With Literature on His Side: Dylan Knocks on the Pantheon’s Door

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Because you’ve never had less time to read more words and I don’t want to abuse the moments you choose to spend paying attention to mine, I usually avoid offering my two cents on topical subjects about which the mainstream media is already inundating you, preferring to focus on stories, art, artists, and occasionally news and perspectives you might not be exposed to elsewhere. But the doubting Pierres among literary critics and some novelists — none of whom you’ve ever heard of — here in France (balanced, it should be acknowledged, by inspiringly unrestrained ebullience from news animators; even over the radio you can see their happiness) betray such a misapprehension and limited understanding of what literature actually is, and how completely the new Nobel laureate for literature Bob Dylan fulfills this standard, and he has been such an essential compagnon de route for half a century, that I’m compelled to confabulate. (One French critic even expressed outrage that an American novelist like Russell Banks didn’t get the award. To paraphrase and invert the lamented vice-presidential debater Lloyd Benson: I knew Russell Banks, and Russell Banks is no Bob Dylan. Words matter.)

Before Gutenberg, literature was oral, circulated and transmitted by generations of ordinary people, then conteurs, some of whom eventually set this heritage to music. (And long before that, it was related in paintings on the walls of caves, including here in the Dordogne.) They recounted legends, scandals, love stories, family sagas, military debacles, doomed expeditions, quests for gold, pioneer crossings, crusades, infamous crimes, political, human, and labor struggles, characters, and news. They campaigned for justice and for solidarity.

Bob Dylan didn’t invent this tradition. In the 20th century alone, he was preceded in North America by Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Pete Seeger and the Weavers and, more for their musical inflection, Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, among others, and was followed by Bruce Springsteen. (Billie Holiday, for “Strange Fruit,” also deserves a nod.) He started just after Johnny Cash and Simon and Garfunkel (check their cover of “The Times they are a-changin'”), simultaneously with Leonard Cohen, and with Joan Baez. (His closest French and Francophone equivalents include Brel, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré, and, to a more limited extent Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg, and Boris Vian. The Australian and more morbid Nick Cave also comes to mind.) Like Cash, many wanted to place him in a box, with some of his folk singing fans rebelling when he went ‘electric.’ His denial of being interested in politics has been misunderstood; like any troubadour worth the name, Dylan’s role was to articulate and publicize the concerns of his generation to a larger, popular audience (check the musicality of “The Hurricane”), not necessarily to march with them. The poetry and timelessness of his compositions was so evident that even singers of anterior generations started covering him immediately. (Check out Marlene Dietrich’s versions, in German and English, of “Blowing in the Wind.”)

But what Dylan added to the folk, hillbilly, and traditional songs he inherited and applied to the ones he created was a literary standard. Electrified or not, his words sing and sting. And if we look at previous laureates, like Camus in “The Plague” he distilled the concerns of his time into fables, and like Faulkner he preserved a vernacular. (In both of which gifts he was joined by two other literary sons of Minnesota: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Prince.)

The other sense in which the critics outraged by Dylan’s getting this award have missed the essential is that *literature* starts with *the word.* Many of us initially liked to lampoon Dylan’s nasal voice, including me and my brother, born in 1962 in San Francisco and even in that early stage of Dylan’s trajectory awarded the middle name of “Dylan” by our parents. (Those recordings have, helas, been lost, but you can still find Joan Baez’s imitations, which rival Ella’s of Satchmo. Check out “A Simple Twist of Fate.” More topically, check Dylan and Baez’s duet of the former’s “With God on Our Side” at the Newport festival, as well as Aaron Neville’s version.) (It was at a Dylan concert, my first, that my mom introduced me to Baez, when I was just three or four years old. When I later recounted this episode to Baez during an interview, she was not amused.) But — getting back to that nasal voice — if you listen to his interpretation of his compositions, Dylan in fact articulates and does justice to the meaning and rhythm of each word, pumping it for its maximal value and richness and often imbuing it with a unique cadence. If that’s not literature, I don’t know what is.

PS: For another side of the free-wheeling Bob Dylan, check both the curating and segues of his Theme-time Radio Hour, produced by American satellite radio, particularly those devoted to coffee, Presidents Day, and Halloween.