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Posted at: Apr 8, 2017, 2:52 AM; last updated: Apr 8, 2017, 2:52 AM (IST)

Keep rollin’, dear Dylan

Bob Dylan wrote songs that spoke for and defined a generation. His songs became anthems. Do songs become anthems just like that? Well, it isn’t every day that songwriters become Nobel laureates either

H. Kishie Singh

It had to happen and it finally did. Dylan is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the world’s highest awards and honours that can be conferred upon an individual. Did it come as a surprise? It did to Dylan. Said he, “I had thought it would be easier to stand on the moon than to get a Nobel. I was left speechless”!

So speechless that Dylan did not respond to the Swedish Academy for 10 days. That left the Academy speechless!

However, it did not come as a surprise to Dylan fans who had written to the Academy urging them to consider Dylan for the Nobel Prize for Literature. I whole heartedly agree with this. If we are to bisect the word ‘literature’, Dylan will fall into the category of a poet. 

Was the Academy surprised? 

After all he had been nominated in 1978, 1979, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2008!  Finally, they emerged from their somnambulistic slumber in 2016 and did what should have been done years ago.

Dylan is recluse, evasive, secretive and a very personal man who shuns limelight, likes to live by himself and create, which he does with aplomb. He broke all norms when he did not go gaga at the news of his Nobel Prize. He broke all norms when he did not nominate someone to represent him at the ceremony in Stockholm. He sent a thank you speech that was read out by the US Ambassador to Sweden during the Awards ceremony. One line is purely Dylan: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, are my songs literature?”

On his website, ‘Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature’ appeared against his name. It was removed the next day. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate, was back to being himself. Just Bob Dylan.

But, why this clamour by his fans over the years? Dylan has been glorified by those who love him, some who don’t and his critics as being one of the most important and trendsetting songwriter-poet-singer ever.

In the 1960s, there was massive civil unrest in America sparked by the Vietnam War. At the same time, the Black Movement was gaining momentum. Everybody listened to and paid heed to Dylan’s words.

The song ‘Blowin’ in the wind’ was an instant hit. The line ‘The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind’ referred to the American flag, which stood for freedom. It became the anthem for the Black Movement in America. In 1999, The Grammy Hall of Fame voted it The Best Song of All Times. Year 2009 saw Dylan being awarded The Special Pulitzer Prize.

There is another song that changed the rock ’n’ roll scene in North America. ‘Like a rolling stone’ is pure Dylan. It’s the voice. Raspy, rugged, rough. With a sneer, a scream that come with a rat-a-tat speed. It hits you on the guts, the heart and finally, the head. The song appeared on his long playing album Highway 61 Revisited and established his reputation as a pop artist. A transformation from anti-war and civil liberties protest singer to being a rock star.

Most importantly, from the traditional three minutes allocated to top selling songs, Dylan’s opening track on Highway 61 Revisited was six minutes long. It was voted ‘the greatest rock ’n’ roll song of all times’! It retains that crown till today. “No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time!” said David Fricke, senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine in an article in the magazine’s list of the top 500 rock songs of all times. The list was compiled by a panel of recording artists, label executives, critics and songwriters.

Dylan’s reaction to this, “It’s a temporary thing, one week one song is number one, next week it’s another”. How modest, how casual; or did Dylan not comprehend what he had just achieved? 

He wrote another award-winning song, ‘The times they are a-changin’. It was a splendiferous surprise for me on November 29 last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Global Citizen India Festival and quoted an entire stanza from the song to an overflowing hall.

It is not for the first time that Dylan has been quoted by a celebrity. The Chief Justice of the United States John Robert Jr used a line from ‘like a rolling stone’: “When you got nothing/ you got nothing to lose.”

However, back to ‘The times they are a changin’’. From 1996 onwards, Dylan had been appealing to the draft-dodgers and anti-war groups. The younger generation had accepted him as a counter-culture person. Actually to me, he is a counter/counter-culture figure!

The 1960s were a time when mothers and fathers in America still held the reins of the society. In the end, it was they who said no to the war. Dylan had won the minds and hearts of the youth. He now needed an endorsement from the Mas and Pas. Hence the line: ‘Come mothers and fathers throughout the land.’ While this appeal would take time to change the thought process of the older generation, I would recommend everyone to hear the song and harken to the words of his song ‘John Brown’. It’s about a young man who with his ‘uniform and gun’ makes his mother proud. She wanted him to go to war. She shows his picture of a smart young man, in uniform to all the neighbours. After a couple of years, he returns home. His mother goes to meet him at the railway station.

…she saw her son at last

And when she did she could hardly believe her eyes

Oh! His face was all shot up and his hands all blown off

And he wore a metal brace around his waist

He whispered kind of slow in a voice she did not know

While she couldn’t recognize his face

Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face.

The shock and awe are painted in bloody colours and brilliant words. The Domino effect gradually invaded all of middle class American homes, the vote bank. Bob Dylan was a one-man tidal wave that helped bring Vietnam War to an end.  This is why he qualifies for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2007, Dylan fans like Kris Kristofferson, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Kate Blanchet and Ben Wishlaw made a film with a lot of Dylan’s songs as the sound track. Since the film was a tribute to Dylan and he was not in it, the film makers asked Dylan what to call the film. “I am not there!” was his answer. The film was released under this name.

In 1992, the musicians of North America decided to honour Dylan. They had declared him “The most powerful and creative artist of all times”. It was 30 years since he brought out his first album. By then, he had put out 38 albums and over 500 songs. 

