sing for him. there is a gentleness t his way. yes thru all my flounderin wildness, I am, when it comes down to it, very proud that you have given this t me. I would hang it high, an let my friends see in it what I see, but I also would give it back if you wish. There is no sense in keepin it if you've made a mistake in givin it. for it means more'n any store bought thing an it'd only be cheatin t keep it

      My own interpretation of the song is that the damsel represents an emotion--rage or lust or hatred or vanity--that Dylan finds seductive but dangerous, perhaps an emotion that he associates with the award controversy. In the end, he invokes the spirit of Thomas Paine "himself" to help him conquer the temptation.

      Anyway, the controversy itself is fascinating. More here: http://www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm


      I won't be much help in the discussion of whether Dylan deserves this award or not. Being asked to view his work in the register of Literature is interesting and worth taking some time mull over. Some things jump out at me before I mull.

      Along the lines of the "representative man" that Emerson discussed referenced by Peracles, Dylan has shaped the way we talk. The Shakespeare example points to how that happened in the course of pursuing other ends. Another way to look at it is through listening to Yeats. There is an economy of expression in Yeats that nobody in his generation approached. Dylan never got that far but clearly had that goal in mind in his efforts. His lyric "Love is so simple, to coin a phrase" is a mistake or brilliant depending on whether you hear the minting of the coin as happening now or really just meaning "repeating a phrase. Dylan was constantly playing around with common phrases to knit together a story.

      The element of narrative strikes me as central to Dylan's work. The line between personal and public is not experienced. The exchanges between people are. The tirades of Masters of War, The Ballad of the Thin Man, and Idiot Wind castigate others but also self indict. All these narratives are conversations that never end.

      Looking at what I have written above makes me realize that I am pretty far away from what I am trying to say.
      I know, I will quote a Dylan line and be magically understood anyway:

      "My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
      should I put them by your gate?
      Or sad eyed lady,
      should I wait?"

       


      Wow, are those the right words?  I'd always mondegreened it as: "My warehouse hides my Arabian drums", and never could figure out what he was on about!


      Moat, I grew up with this man's throat? hahahah

      Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.....

      And I am 15 and 16 and....

      WHAT THE HELL IS HE TALKING ABOUT?

      And 50 years later, I still become astounded.

      If not Bobby, who?

      There is a generation here that is part of me and Bobby spoke to me and I was so saddened by my own experiences that Dylan meant something to me.

      So I am emotionally attached to this icon.

      Is the icon real?

      I do not know, and I do not care.

      But this poet took me to places that were beyond my experience.

      Trite?

      Probably

      There were many poets who made me wonder and made me wish and made me think.

      That's all I got


      iFascinating blog and discussion among the bro's, worth a second cup of coffee, brother can you spare a dime?

      I can't say I was a fan of Dylan, just wasn't my time. Also, not a high brow myself, but having sung the great choral works, including on stage in London with a rock star like Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose baritone voice can melt ice or slice through steel, the rasping of a pop star actually doesn't thrill me. 

      On the other hand, the award will interest me in his poetry, which I had never thought of reading on its own merit. 

      I can't help but think that the award is a capitulation, even granting the international "stature" as a criterion. Can't see how it leads to "serious art" except that upheavals in social and political spheres are thought by some to inspire good art, so given what may lie ahead perhaps the award is a benediction to a period of artistic underachievement. Below is a list of great art that is "about" politics.

      Uh, I'll get back to you on that.

      And most likely, I am still depressed by this election. Actually everything about our politics is relevant to art, just not art about our politics.

        


      Let's just say it's a 1-time acknowledgment to the poetical genius of some "musicians", that indeed this is serious literature too. While the committee digs out obscure names and books from various countries, for 50 years there's been no acknowledgment of the words that have most shaped our lives, daily. If I say "the girl with kaleidoscope eyes", a billion or more people's eyes will flash in recognition. And even that line is post-Dylan, when Lennon had to up his game to be a real poet. Listen to the Byrds do Dylan and they're doing songs. Listen to Dylan do his own songs and he's doing words. 

      "Princess on a steeple and all the pretty people drinking thinking they got it made..." he's rapping in 1965. His 6 minute song/poem excoriates the status quo and devastates the 3-minute "she loves you yeah yeah yeah" rule for radio play. go on to Subterranean Homesick Blues Again and it's a real treat, an onslaught of words, including the most famous, "...you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"

      Listen to the sparse seemingly eternal 11-minute Desolation Row for a packed house at Royal Albert Hall, and you can't escape the feeling they're there for one of the largest poetry readings ever. or to steal the punchline from another joke, "you ain't comin' here for the music, is ya?" - certainly not the harmonica.

