Think what you want about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for literature (and believe me, the blogosphere is awash with polarising opinions) but the famously recluse troubadour has unwittingly opened up an interesting and necessary debate: can song-writing be considered literature in its own right?
My gut feeling would probably shout out to let songs be songs and let literature be literature. Yet, somehow with Bob the lines get pretty hazy. He is one of the few performers who can lay claim to having a foot on both genres.
I first came to Dylan in uni. When I say “I came”, I mean that I began to listen actively to Bob in my first year of university. Before that, the only tune by Mr Zimmerman I knew was “Blowin’ in the Wind”. I think it was also the only one most Cuban radio DJs were acquainted with. Certainly it was the only one they played. Through a series of recommendations from friends in my freshman’s year, my journey through Dylan’s back catalogue started and I can safely say, I’m still on the same trip.
I cannot write about Dylan’s work chronologically, for I got stuck in his 60s phase and I still have not managed to get out. I did listen to his 80s collaboration with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, namely, The Travelling Wilburys, but that was not as satisfying as listening to his early albums. My first Dylan tape, recorded at one of my classmate’s, with randomly added Janis Joplin’s songs at the end (remember how we used to record from long play to cassette, or cassette to cassette, filling up the remaining empty space with whatever was at hand? In those days most albums lasted between 45 and 60 minutes and tapes were sometimes 90 minutes long. I still have silence-cancelling mini-compilations I used to make, some of which were better than the record that preceded them. Go figure) was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The album opened with, yes, you guessed it, Blowin’ in the Wind, but by track 3, Masters of War, I knew that there was more to Bob than just a man asking too many questions.
This first Dylan shared space with my very tiny, minuscule, almost invisible cassette collection. It was 1990s Havana and a tape could set you back between 15 and 20 Cuban pesos. Add to that the fact that I still lived with my mum, cousin, her mother and my grandmother in a cardboard-sized, one-bed flat in downtown Havana and any collection-building ambitions were dealt an immediate harsh reality check. Yet, my lifelong affair with Bob’s music was born in this confined space.
I used the word troubadour in my opening paragraph on purpose. It is not a term often used in English. Most critics and music enthusiasts prefer to talk about “singer songwriters”. In Spanish, though, the word “trovador” still denotes a musician who writes complex, poetic compositions in which both the music and poetry worlds are indivisible. To me, that is Dylan. Let us take for instance one of his signature melodies, Masters of War.
He sets the pattern very early in the song. He is talking directly to the weapons manufacturers, the arms traders; the big businesses that cash in on creating and fomenting wars in order to make money (Come you masters of war/You that build the big guns/You that build the death planes/You that build all the bombs You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know I can see through your masks). His tone is defiant throughout the song; his narrative is stern and edgy. I love the totally uncompromising (from a humanist point of view) last stanza (And I hope that you die/And your death’ll come soon I will follow your casket/By the pale afternoon/And I’ll watch while you’re lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I’ll stand o’er your grave/’Til I’m sure that you’re dead). Show that to an impressionable eighteen- or nineteen-year-old and you have an immediate follower.
But Dylan is capable of writing more than passion-stirring lyrics. On Bringing it All Back Home we have a perfect example of composition as an existentialist statement. The track It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) contains some of the more pessimistic — and yet, beautifully poetic — words Bob has ever written such as: Temptation’s page flies out the door/You follow, find yourself at war/Watch waterfalls of pity roar/You feel to moan but unlike before/You discover/That you’d just be/One more person crying. It is also one of those pieces that works very well as a standalone poem, especially when the only musical backing is an up-and-down two-chord folk-blues riff. Personally speaking, it is one of my favourite Bob’s creations. I used to have the line “And if my thought-dreams could been seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only” on my blog banner. It meant a lot, especially for a young Cuban growing up in the shadow of Fidel’s totalitarian state at the tail end of the 80s and beginning of the terrible 90s.
The true measure of an artist should not be gauged only by their immediate impact — hits and accolades — on the music world and the fanbase they create, but also by their epoch-defying legacy within and without their own geographical borders. In this sense Dylan has transcended his own time and place as both a singer-songwriter… and writer.