Most of the debates over whether Bob Dylan should have received the Nobel Award for Literature have been about whether songs count as literature. In his acceptance speech, which he finally delivered yesterday, Dylan indirectly answered the question by observing that literature no less than music has influenced his song writing. He especially singled out Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey.
His speech began by listing the music that inspired him but then moved on to say similar things about books. His musical influences included Buddy Holly, Leadbelly, and a host of folk singers, each of whom taught him something important:
By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.
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.
The remarks set the stage for Dylan’s assertion that his literary education was just as important:
But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
Dylan’s detail in talking about these works signals the degree to which they captivated him. The common theme seems to be that crazy men have taken over the world and the rest of us are paying for it. The mission of Ishmael, Paul Bäumer, and Odysseus is to report back what they have seen. Dylan regards this as his own mission as well.
With Moby Dick, for instance, Dylan is fascinated that a mad Ahab is taking his multicolored crew, emblematic of America’s diversity, on a doomed voyage. It’s up to Ishmael to serve as witness:
Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.
With All Quiet on the Western Front, one sees the basis for many of Dylan’s anti-war songs, especially “Masters of War.” As he talked about Paul Bäumer, Dylan used the second person, as though he was right down there in the trenches with him:
Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. 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.
Dylan dwelt on the novel’s vision of war’s absurdity:
All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – what happened to it? It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.
Then you notice the cherry blossoms, and you see that nature is unaffected by all this. Poplar trees, the red butterflies, the fragile beauty of flowers, the sun – you see how nature is indifferent to it all. All the violence and suffering of all mankind. Nature doesn’t even notice it.
You’re so alone. Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head and you’re dead. You’ve been ruled out, crossed out. You’ve been exterminated. I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.
Now think of the anger in “Masters of War”:
You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.
When Dylan turned to The Odyssey, he at first appeared to focus on a different theme than the victimized little man. His observation that the poem has a “homeward bound” focus brings the opening stanza of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to mind:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Just as the song moves from images of wandering to images of war, however, so did Dylan’s discussion of Homer’s poem. He went on to mention Odysseus lauding Achilles in the Underworld for his war glory and Achilles having none of it. Here’s the passage:
But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
you need not be so pained by death.”
he answered swiftly:
“Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.
Dylan appeared to be thinking of All Quiet when he commented on the passage:
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.
When Dylan describes Odysseus, he’s more of a witness outsider, more of an Ishmael or a Bäumer, than a returning king:
All these stragglers will have to pay for desecrating his palace. He’ll disguise himself as a filthy beggar, and a lowly servant kicks him down the steps with arrogance and stupidity. The servant’s arrogance revolts him, but he controls his anger. He’s one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest. He was nobody. And when it’s all said and done, when he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.
Alan Ginsberg, dazzled by Dylan’s immense creativity, once described him as a shaman, channeling creative energies that can only have come down from above. I’m not surprised, therefore, that Dylan would relate to how Homer invokes a higher power: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.” Dylan tells of those who are down and out.
The Nobel committee gave this year’s award to a consummate storyteller, just one who entwines his stories with music. But then, Homer had his harp.