The first time I heard Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” about the controversial murder conviction of black boxer Ruben Carter, I pulled my 1972 Chrysler New Yorker into a rest stop off the highway so that I could allow myself to be riveted. In my memory it is summer and I fumble for a pen not yet gummy and ruined by too many hot days in the car, and for a napkin in the hope I would be able to record the name and search for it at a record store.
Times were different then. Google did not facilitate such searches.
The story surfaces because it so closely tracks Emily Dickinson’s much-echoed remark to a friend named Higginson : “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” And because this weekend, Bob Dylan was to be in Sweden, months after the Nobel Prize banquet, where members of the academy were to meet up with him before a previously arranged stop on his current concert tour.
After the announcement that Dylan was being given the prize for 2016 that Faulkner got in 1949 and Camus was given in 1957, the boo birds came out in full voice. Writers from every part of the talent spectrum started responding in green ink, tweeting and posting on-line their disdain for the selection. Several took the easy cheap shot, asking haughtily if they could submit their fiction works for Emmy awards, or nonsense along those lines.
As so often happens in the world where social media values immediacy over all else, the boo birds – while seductively snarky – are mistaking ignorance for wisdom.
The first literature was sung.
The foundations of western literature were songs.
They were not songs recorded on CD or wax. They were sung by campfires, overlooking the Aegean. Overlooking hundreds of other campfires, spreading into the distance, with shields and spears stowed nearby. Homer, if we are to believe the scholars, earned his living as a rhapsode, a professional singer of verses. The word, like many in Greek, is a combination of two parts – in this case the parts mean to sew songs together.
In the tradition forming south-east across the Mediterranean from Athens, the Songs of Solomon were real songs. Several Psalms, are sub headed:
The Greek word Psalmoi itself means sacred song.
Putting aside the petty Twitter slights, it is not hard to find the threads of serious writing in Dylan’s hundreds of songs. Not everywhere, of course No one is going to argue that “Million Dollar Bash” provides words to live by. As Johnny Carson used to say “they can’t all be gems, folks.” Strauss wrote polkas, after all.
Some of Dylan’s work has roots in the canon as deep as any “serious” literature; among the several reasons I consider Absalom, Absalom! to be Faulkner’s greatest achievement is because of its tie to the second book of Samuel in the Hebrew bible. Faulkner takes the bones of the conflict within Absalom’s heart in Samuel 13 forward, centered around his sister Tamar, blurs the details and uses the framework to write a story of the American south. A story, without using the words, about its endemic racism and sexism – all without losing the essential humanity of either story. In II Samuel, the story of Absalom rising up against his father the king culminates in Chapter 18 verse 33, where the words Absalom and Absalom appear beside each other. (As an aside, I was struck dumb by the brilliance of the book long before I thought to search for the story of Absalom in the Old Testament.)
Dylan weaves similar cloth in what may be his most covered piece, “All Along the Watchtower,” a song I loved, learned to play on guitar, and felt the brilliance of well before I went searching for the word watchtower in the Old Testament.
What appeared when I began that search, which I was led to by being handed a copy of a magazine called “Watchtower” by a Jehovah’s Witness somewhere, was Isaiah 20 and 21. Dylan’s song opens with the joker lamenting to the thief that he wants to escape his present situation – a place where, like in the music industry, businessmen metaphorically drink the wine and dig the earth of the artists on whom they are parasites. Even though none of them along the line appreciate the artistry, or “know what any of it is worth.” In the Isaiah 21 passage, princes keep the view, two riders approach in a chariot, there is a lion in the distance. In 20, there is a barefoot servant and a need to escape.
Jesus was, of course, put to death between two thieves. The Joker in every deck of cards is dressed as a minstrel. Which is another word for bard. Which is another word for rhapsode.
Don’t even get me started on the lyrics to “Jokerman.”