That Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature would once have read like a joke bulletin on the Rowan and Martin Laugh-In. Dylan, who from the get-go expressed a premature world weariness, has had the last uncharacteristic laugh.
Yet after all, this is the singer who said “It ain’t the melodies that’re important, man, it’s the words”. And what words! And so many of them tumbling and squabbling down a torrent of songs for over half century!
And not just in songs – Dylan’s own early liner notes, his poetry-prose book Tarantula
(1966) and his autobiography, Chronicles (2004), proved the man didn’t need a guitar to get lost, and found, in words.
His cause with the Nobel Committee would have been well served by the fact that the literary critics have been stalking him for the past decade. Professor Sir Christopher Ricks’ book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003), was reviewed enthusiastically by the Poet Laureate. My colleague in Heaney Studies, Neil Corcoran, published Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors in 2010.
There’s grist for the critical mill, all right, with Dylan’s evolving body of work, like Picasso’s, rich enough to have periods – the Guthrie period, the protest period, the rock period, the country & western period, the Christian period, and so on.
All in all, I feel a fifty-year old vindication coming on. For as a budding, undergraduate literary critic at Queen’s University, I stalked Dylan a long time ago.
On the night of January 12th 1963, I watched a live BBC drama called The Madhouse on Castle Street. Set in a bleak English boarding-house, it had one character who had no lines but crouched on the stairs and sang a mournful song about a dying swan and as the credits rolled, sang about answers to heavy questions blowing in the wind.
I’d never heard songs like these, and I’d never heard of Dylan who was the staircase troubadour. Neither had the assistant in the Gramophone Shop the next day, but she procured for me Bob Dylan (1962), this phenomenon’s first album and perhaps the most important album of my life.
Not only did I listen to the album til its tracks disappeared but I was inspired to get a second-hand guitar and brand-new Echo harmonicas (mouth harps, if you please) from Matchetts, and impersonate the instant youthful Master.
I introduced his songs to the Queen’s Folk Society then in its glory hootenanny days when everything was possible, including a new Ireland. The mouth organ in a metal harness made for me by a garage mechanic for twenty Gallaher’s Blues, fitting like a medieval torture instrument, drew a laugh.
I also began to write songs in the Master’s style, but though Judy Collins, “imperial jointress” of Folk with Joan Baez, had Elektra Records procure the rights to two, I ignored Yogi Berra’s advice: “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I didn’t and settled for literary criticism. Magnificent Dylan took the fork and sang literature into being.
I knew it, and for a new little magazine at Queen’s produced in 1965 by the New Ireland Society (doomed to disillusionment five years later) I wrote a critical analysis of Dylan’s songs – perhaps the first. That issue of Eremon is now in my archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and is the only copy the library can find anywhere. Appearing in it is Bernard MacLaverty’s first published story.
In my essay I defended the seriousness of Dylan’s artistry with words and character. And also praised him for joining the hemispheres of folk tradition and literature.
I was privileged to know Seamus Heaney and I once told him that I felt blessed to have travelled through life with three contemporaries – Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, and himself. Crinkle-eyed, the Nobel laureate replied “Have you met Muhammad Ali?” As if! He had, and counted it an honour.
What he thought of Dylan and whether he met him, I don’t know. But meet on the page and in the Nobel annals they now do.
This piece appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on October 14, 2016.