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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bob Dylan and True Tales

The songwriter Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months ago.  A few days ago his lecture was published on the official Nobel Prize website.

In my imaginary Dylan belonged firmly to my parent's generation.  I was born in 1965 and in my earliest memories one of my parents and her friends were dragging the sixties into the seventies.  (You can read more about that in A Hippy Childhood.)  Trying to be a rebel, to do something different in that context was frustrating.
  • "Taking drugs as a form of adolescent rebellion simply loses any meaning when the adults in your life have already claimed that territory. Other ways had to be found. So, one day I came home and informed my mother that I had joined the Young Americans for Freedom, a very conservative youth organization. To my disappointment my mother replied with something very mild and along the lines of, 'That's nice, dear.' My mother is no fool."
When just about anything goes, so goes the inter-generational game.   We were tricked.  Tricked, I say.  Damn them for their tolerance.  Hell, might as well take up with a Frenchman and go off and be a foot soldier for international capitalism.

But Bob Dylan was there on the edge of my consciousness.  I always knew who he was.  I couldn't own him in my mind for my generation but I did listen to some of his songs and read some of the lyrics of those songs which were pure poetry.

So his lecture was something of a surprise for me.  It's brilliant. He pays homage to who and what came before him.  He stepped into the moving river of migration himself when, as all migrants do, "I left home..."  That's it.  The first step of all travellers, tourists, migrants and expatriates; each and every one heading out into the world on a Hero's Journey.

Dylan connects the world of folk music to some of the great literature of the world and they are about travellers: books like Moby Dick that "make demands on you."  I know what he means.  I finished Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner a week or so ago.  This is a story of marriage and migration:  a trailing spouse and a native son; love, pride, hardship, catastrophe, and forgiveness.  It's fiction but it's still a "true tale" which eschews formulas and happy endings for something deeper and darker. I closed the book feeling changed.   I have to read it again and I will.  As I have reread All Quiet on the Western Front many times over the past thirty years.  Books like these just stick with you.  And it doesn't matter that they are fiction; they are still true.

Take the The Odyssey by Homer.  This is the tale of a travelling man who is not trying to make a home abroad, he's at the tail end of his journey there and he's trying to get home.  Dylan notes that it's not so easy to return.  Those of us who have been a long time away from "home" can certainly relate to this:
  • "In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you've had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you've also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that's still not all of it.  When he gets back home, things aren't any better. Scoundrels have moved in and are taking advantage of his wife's hospitality."
Oh yes.  You go off to be changed and while you're gone the people and places you left behind move on.  In one of Dylan's songs Down the Highway he sings the perspective of those left behind and hints at how migration can be a chain:  one person leaves and then another decides to do the same.  Rural areas, small towns and villages all around the world empty out because of this.

"Well, the ocean took my baby
My baby stole my heart from me
Yes, the ocean took my baby
My baby took my heart from me
She packed it all up in a suitcase
Lord, she took it away to Italy, Italy
So, I'm a-walkin' down your highway
Just as far as my poor eyes can see
Yes, I'm a-walkin' down your highway
Just as far as my eyes can see
From the Golden Gate Bridge
All the way to the Statue of Liberty."

Here is the audio of Dylan's lecture.  Find a quiet place and just listen.  Then, and only then,  have a look at the transcript.  Heard or read, it's pure poetry.   And I like to think that because I did listen, Dylan comes a little closer in my mind to being a part of my experience in the US and abroad.  Like all great minds, great artists and great writers, I think he has something to express that transcends time and touches me deeply and personally.


Andrew said...

I rediscovered Dylan about 20 years ago and listen and relisten, mainly to his earlier music. Timeless, as is Cohen.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I also had a hippy childhood in some ways, and was not a big fan of Dylan at the time, though did quite like Hurricane, and Hendrix's cover of All Along the Watchtower. Reading through the lyrics of the former now, wow, what an angry song. Much more there than I had picked up on at the time.

Still don't fully understand the latter, but don't need to to enjoy it.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Andrew, Cohen is another that I knew about but never really listened to. I'll take another look/listen.

Nezumi-san, Oh I would love to swap stories with you about our childhoods. A lot of the sixties/seventies stuff felt "angry" to me. It was kind of funny to watch the phrase "When the revolution comes..." go from a semi-serious statement to code for "never". as in "When will my child learn to put the dishes in the dishwasher?" "When the revolution comes." :-)

Inaka Nezumi said...

For angry, can't top the childhood soundtrack of CSNY's "(Four dead in) Ohio." I knew that "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming" meant they were coming for "us." Later, my parents threw a big party at our house to watch and cheer Nixon's resignation speech live on TV.

Looking at your post on hippy childhood, indeed, there was no way to rebel when one's parents had already done everything rebellious that could be done. Though I guess I never really felt the need to rebel, since they had always been so permissive. Never got hooked on drugs (except caffeine and alcohol, and nicotine for a while), never became socially conservative. Actually used to wish that they had provided more guidance regarding education, but I guess they had never received any from their parents either, and anyway things worked out ok in the end.

Very happy childhood over all.