The year gone by created more throbbing voids in our hearts than did an entire season of Gilmore Girls. We were, with an utmost cruelty, left to live in a world where David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and Carrie Fisher no longer existed. But before the countdown to midnight began on New Year’s Eve and I merrily drank to celebrate the end of a devastating year, I itched to continue searching for that one bright, sparkling moment in 2016 that, in the years ahead, would perhaps make me look back and say, “Aw, c’mon. It wasn’t all that bad.” And that moment, as I realised upon some late night contemplation, was a couple of months ago in October when my phone screen came alive and flashed the news alert: “Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature”.
Articles commenting on the controversy surrounding the Prize washed over my Facebook News Feed in the days to follow, drowning out every other piece of news. I, however, sat feeling warm and tingly in my toes, experiencing the same satisfaction one gets when they consume a melted cheese fondue. The week before the grand announcement, I’d shut myself in my bedroom with the new U2 album Songs of Innocence on full blast. I’d been comparing the album’s song lyrics to the poetry of William Blake, published in a volume by the same name which had inspired the band. U2, in the manner of Blake, as I observed, had talked about living in a world of corruption, child abuse and religious oppression while still desperately attempting to clutch onto a thin ray of hope. “Why could I not analyse this modern take on romantic poetry for my college assessment?” I’d wondered out loud. I would’ve produced a thesis-level paper if given the chance. Despite the academic work being done on Dylan, the controversy surrounding Dylan’s prize symptomatises the still existing gap between popular music/culture and ‘literature’. The truth is that song lyrics, like accepted forms of literature through the ages, are (and have always been) reflective of society’s moods, fears, anxieties, hopes, flaws, and are inextricably linked to culture and social change. Lyrics are poetry, waiting to be read and analysed. When studied independently of the various guitar riffs and drumming patterns that accompany them, lyrics will find their way of tugging at your heartstrings, burrowing into your thoughts, and carving a space for themselves within you. So when the news of Dylan broke, I heaved a sigh of relief, for this marked a new literary revolution – a revolution which brought music and literature together and gave lyricists the same credibility as poets and authors. It was a revolution which, in one great leap, closed a major gap between high art and low-brow commercial art.
Dylan’s music in the roaring 1960s was an integral part of the Beat Generation culture. His hobo character and song lyrics about his travels across the country attracted masses of people to the vagabond, “on the road” lifestyle previously popularised by Jack Kerouac. His music was also in tune with the “hippie movement” which started in retaliation to America’s intervention in the Vietnam War, and through his lyrics, he popularised ideals of peace, love, humanity and spirituality as against the turmoil of American capitalism and the breakdown of values. Take, for instance, the anthem Blowin’ in the Wind where he asked the pertinent question – “how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” – a direct remark on the brutality of Uncle Sam and the terror of a war-inflicted world. Using the universal symbol of the “white dove” in the same song, he encouraged a harmonious living, and with the references to wind, sand, mountains, sea and sky, he proposed a reconnect with nature in order to find “the answer” to life’s miseries – “the answer” which was “blowin’ in the wind”. Similarly, in the song Mr. Tambourine Man, he commented on the squalor of big cities, the disintegration of values, and his dissatisfaction with the uptight middle classes, much like Charles Baudelaire and T.S. Eliot did in their poetry. The lines from Baudelaire’s Anywhere Out of the World “Let us go farther still to the extreme end of the Baltic; or farther still from life, if that is possible… At last my soul explodes, and wisely cries out to me: “No matter where! No matter where! As long as it’s out of the world!” anticipate Dylan’s hashish-fuelled lyrics from Mr. Tambourine Man – “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind, down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, the haunted frightened trees, out to the windy bench, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow”. Dylan also critiqued the division of humans into the proletariat and the bourgeois amidst capitalism-driven chaos and in the song All Along the Watchtower, re-named these groups as the “Joker” and the “Thief” respectively. In the song, the Joker’s remark to the Thief – “There must be some kind of way outta here […] there’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief” – is reflective of the working class’s oppression and embittering experiences in the modern world. Echoing Langston Hughes’ lamentation of “a dream deferred” in the poem Harlem, Dylan wrote of missed opportunities and hopeless lives of the lowest rung crowd in society in the song Subterranean Homesick Blues. And taking inspiration from war poets like Wilfred Owen, he wrote A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall about the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Clearly, all movements of social change and politics filtered into Dylan’s songs. He is a literary genius who compiled his thoughts into unforgettable ballads with a deep, meditative murk. It is no surprise then, that upon his literary accomplishment, Rolling Stones magazine recognised him as “as timeless as a 1600s Scotch border ballad and as visionary as Isaiah”.