On October 13, 2016, Suyin Haynes of The Time’s London office reported that Bob Dylan became the 113th writer and the first musician to win this award. She could not be farther from the truth. Obviously, she had not read the Citation. Dylan got the Nobel for Literature. This means the words to his song. They are sheer poetry.

Dylan’s music comes second. His poetry comes first. He taught pop fans, composers, songwriters and anyone who even casually listens to music that his poetry belongs naturally to rock music. His own work has been set to long rambling melodies and sung in a voice, sometimes unharmonious but never unmelodious. This effect has been uniquely distilled from the folk song world. Independently he wrote songs and lines that spoke for and defined a generation. Dylan’s lyrics belong to a niche where the written word is all important. The melody, the guitar, the orchestra is simply in the background.

There is another enigma that is Bob Dylan. His song, ‘For Ever Young’ is a complete prayer. It can be included into any religious text and not be questioned. I do believe that the motivation for the song was brought about by a serious change in Dylan’s life. 

Dylan was born into a Jewish family. All his early songs are the influence of being a Jew. The Jews as a people have a certain sympathy, empathy and compassion. They have been an international football for 2,000 years. No homeland, no fiends, unwelcome anywhere on the planet. They know what suffering means. The Holocaust is still fresh in their minds. This streak is there in Dylan’s songs like ‘The masters of war’ and ‘With God on their side’. 

Then Dylan embraced Christianity. ‘Forever Young’ would be a result of this transformation. The first line of the second stanza of this song ‘Forever Young’ is “May you grow up to be righteous”. The following is a quote from the Upanishads, “may your deeds be only righteous”. Coincidence or divine intervention? Well, I refuse to believe this is a coincidence. I also refuse to believe that Dylan has been reading the Upanishads! It simply cannot be explained, as in the case of ‘I am not there’.

Bob Dylan, who had been associated with everything that was anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-war, pro-black, was allowed to sing in China. A Communist regime that allows no dissent and where the Ministry of Culture decides the agenda. In 2010, Dylan had been refused permission to play in China. By a strange coincidence, in 2011, when Dylan was allowed to sing in Beijing, the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei had been arrested for protest songs a couple of weeks earlier. This is what Dylan had done all his life and here he was singing in China. And what did he sing? ‘Gotta serve somebody!’ This song is nothing but a protest song and the words are so smooth, encompassing the world scenario that the words just flowed over the Heads of The Cultural Ministry of China! That’s Dylan! Only small glimpses of his life and accomplishments and what make him the greatest poet/ song writer/musician of modern times.

In the last few years, Dylan has strayed far and wide from the path he had chosen when he set out on this incredible journey of music, song and words that would leave an indelible mark on history.

In September 2012, Columbia Records released Tempest. Critics, fans and other worthies gave this album the best reviews of the 21st century. Then came Shadows in the Night, his 36th album from Columbia, which was released on February 3, 2015. It was a collection of Frank Sinatra songs, affectionately known as Ol’Blue Eyes, songs chosen by Bob Dylan. It was a kick in the head for just about everybody. The world was shocked and surprised. Most of all me. 

Songs like ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I am a fool to want you’, ‘Full Moon’ and ‘Empty Arms’ and a lot more from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which were in the ‘crooner’ category. What on earth was Dylan doing? From the raspy rugged, sometimes screeching, sometimes screaming Dylan sang in a soft and mellifluous voice.

Continuing this un-Dylanesque trend of change, Dylan released Fallen Angels in 2016. It continued in the same vein of the pre-war giants like George Gershwin, Cole Porter and other contemporaries. Dylan was confronted by uninitiated journalists, who wanted to know why this incredible change. Dylan came back with a subtle straight back hander: “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They have been covered enough, buried, as a matter of fact. What my band and I are doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day!” said Dylan.

These two albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels have 22 songs from a bygone age. To own one without the other would be a disservice to yourself.


Following bob

March 29

“No phone conversation has taken place with Bob Dylan in recent months. Dylan is nevertheless aware that a Nobel Lecture must be held on June 10th at the latest in order for a payment to be made,” said Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of The Swedish Academy.  

March 30

A day later, Danius said, “The good news is that The Swedish Academy and Bob Dylan have decided to meet this weekend.” The million dollar question nagging the Academy and millions of Dylan fans is, will he, won’t he give the required lecture to the Academy to collect US $910,000!

Stop press

Dylan is back with a three-CD album, the 38th by Columbia Records, called Triplicate. What else?  It is a 90-minute relapse into music, jazz and songs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

APRIL 2

Even the staid and conservative All India Radio reported in the morning news that Bob Dylan had collected his Nobel Prize.

APRIL 3

The only news that has come out of the secret meeting was a blog post by Sara Danius, the Swedish Academy’s Permanent Secretary. “Spirits were high, champagne was had. Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse”. That happened in the morning behind closed doors. From this we can deduce that half the battle is over for the Swedish Academy but not won! The second part will be for Dylan to collect the prize money, US $ 910,000. For this Dylan has to deliver a lecture or a short speech or a video broadcast or even a song, failing which Dylan forfeits the money.

He matters

The Citation released last year reads the Nobel Prize has been awarded him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. This was in the American Literature Academy Awards category. Does that tell you something about the enigmatic, idiosyncratic, charismatic Bob Dylan?

A Song for Sweden 

Earlier this month, Dylan gave his first ever concert in Stockholm. He walked on to the stage in his trademark outfit. A broad brimmed white cowboy hat, boots, a western style jacket, a guitar across his chest and, of course, the harmonica.  He sang. Not songs that made him what he is. He sang songs to promote Triplicate, a 3-CD album which will be a continuation of Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels. Very unlike Bob Dylan.

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