Thursday, November 17, 2016

Bob Dylan's Lyrics: Songs or Poems?

Bob Dylan was recently honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."  Most of his best-known lyrics are 40-50 years old, so they're not "new" in the sense of recency.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s New York City's East Village neighborhood was home to clubs where the great folk revival singers gathered to share songs and inspiration.  Bob Dylan's songs stood out for their metaphors and interesting turns of phrase.  Other singers made some of his songs famous, Peter, Paul and Mary, especially.  He continues to write and perform, and many of his later songs are also considered great poetry.

Blowin' in the Wind, made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary (1962) and also on Dylan's album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) is one of the early anti-war anthems of the 1960s:
How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps int he sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannonballs fly before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.  The answer is blowin' in the wind.
"The Times, They are A-Changin'" (1964) is the protest song most identified with Dylan as a performer.

"My Back Pages," from Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964) is one of the songs covered by The Byrds Each stanza ends with one of his most famous lines:  "But I was so much older then.  I'm younger than that now."

Highway 61 Revisited (1965) references the highway in Mississippi made famous by Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938), the Delta Blues master who inspired many rock 'n' roll artists.   "Like a Rolling Stone" was an indictment of the powerful brought down, or perhaps of middle-class teens who became vagabond hippies.  The song has the unforgettable lines:
You used to laugh about
Everybody was hanging out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?
Many of his lyrics are love songs, but they use more poetic devices than other love songs of the time.  Blonde on Blonde (1966) included "Visions of Johanna," which is mysterious and indecipherable.
Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it.
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind...
Blood on the Tracks (1975) included a bluesy song titled "Buckets of Rain"  One of the stanzas makes no literal sense but works as a blues song:
Little red wagon
Little red bike
I ain't no monkey but I know what I like
I like the way you love me strong and slow
I'm takin' you with me, honey baby
When I go.
"Hurricane" (co-written with Jacques Levy), was featured on his 1975 album, Desire.  It is one of many story songs by Dylan, and one of his most controversial.  This eight-minute song tells the story of the wrongful arrest and conviction of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a black boxer charged with a 1966 triple murder and eventually released.  Dylan became an advocate for Carter's release.   Carter was the subject of "The Hurricane, " (1999) starring Denzel Washington, and Dylan's song is used in the film.  The song begins:
Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night
Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall
She sees the bartender in a pool of blood
Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!"
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
The story ends when "the D.A. said he was the one who did the deed, And the all-white jury agreed."

Other famous songs were made famous by others: Tamborine Man, All Along the Watchtower, The Mighty Quinn, and Make you Feel My Love.

To read Dylan's lyrics from 1962 - 2001 check out ML 420 .D98 L97 2004

To understand more about the man and his impact, check out some of the books about him (most are shelved in the ML 420 .D98 number in the Music Collection)

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