To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, The Grand Poobah
Subject: Bob Dylan: Musician or Poet?
The New York Times Book Review (December 22, 2013) made two big mistakes. They asked that perennially contentious (and idle) question: Bob Dylan: Musician or Poet? Their second mistake was to assign two white girls to proffer their opinion. Granted, Dana Stevens and Francine Prose are not just any white girls, but they are white girls nonetheless. And as smart white girls, they give the question wide berth and dance on the periphery with conventional opinions and ambiguous stands. Besides, anyone with a clue knows that Dylan, like Elvis and Jimmy Reed, is a guy thing.
First off, it should be obvious to anyone who cares to think about it that Dylan has an encyclopedic grasp of American folk and popular music, from garage rock to gospel. A map of Dylan’s musical meandering highlights his attention to a range of stylistic genres that include protest songs, blues, country blues, talking blues, novelty ditties, ballads, sagas, dirges, and anthems to name just a few. Dylan, in his long career, has given his inspired focus to just about every folk idiom in the American canon. And at each phase or transition, a reinvention was required, a process of exploration and rediscovery abetted by creative intuition. Does the baroque rock of Blonde On Blonde predict the economy of John Wesley Hardin, and it in turn the lyricism of New Morning or the deep fried country of Nashville Skyline? Each has to be judged by its own musical standard of inventiveness in adapting an existing or traditional form to Dylan’s singular vision as well as his deep understanding of the genre.
As a musician, Dylan demonstrates an incredible ear and range of hearing. It is a compliment to musicians to have “ears out to here.” Dylan has ears, and then some. And as with his Minnesota confreres, Spider John and Dave ‘Snaker’ Ray, the aim in the early days was to play and sing with the raw authenticity of a Lomax field recording. Mimicry, for the young artist, is a way of locating one’s place. Dylan’s talent then as now is his ability to replicate and synthesize the tone and phrasing of any style of popular music. Rockabilly, heavy metal, Western swing, no sweat, Dylan handles them all with his distinct signature.
That Dylan is consciously and intellectually engaged in the traditions of American music is evident in the didactic intent of World Gone Wrong, a primer of folk forms exquisitely accompanied by guitar and iconic harmonica. Dylan’s use of the harmonica, that ubiquitous and famously portable folk instrument also known as the mouth organ or harp, although not a prominent feature of his later repertoire, further underscores his understanding of the nuances of the music he is showcasing. Dylan’s harmonica playing is as original as it is unusual, authentic and unorthodox, providing an inventive yet complimentary counterpoint to the vocals. Drummer Jim Keltner claims that Dylan’s harmonica playing is jazz, and that may very well be. Listening to the harmonica tracks, the attentive listener might gain insight into how Dylan hears and what he hears, from the jaunty rambling on a taking blues to the hauntingly plaintive refrain such as on Every Grain Of Sand.
Suffice it to say there are numerous indications that qualify Dylan as a musician. That he makes his livelihood as a working performer should be all that is necessary to put that question to rest. There is, however, no doubt that Dylan’s approach to music is that of a man of letters. The literary characteristics of Dylan’s writing include semantic granularity, range of metaphor, and originality of expression that would recommend it as poetry to even the most hidebound traditionalists or self-devouring avant-gardists.
Beginning with Another Side Of Bob Dylan, the persona of folk singer shifts to that of the more cosmopolitan writer performer identified as artist and loosely modeled on the cabaret styling of the Jacques Brel chanson. Here the crafted lyrics are akin to poetry in that they explore the human condition in a manner that is literate rather than merely tuneful. The original poetry on the album sleeve of this and subsequent early albums leaves little doubt that Dylan saw himself as a creative artist in the role of poet. Don’t Look Back, that Orphic admonition, seems the fitting signpost for this phase of his musical and literary creativity.
By his own admission, Dylan’s understanding of what might constitute lyrical content was expanded after attending a performance of the Three Penny Opera. The potential for dramatic storytelling within a musical context was something of a revelation. From that point on narrative elements of poetry found in ballads, epics and sagas spread like wildfire throughout his writing. They became the foundation for a vastly imaginative, fanciful, mythic and allegorical body of work that continues unabated to this day. Its substance is literary yet it is set to music which speaks more to a technological shift than a purely esthetic one. That the poetry establishment is at pains to distance itself from song and equivocate over acknowledging Dylan as America’s greatest living poet is merely an indication of its continued irrelevance. The mantle of poet is bestowed on any numbskull with an MFA. It would seem ludicrous to withhold that designation from a writer whose lexical breadth and sophistication leaves little doubt that he is a poet of the first order.
Most of all, Dylan is his own man, a poet and musician, who over the past fifty plus years of creativity has assembled an oeuvre, a significant body of work. His integrity and diligence is an inspiration. That he has not joined the craven celebrity zombie parade is a testimony to his character and the sobriety of his vision as a working artist. For those who have followed a career that has paralleled generational lines, there is a sense of gratification for the maturity of the more recent works, of their effortlessness and lyric perfection. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Dylan’s native wisdom, wit, intelligence, sense of humor, and playfulness is hardly ever acknowledged. It is for the avid listeners to delight in those droll ironic asides that show the artist in confident command of his medium. As an artist, Dylan’s work embodies his life and his life embodies his work. And like the great artists of the past, Picasso, Shakespeare, he is his own category. Among the many subsets of the category ‘Dylan’ are poet, musician.
