Dylan was the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year – he used the occasion to give a 30 minute acceptance speech. Rolling Stone described the speech as equal parts riveting, confessional and controversial. On being named this year’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, he will go down as a controversial choice for many and the most inspired choice in a generation for others. At 75 Dylan’s words ring as true today as when he first wrote some of his most iconic lines of poetry – the answer is still blowing in the wind and With God on Our Side could be played in every husting on the US election trail this year. His poetry in song have been the soundtrack to many of our lives and when he picked-up that electric guitar in Newport in 64 … well the rest is history. And it will be fascinating to hear the speech he will make later this year in Stockholm. While we are waiting here is a speech a fan might make to introduce him.
On presenting Dylan with his 2015 MusiCares award Former President Carter said Dylan’s words about peace and human rights were more succinct and more memorable than any words a President could offer. But it wasn’t the Nobel Prize for Peace Dylan received this week, although there is many a draft resister who found courage in his songs to put down their sword and shield and not go and study war. And there are all the musos who picked up an electric guitar and put their lyrics to music, gave new clothes and complexions to Dylans’ words – the harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary, the soulful sound of Baez rallying us to action through the ages. He didn’t get the Nobel prize for economics though many a R & B musician supplemented their livelihood on the back of Dylan covers.
Shakespeare didn’t write down his plays, others had to come by after him and gather up the pieces and stitch them together. I am putting Shakespeare and Dylan in the same sentence, because their words and contribution to the lexicon of our lives in the western world is extraordinary. We all use words and phrases that have their origins in the their poetry and prose.
When Dylan picked up his MusiCares award he had litanies of gratitude, instructions to remind us to look behind us to how we got to where we are and to look ahead to see what is on the horizon and tempting us to go forward. He did a lot of thanking. Thanking those who saw something in us that others didn’t. Thanking those who borrowed our work, straightening out so others could access it. Thanking those who add to our own talents. Thanking those who give us a go and help other people catch up to where we are. Thanking those who see in us what we can’t see in ourselves. To these people let us all understand these are the ones who are the bedrock of our careers without which we don’t have one. Then there are the ones you love who take what you do and you are so honoured by their dynamics and courage and sheer brilliance that you can barely believe your good luck – for Dylan that was Pervis Staples and the Staple Singers, Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash. Dylan says singing folk music gave him the code for everything that’s fair game, that belongs to everyone. Who do you need to thank? Who are the ones in your life’s work who give you respect and honour you by singing one of your tunes or breathing the same air as you and take a fragment of who you are and fuse it into something of their own without injuring the integrity of the your offering? Today we thank Bob Dylan, a self confessed “song and dance man” who through his words has done what Alfred Nobel laid down in his will to bestow on a person who, in the literary field, had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Dylan is one such person, an ideal direction for more than a generation influenced by his words. Nobel defined literature as “not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value”. The literary value of Dylan’s work has stopped us in our tracks, caused us to think, given us courage, helped us to cry, held us in times of trouble, breathed new life into old causes – surely all the powers we want from literature!
Then add the sounds of the great American Song Book and the words are laced with struggle, resistance, survival and triumph. Listening to old gospel songs and hanging out with communities on the edges of big towns in the USA soon has sounds and phrases seeping through your pores. Ancient rhythms: the beat of the heart, beat of the drum, the skip you get in the excitement and ecstasy of praise, the slowing down of your breath as the lament needs a note to be held longer.
The connections are all there in the songs. It isn’t a big trip to make, to the rap of New Yorkers from a Simple Twist of Fate. Without verse after verse of rhyming punchlines punctuating the air with the familiar nasal elongated rise of tone at the end of a sentence to end the verse, how would rap have taken hold?
It is OK for songs to divide, this is all part of the discourse, the conversation that brings us to our next level and the test of time will be if their truth remains long after the last chord has been played.
That is the power of Dylan, like Shakespeare, our species will be singing his songs long into the future. The ferocity of truth can’t be disguised by harmonies and orchestration – which is why it doesn’t matter who covers Dylan – the lyrics stay the course – that is what truth does. It doesn’t matter how much you camouflage it, throw it in the spin cycle – truth will be steadfastly remain. Three chords and the truth – the essence of Dylan.