      Dylan is the uniting figure for archivists, the study of literature in tandem with lyrics, folk movements, all that stuff English teachers and lit majors demanded. he never quite managed hat "serious novel" though, which is good - he didn't need to write a novel to be serious - poetry aka lyrics was serious enough. it changed our world. sure, Howl and the beats changed poetry too - isn't that what it's all about?

      [And then there's the personal for me, where Dylan rises up to make another failed relationship all better, put a bandaid on it, a shrink in time of dire need:

      "I once loved a woman/a child I am told/I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul"

      followed by:

      "I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind/you could have done better but I don't mind/you just kinda wasted my precious time, but don't think twice, it's alright" -

      that magical poignant moment of stoic sadness and how-did-we-get-it-all-wrong and faked "I don't care" like when the proud flower says goodbye to the Little Prince on Astéroïde B six-cent douze. I never asked for Dylan - he just kind of appears.

      And you might look closer at the possible allusions in these dark political hours we face now:

      Well the railman offered 2 cures, and then said jump on in

      The one was Texas medicine, the other was railroad gin

      And like a fool I mixed them

      And it strangled up my mind

      Now people just get uglier

      And I have no sense of time

      Awww mama, can this really be the end

      To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again

      Somehow we're face to face with our failings, trying to figure out our mistakes or sins again, the length of our perdition, our never-ending road, defeat valiantly clutched from the jaws of victory...  And if you look at the lyrics just right, like squinting into the sun, it's like a mini-cut of life out of La Strada or Fellini or Truffaut from the golden age or Faulkner from his best years - "built a fire on main street and shot it full of holes" - the circus, the insanity, the hustle and bustle]

      Out of curiosity, I wondered what Garcia-Marquez thought re: his magical surrealism (didn't realize he'd died 2 years ago), and Ruben Blades noted that Gabo would have approved - they'd discussed it many times, and Garcia-Marquez had even filled such a literary poem into a song with this idea, " Gente despertando bajo dictaduras " - people waking under dictatorship, like my feelings and songs towards the desaperacidos and the generals of the Junta - but thought that it would have been more powerful if they'd had Dylan share the award with another poet-singer such as Brazilian Chico Buarque. Here is the Spanish version of this Facebook analysis - you can run it through Google if you like. Adios to the Generation of the Boom.


      Peracles, thanks, truly, and as usual, your scope and eloquence reach me.

      Never having focused on his lyrics, in print, as poetry, I am struck as much by the structure as the sentiment, given the iambic pent. And the rhyming. And this is the now nexus of lyrics and literature, and even politics?

      Well, politics maybe, did we learn something---reach them where they live, sell them on the actual product later.

      In 1965 I was raising a family in Connecticut, commuting to NYC and during the week flying across the country. The office ethic was to get the smallest size Brooks Brother brief case which would still hold a clean shirt and tooth brush. No song there.

      I didn't even "get" the Beatles till 20 years later when a nude psycho therapy group in Beverly Hills opened my eyes. Of course my wife had "gotten" both the Beatles, and ( just this moment realized it), Dylan, and was already merrily out the door having an affair with a sailor.

      Sometimes I myself am struck by my own journey---from the stories of Harlan County, and relatives who worked at the Polar Bar' plant (known on Wall St. as the P. Lorillard tobacco Co.)  to singing  perhaps the greatest a cappella choral work of all time, by Randall Thompson, at the Mariinsky and Ely Cathedral.

      Native cadence speech and internal rhyming" recently at Ethel's cafe:

      "Now, hon, you're late again I'll dock yer pay

      Pick up the choc-late milk and waffle plate."

       

      The lyrics to an eternal choral work:

      "Allelujah"

       

       


      Sometimes I'm very humbled by the anonymity and my lack of knowledge of who I'm talking to at any moment. And then other times, I'm off and bounding with my je ne give a fuck pas nature. My neighbor came home to find his wife in bed with another woman in our rather conservative southern climes, sometime mid-60's, as just one story of how things could easily go off a cliff. He recovered, she recovered, though not together, probably in the end no one was hurt, or not too badly, as we explored these new possibilities.

      One of the core tenets of liberalism is that we don't understand enough about each other, or even ourselves dagnabbit, so we will provide the trappings and freedom to evolve without too much pain to each other. We keep hoping for that simple respect from others, but it's hard to find. Glad A Cappella did  you good, sorry about the harsh intro to Beatles & Dylan - maybe the reprise is a little more salubrious....


      Peracles, you broke the mold.

      I think my good health today is partly due to my rude awakening and subsequent struggles, like spending down my assets and working with my hands. And some choral singing mixed in.

      Gotta go, some lady in Arkansas is inquiring about my environmental services.

       


      Find me an angel who flies from Montgomery... or Little Rock, even Topeka.


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