When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the only real surprise to me was the question of why didn't they do it sooner? It seemed long overdue, but that was my anti-Establishment bias in me at work, so I was grateful and appreciative of this distinction. It didn't surprise me (well, maybe a little?) when he declined to attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony. This lecture makes amends for not flying to Stockholm, and it was released only 8 days ago with little fanfare. I am honored to be the first to present it on OpEdNews.
He begins the lecture with a long and reverential reference to Buddy Holley, whose music he heard live a few days before his plane went down:
I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually, I did leave, and I did learn to play those songs. They were different than the radio songs that I'd been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn't matter in the folk world. Everything was a hit. All you had to do was be well versed and be able to play the melody. Some of these songs were easy, some not. I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads and country blues, but everything else I had to learn from scratch. I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.
As his thoughts drifted on to folk music and its impact:
You know what it's all about. Takin' the pistol out and puttin' it back in your pocket. Whippin' your way through traffic, talkin' in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you've heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you're pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You've seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen. I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head -- the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries -- and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
He has a comparatively long soliloquy on Moby Dick, which would appear to be the most important of his literary references.
He then moves on to All Quiet on the Western Front and his rhapsodic pacifist extrapolations are quite moving:
Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you're shooting it to pieces.Day after day, the hornets bite you and worms lap your blood. You're a cornered animal. You don't fit anywhere. The falling rain is monotonous. There are endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery. Life is breaking down all around you, and the shells are whistling. This is the lower region of hell. Mud, barbed wire, rat-filled trenches, rats eating the intestines of dead men, trenches filled with filth and excrement. Someone shouts, "Hey, you there. Stand and fight."
Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You're being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you'll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who's profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you're doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, "Wait a minute, where are you going?" And you say, "Leave me alone, I'll be back in a minute." Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can't see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires -- you can't comprehend it.
More machine guns rattle, more parts of bodies hanging from wires, more pieces of arms and legs and skulls where butterflies perch on teeth, more hideous wounds, pus coming out of every pore, lung wounds, wounds too big for the body, gas-blowing cadavers, and dead bodies making retching noises. Death is everywhere. Nothing else is possible. Someone will kill you and use your dead body for target practice. Boots, too. They're your prized possession. But soon they'll be on somebody else's feet.
He ends with a stirring homage to Homer and to the Odyssey:
When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld -- Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory -- tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. "I just died, that's all." There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is -- a king in the land of the dead -- that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
That's what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, "Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story."
The lecture ends, and the might words of Robert Zimmerman go on and on, unlike T.S. Eliot's Mermaids on the Beach: They never stop singing to me!
Special thanks to the Nobel Prize Committee and the Nobel Foundation for publishing Dylan's immortal lecture and for the Prize itself.
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