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.