to dance beneath the diamond sky
By Amy Hill
Bob Dylan was this year awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". The choice was justified with the argument that "he can be read and should be read as a great poet in the English tradition". Congratulations came from all directions, and even Barack Obama commended him as one of his personal favourite poets. It seems apt, therefore, to use this milestone in Dylan's career to consider what it is about his songwriting that makes him worthy of such an honour. In a career spanning over almost 60 years, Dylan has produced 37 studio albums and over 500 songs. I would be very hesitant about trying to consider Dylan's whole career in one stroke and so, rather than brushing over all of his works, I'd like to look more closely at the formative years of Dylan's songwriting career in an attempt to grasp what it was about this young man that gained him such recognition.
In 1961 Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village, New York. He did so for a number of reasons, but his most powerful motivation was his desire to visit his idol Woody Guthrie who was in hospital in the late stages of Huntington's Disease. Dylan had never met Guthrie before, but was a self-proclaimed 'disciple' of his and spent his teenage years obsessing over any Guthrie records he could get his hands on. Dylan pays homage to his idol in his very first album with his Song to Woody, which it is said he actually performed to Guthrie in hospital. Very few are also aware of a poem that Dylan wrote about Guthrie just before he died. Entitled Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, Dylan performed the poem live in New York City Town Hall in 1963. If there is any doubt that Dylan is a poet aswell as a songwriter, then this extinguishes it. The poem considers the nature and illusiveness of hope. Dylan doesn't even stutter through the 7-minute performance, and every line is loaded with expression. In this verse, through subtle nuances of rhyme and words that reach out from the page, he grasps what it is like to live in fear of hopelessness and anxiety.
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make your heart pound
But then again you know why they're around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
Cause sometimes you hear 'em when the night times come creeping'
And you feat that they might catch you sleeping
And you jump from your bed, from your last chapter of dreaming
And you can't remember for the best of your thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
Dylan couldn't have timed his move to the Village better. Already home to the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez, Greenwich Village became a particularly proliferous site for musical creativity and a central location in what has now been dubbed the 1960's 'folk revival'. As a result of the scene in which he found himself, Dylan moved towards protest music and earned a name for himself when Baez and also the popular folk group Peter, Paul and Mary began to perform songs he had written.
It was also in the village that Dylan met his first serious girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. Retool was a dedicated political activist and encouraged Dylan's movement into this kind of music. Upon his release of what is perhaps his most scathing political piece, Masters of War, Rotolo drew artwork conveying an evil character carving up the world with a knife and fork to go with the song when it was published in Broadside Magazine. Masters of War constitutes a direct attack on military leaders and those involved in the build up of arms during the Cold War. Dylan linked the song to a speech Eisenhower gave upon his exit from the White House, where he referred to the idea of a 'military industrial complex' whereby certain individuals profited from the continuation of conflict. On the sleeve note of "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" , Dylan is quoted saying "I've never written anything like that before I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one". The following passage is perhaps the most shocking. It communicates a depth of anger with such intensity that it draws out that same passion in the reader.
And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In 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
Dylan's output in the early 60's was extraordinary. Between '62 and '64 he released 4 albums which to this day are considered masterpieces. However, although Dylan was at the time revered for his work as a protest singer, this is not perhaps an accurate representation of the nature of what he was actually writing. Because of the political appetite of the time, it was songs like Masters of War and Blowin' in the Wind that Dylan's critics focused upon, and yet large chunks of his albums are filled with introspective love songs. Boots of Spanish Leather and One Too Many Mornings are, for example, truly stunning songs that avoid clichés and instead reach into the helpless feeling that comes with being in love. Boots of Spanish Leather was written about Rotolo (who is in fact the girl on the cover of 'Freewheelin') during Dylan's separation from her when she moved to study in Italy, and would continually go back on her promises to return to him. The separation was a true struggle for Dylan, as he captures in the phrase 'the mountains of my dread'. The very title of the song expresses this tortured feeling - a "Spanish boot" was a medieval form of torture where one's foot would be put in a boot made of cast iron. Dylan uses powerful imagery in this passage, with words reminiscent of Shakespeare's Juliet and her desire to have Romeo cut up into pieces so that he might become the stars in the sky ("Take him and cut him out in little stars"). As such Dylan articulates the way in which we tend to idolise the ones we love when separated from them.
If I had the stars of the darkest night
And the diamonds from the deepest ocean
I'd forsake them all for your sweet kiss
For that's all I'm wishing to be ownin'
To Ramona from nother Side of Bob Dylan is another song that displays an incredible talent with words. I would argue that this is among Dylan's most powerful love songs. In delicate phrases he explores the struggle two people come across when they become dependent upon one another. At the end of the song, Dylan ultimately recognises his own inability to support the illusive 'Ramona' ("I'd forever talk to you but soon my words would turn into meaningless ringer deep in my hear I know there's no help I can bring"). Rather than portraying love as some sort of perfect, unfailing connection between two people, Dylan contemplates the reality of love and the disappointment and struggle that inevitably come with it. It is hard to draw out the finest lines from this song, since every one carries its own weight; the following will do for now.
You've been fooled into thinking
That the finishin' end is at hand
Yet there's no one to beat you
No one to defeat you
'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad
However, although Dylan shows in these songs a tender and vulnerable side, he is also capable of writing that displays utter condemnation. In 1965 he went through a famous overhaul in his song writing, performing Maggie's Fram at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric band. His folk fans and colleagues were shocked, and there was even a rumour that Pete Seeger tried to cut the power sot hat Dylan had to stop laying (this day is skilfully represented in the 2007 film I'm Not There with Dylan coming on stage with his band and shooting the crowd with machine guns and Seeger frantically trying to saw apart the power cords). In an interview with Time Magazine months later, Dylan was asked whether he actually cares about the songs he sings. Dylan was suitably outraged, replying "You've got a lot of nerve askin' me a question like that! Did you ask the Beatles that?" He then released Ballad of a Thin Man as a response to the reporter. The song is rather complex and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It was even obsessed over by 1960's Black Panther founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they saw the song as an attack on racist oppression. The following verse, however, is a clear attack on this self-assured journalist who, in reality, was not even close to understanding Dylan's creative intentions.
Ah, you've been with the professors and they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well-read, it's well-known
But something is happening here and you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr Jones?
As a final stopping point, I'd like to turn to one of Dylan's most famous songs, and one that shows exceptional lyrical prowess. Dylan released Mr Tambourine Man in 1965 on the album Bringing it all Back Home. Every line in the song is filled with poignancy and soul. This song, perhaps more than any other, can be read and appreciated as poetry.
Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
For past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy bench
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
The question of whether or not Dylan's work is deserving of a Nobel Prize is a rather subjective one. What I've tried to show, however, is that it is right that he should be recognised as a writer as well as a musician. Dylan's lyrics are the heart of his music, and he has the enlightened ability to choose exactly the right word to capture a particular sentiment As a listener (or indeed a reader) you frequently feel as if he is speaking to you and about your life. Dylan is evidently a wordsmith of the highest degree, and the fact that he has then been able to put these words to music does not detract from them but instead makes them more accessible. It therefore seems correct that Dylan the writer should be recognised as such in the highest degree.