Song in the History of English Literature
Literature DOES exist outside the traditional, stereotyped roles into which it has been pigeon-holed! Dylan’s Nobel is a recognition of this liberative power of the performative tuned to profound contemplations that stir many a chord in you and thereby lay a claim to your soul! Moreover, when you look at the plethora of books that have paid yeomen tribute to this pop-icon, and at the reams of paper that have sung peons to his novel poetic expressions, you cannot help but wonder at his rage of a passion - popular music! For those of you critics who feel that literature means, 'written works', well, Bob has written a kinda stream-of-consciousness work too, which comes under Experimental Literature, titled, Tarantulla way back in 1971.
Well, one such book that celebrates Bob-the-singer is Michael Gray’s monumental 756 page, prodigious and passionate study of Dylan’s artistry - that's way way way beyond ordinary. Indeed, the title says it all – THE BOB DYLAN ENCYCLOPEDIA. Published in 2006, the book pays glowing tributes not only to Bob but also to hundreds of his fellow ‘troubadours’ in the vineyard!
‘Why a Monumental Encyclopedia on Bob Dylan’? Ask the author himself – and he replies -
Bob Dylan’s reach is too wide, too deep and too long for any book about him to cover it all. He’s a senior citizen. His career spans 45 years of American history, and that history has intersected with his prolific songwriting, recording, touring, acting, filmmaking, TV appearances and interviews. He has published a novel and a book of drawings, composed for film soundtracks and written a best-selling first volume of memoirs. He has found a place in the world of literature and academic study as well as in popular music. He is important to the history of the times, having given voice to a generation at a time of huge social change and political struggle; his songs are enmeshed in the story of the US civil rights movement as well as the Folk Revival movement. His busy life has embraced everything from bohemian excess to being Born Again.
His work has revolutionised song, reaching into every area of popular music from folk to blues to rock to gospel. He has met and worked with untold hundreds of musicians, politicians, celebrities, singers, poets, writers, painters, film-makers, actors and activists. He has released several dozen albums, written many hundreds of songs, in many cases adapting them from older folk and blues material, and recorded songs by many other composers. He has been the subject of an enormous number of books, academic conference papers, showbiz stories, essays and concert reviews. He has attracted more fanzine enthusiasm, and inspired more websites, than almost anyone in the world.
‘If in 100 years’ time Dylan’s art goes unheard and discounted, well, in 200 years’ time it may bounce back’, he signs off.
Song in the History of English Literature by WILFRID MELLERS
Professor of Music and former literary critic of Scrutiny
[this article has been excerpted from Gray’s Encyclopedia on Bob Dylan]
Wilfrid Mellers fell under the rigorous influence of the pre-eminent and now deeply unfashionable literary critic F.R. Leavis, becoming a literary critic himself and writing for Leavis’ defiant journal Scrutiny before turning towards music, publishing his book Musicand Society: England and the European Tradition in 1946 and becoming, by the mid-1960s, the new University of York’s first Professor of Music and a composer of distinction. He continued to straddle the roˆles of critic and creative artist, and the genres of popular and classical music. His book Music in a New Found Land, written in the early 1960s and published in 1964, is one of the most original and insightful surveys of American music.
Now over to Wilfrid Mellers on -
Song in the History of English Literature
‘We talk nowadays as though the relationship between . . . [words and music] . . . constituted a problem; even as though there were a natural antipathy between them which composer and poet must overcome as best they may. Yet the separation of the two arts is comparatively recent, and the link between them would seem to be rooted deep in human nature.
Dylan has chosen a medium we are still unused to taking seriously: an inseparable mixture of music and words. We grew up finding this a cheap and trivial formula but if we look back beyond the Elizabethan age we find a very long period in which troubadours were an important part of our culture, when that culture was orally dominated and when sophisticated art was the same in kind as the heritage ‘of the people’.
It is only comparatively recently that folk and sophisticated culture have been separate. The gulf was not complete in England until the emergence of the Augustans, with their classicists and coffeehouse smart-sets, although it had started with Chaucer, who brought to dominance an East Midlands dialect which became what we call ‘standard English’.
With only a few exceptions, pre-Elizabethan poetry was ‘of the people’. Pre-Aelfredian poetry was all vernacular and all, in essence, orally disciplined, including ‘Beowulf’, the longest surviving poem in Old English, and written about a thousand years ago. It was sung, and its development was the responsibility of its singers; and so, roughly, things continued until the Norman Conquest. And in the long run, the English absorbed the Normans and the English language rose in importance.
The poetical literature that grew with it was again emphatically ‘of the people’ from Langland’s ‘Vision of Piers Plowman’ in 1362 to Orm’s ‘Ormulum’ (early 13th century verse homilies by an Augustinian canon). ‘Piers Plowman’ might now be the province of university English departments, but in its own time it appealed to everyone. Written in the Old English manner, in alliterative verse, it had an equal impact on those who wanted a reform of the Church and those labourers and serfs to whom Wat Tyler offered himself as a symbol of progress and hope.
Throughout the entire 15th century the divisive power of Chaucer’s influence was fought by those ingredients of English life which worked towards keeping up the old cultural unity. In this transitional period, ballads, lays and so on blossomed alongside a renewed concern with classical literature. So the Elizabethan age that followed grew out of a cultural turmoil never equalled before or since, until our own times. Folk culture was intimately and creatively linked with literary culture in the age that has given us an unmatched richness of artistic achievement.
If 1960s guru MARSHALL McLUHAN was right, if our technology is pushing us forward into another orally dominated age, then it shouldn’t be surprising to find a serious artist once again at work in the medium Dylan has chosen. Nor should it astonish us that such an artist can have re-forged the links between folk and sophisticated culture.
Everywhere in the West, minority cultures are being tossed together and mixed with, on the one hand, lumpen uniformity and on the other, what passes as the haute culture of the age (and the process accelerates all the time), so that whatever our class or geographic centre, we have more in common with one another, more shared experience, than the men and women of any period since the heyday of the Elizabethan age in England. Full circle. And this wheel’s on fire—we are caught up in a kind of vulgar, neurotic renaissance. Hail the return, as McLuhan insists, to oral primacy. Small wonder that Dylan should select, or rather, find himself at home in, an artistic medium not merely literary but involving a return to a medieval interdependence of words and music. ‘Popular songs,’ he said in 1965, ‘are the only form that describes the temper of the times. . . . That’s where the people hang out. It’s not in books; it’s not on the stage; it’s not in the galleries.’