Dylan’s lyrics were more important to him than the tunes he composed to accompany them and with every song, he attempted to tell a story and to connect to the people on a personal level. He incorporated more poetic devices and techniques into his lyrics than did any other musician of his generation. He took inspiration from the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and commenting on his reaction upon seeing the theatre performances said, “My little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral, at least in songwriting terms.” Brecht’s song sequences particularly fascinated Dylan – “I took the song apart and unzipped it – it was the form, the free verse association, the structure and disregard for the known certainty of melodic patterns to make it seriously matter, give it its cutting edge.” To create his own lyrical ballads, Dylan also closely examined the elementary poetry of past songwriters such as the American blues legend Robert Johnson. “Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires,” Dylan later wrote. “The free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstractions.” Dylan associated himself closely with the proto-surrealist Arthur Rimbaud, adopting his ambiguous use of words, phrasing and context, at once literal and abstract, and also embraced the maddened, opium-induced Romantic-era poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In spite of these allusions, references, inspirations and commentaries, however, audiences questioned Bob Dylan’s literary prowess when he won the Nobel Prize. People contested the notion of a songwriter as a poet. A New York Times article, condemning the Nobel committee’s decision, claimed – “when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honour a writer.” But that’s exactly where the problem lies. Firstly, the committee did not award Bob Dylan the ‘musician’. It awarded Bob Dylan the ‘writer’ for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Bob Dylan was, and has always been, an accomplished writer in terms of his lyrics. His literary brilliance was further cemented and acknowledged worldwide when The Oxford Book of American Poetry included his song Desolation Row, in its 2006 edition, and Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009. Secondly, on what basis does one declare the art of song-writing as inferior to other literary forms? Blindly overlooked is the fact that song-writing requires the same effort and careful consideration as does the writing of a poem, a play or a short story. It is the meticulous act of picking one’s brain, delving into the recesses of the heart and mind, and pouring one’s thoughts and emotions out on paper. And thirdly, when (and why in the world) did we begin separating songs from poetry in the first place? Those Greek and Sanskrit epics that we worship as part of the literary canon – were they not written as verses intended to be sung aloud? What is a song but a few lines of poetry with an insistent beat or rhythm added to it? If literature is defined as the written word representative of culture, society and tradition of a language, then song lyrics qualify as literature. The text of song lyrics can be decoded using literary theory, with a mythological, sociological, psychological or historical approach. In fact, the text of song lyrics must be decoded, for like other forms of literature, they reflect social attitudes and help construct a blueprint of human civilisation.
Dylan isn’t of course the only artist to have inspired generations through words and attempted social commentary. Back in the early 20th century, the artistic explosion of the Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Movement) brought forth African-American jazz and blues musicians whose lyrics revealed a celebration of their black identities. After enduring centuries of racism, the African-American community now took up the cause of reigniting cultural pride through their music. This was visible in the song lyrics of Billie “Lady Day” Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Willie “The Lion” Smith. In the 1960s, Pink Floyd produced countless songs about the post-war trauma after the Second World War. The band’s lyricist and vocalist Roger Waters had watched his father die at the hands of the Nazis, and this memory of his troubled childhood led him to write lyrics like “Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter, when the promise of a brave new world unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?” in the song Goodbye Blue Sky. Similarly, in a fit of rage against the American armed forces in the Vietnam War, the heavy metal band Black Sabbath sang, “Politicians hide themselves away, they only started the war. Why should they go out to fight, they leave that role to the poor,” in the song War Pigs. Metal and rock bands of the 80s and early 90s wrote passionately against religious oppression of the church. Iron Maiden openly mocked the church with satanic lyrics in Number of the Beast – “The ritual has begun, Satan’s work is done. 666, the number of the beast, sacrifice is going on tonight.” In recent times, punk rock bands like Green Day started a modern revolution against American imperialism, and through albums like American Idiot, expressed the disillusionment of a generation that grew up in tumultuous times shaped by events like the Iraq War.
Can we really afford to overlook all of these literary endeavours just because they fall under the category of mainstream music and not “proper” or “refined” literature? Song lyrics need to be examined more closely and critically. There is sophistication and a carefully cultivated aesthetic in the ideas propounded by musicians through their lyrics. And not giving lyricists their due credit as contributors to literature would be one of the grossest mistakes the human race could make. Luckily enough, however, after the decision of the Nobel committee, the para-literature created by lyricists and music artists would perhaps be taken more seriously. Song lyrics truly are, and have always been, an undervalued genre of literature reflective of the human condition. What I wish to lay particular emphasis on here is the fact that the inclusion of songwriters into the literary hall of fame in no way dilutes the institution of literature; it only evolves and enhances it. The act of writing and producing literary masterpieces is still as sacrosanct as it has always been, and broadening the scope of literature is always in our benefit. Dylan’s literary accomplishment is therefore a step forward in bringing together popular culture and canonical literature in the modern age; a step which has been long overdue. The times they are a-changin’, and thank heavens for that!
(Note – This article was published in ‘Bitacora’, Vol. 2 – the literary magazine of Gargi College, University of Delhi)