Perfect answer to the numbskulls who still think they can pronounce in matters of poetry and music. The poets and the people love their Dylan for what he does. How more irrelevant can an outmoded PR organ for the “official” culture industry get? Take a break, NY Times, open the windows! Let a hard brisk window blow through the musty offices of MFA programs and the vanishing print supplements of the idle class. Students of the “arts,” leave school immediately! Your innocence is being stolen as your pockets are emptied.
Another AKA for harmonica is Mississippi Saxophone. Although Dylan’s harp stylings may be idiosyncratic there are certain similarities characteristic of others who play the instrument on a rack (or hands free as it were). This was a good read. I don’t remember anyone focusing on his mimetic gifts before this. “Nashville Skyline” is particularly illustrative of them. Still the question of Dylan: Poet or Motorcyclist goes unanswered.
As big a Dylan fan as I have been since 1965, I find most of his poetry lacking without the music. There are many exceptions though. Though I enjoy his voice, which has the familiarity of an old friend, I would mainly call him the greatest lyricist of all time. No one else comes close.
Elvis a guy thing? I don’t recall noticing his pelvic gyrations as a youth, nor did I enjoy his films. Most of the screaming I heard at his shows had a high pitch to it.
Since Jimmy Reed is mentioned here, I’d like to relate an anecdote from Buddy Guy’s recent book. When Buddy was new to Chicago he heard Reed was playing somewhere. He jumped out of bed and ran down to a club where a lot of people were out front, including one guy who was passed out, almost blocking the entrance. Guy stepped over him.
When told by the owner that Reed’s set was over, Guy asked if he could meet Reed. The owner said, “You already did. You just stepped over him.”
I’m a poet and I know it (excerpt from my first poem.)
Congratulation, Roberto, you just struck out!
Strike one: You assume that a lyric is not a poem. Technically and historically, a lyric is a poem. Lyrics were poems long before writing came along, and were usually accompanied by a musical instrument.
Strike two: you relegate Elvis to a pelvic thrust when his importance highlights the background melding of two diverse cultures in the South. To some Elvis is king more for what he represents than for his music. To others he is god.
Strike three: You denigrate a black man by portraying him as a falling down drunk no matter that his style of R&B was both seminal and widely influential. And drinking yourself insensible is nothing if not a guy thing.
Any more of this rusty thinking and you’ll be back in the big house in no time.
Great essay. I just want to add a personal thought. I’ve seen Dylan in concert at least 4 times. One time, I was able to dance maybe within 10 feet of the stage. That time, I yelled out to Dylan during a momentary break between songs, “we love you” plus a whoop and holler or two of literary and musical approval. Most celebrity musicians smile or wave back when they get that. Dylan just bristled, as if I’d thrown tomatoes at him. His fear of a Mark David Chapman type is understandable, and perhaps he has good reason to fear it. But there’s something else there too (and ZERO Chapman in me), I finally understood it after many years of pondering, when I read the Rolling Stone magazine’s most recent special edition on Dylan (just a year or two ago) which contains RS interviews with Dylan from each decade. During one interview, he objects to the idea that anyone in his audience “loves” him, or that anyone really does love him. First, he explains being truly loved, is that of god for his children, or another human being sacrificing themselves for the health and well being of another. Not an audience member liking his music, he scoffs. This, and other things he said in his interviews, made me finally understand how he sees himself as an artist. He sees himself as working hard (as in a job one loves doing) to do the best he can to be a true artist, not a celebrity or entertainer (though he does what he has to do of that part of the job to survive. Especially entertaining, he tries to choose the right chords to keep the song interesting, he said in the interviews.). He sees himself as trying to compose with a lot of intellectual ideas based on his extensive studies of music, art, and literature, to do his best to contribute worthwhile works of art. If he has an interviewer who understands the ideas in his work (a good metaphor would be the paints an artist uses on a canvass) that Dylan is drawing from to compose a lyric and song, then he says, yes, you get it, and he is pleased he doesn’t have to explain any further. That’s what I’m doing, and add in the time of day, did I sleep well, is there a dog barking, I need a cigarette, that girl next door sure is funny etc. Bob Dylan doesn’t want to hear from me “we love you” (but he doesn’t mind if that feeling made me buy the records or the concert ticket so he can continue to make a living). I hope he would be, though I know it doesn’t matter, happy to know that I played Love and Theft over and over for two years because it tickled my mind, made me feel good, and I wanted to figure out the lyric structures and implied literary ideas in the lyrics on the whole album by listening over and over, and not googling anything, ever. That way it stayed my own artistic experience. I finally, after the RS magazine interviews, understood Dylan’s view of himself as an artist. It’s special, as there are few who both feel as he does and who succeed at it so much, so consistently. Is he a poet or musician, yes, he is both, as Pat Nolan said, but Dylan doesn’t think I love him just because I love Love and Theft (and most of his body of work). He’s just an artist, and those who get it are his audience, and he feels fortunate, he said in a recent interview, that there’s still a niche of people willing to try to get his newest songs, buy the records and go to the concerts.