On October 13th, 2016, the Nobel Prize committee announced it had awarded Mr. Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. This decision is unique and, indeed, it was not without controversy: while there are a lot of people who think this is a fair reward for one of the greatest song-writers of all time who has always expressed something that goes even deeper than just music, on the other hand, there is an opposite mindset, followed by some of Dylan’s fans too, who are indignant regarding this choice because it is contemptuous of writers and an ill-conceived nostalgia award for gibbering hippies. This last group asked the artist to turn down this prize too, but this is not contemplated by the committee and, even if an award-winner does not wants to accept it, they will remain registered as the winner anyway. Furthermore, the opinion of the person in question is not actually known: he did not attend the Ceremony on December 10th at the White House due to unspecified “prior engagements” but, at the same time, he made it known that he was really amazed with this decision, adding that it is an unimagined dream for him to be awarded this way.
After all this ruckus, it is important to understand what the real distance between music and literatures is and, whether one actually exists, where their confines start and end. Only through the analysis of Dylan’s masterpieces may it be possible to ponder this area.
Positioning these two arts too closely together might be dangerous because it would limit the range of human expression: most often, poems set to music and vice versa are not always either compatible or successful because the techniques are often very different. But it is important to underline that while everything could be true, so, also, there may always be some exceptions to any rule. Dylan’s works may be considered one of these.
2.1 Dylan and the novella
The novella is a short piece of prose or poetry written about either a past real or unreal episode. It is linked to folklore an tends to be a vivid and concrete representation within a real and credible time frame. While it is often used to entertain, in some cases, its purpose is to teach a moral.
One of Dylan’s greatest masterpieces, “Hurricane”, could be compared to a novella as its poetic devices convey a better understanding of injustice, racism and corruption; he wrote this song as an hymn to get Rubin Carter set free of undeserved imprisonment and to let everybody know the truth of the matter.
To give some examples, he used imagery to underline all the issues linked to racism about that period.
“If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street”
“The DA said he was the one who did the deed
And all-white jury agreed”
With these lines, for example, Dylan wanted to demonstrate how badly the black people were treated and how unfairly all these decisions of such great importance were taken. In the second example, we can see a clear rhyme, which makes it a couplet and it is a very useful tool with which to stress this point.
A further example could be taken from the use of tone/mood to set the overall feeling of the song:
“All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance
The trial was a pig-circus he never had a chance”
“Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder one, guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied”
All these couplets put considerable emphasis on corruption and on the unfairness of the absence of opportunity for Carter to defend himself from false accusations.
Examples of connotations are to be be found in this song, implying how the songwriter felt about injustice:
“Rubin’s in South America fighting for his name
While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s sill in the robbery game”
“Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in
They took him to the hospital and they brought him upstairs
The wounded man looks up through his one dying eye
Says, wha’d you bring him here for? He ain’t the guy!”
Bob Dylan wanted to underline that even though the victim claimed Rubin was not the culprit, the police still arrested him without any qualms just because he was black.
Through this song he was very determined to express all his shock at this and, knowing his words would be listened to all over the world, he exploited this privilege to spread this protest far and wide, trying to achieve maximum results.
After all of these considerations, “Hurricane” could has a lot in common with a novella: it is a real poem, that deals with historical facts, letting people know the actual truth and showing them this is not correct behaviour and, moreover, it is done to entertain
2.2 Dylan and the ballad
The ballad is a popular poetry composition linked to the dance and to the song; for this reason it is created metrically so that its parts are suitable both for movements and for melodies. Its verses are all hendecasyllables or mixed hendecasyllables with seven-syllable lines and it is usually structured like this:
- ABBA: first chorus;
- CDCD: first part of the stanza (piede);
- DEEA: second part of the stanza (volta);
- ABBA: second chorus;
This is the typical Italian ballad structure, but it is possible to identify at least six more types.
Following this, it is easy to say that a famous ballad by Dylan like “Ballad Of A Thin Man” may be linked to literature without any analysis of the strong bond between music and lyrics. However, it is important to explore this song further.
Concerning structure, Dylan took a lot of liberty: indeed, there are six lines of stanza followed by two pre-chorus lines; the chorus, which is repeated, says:
After three of these macro structures there is a six line bridge ( linking them to the other four):
“You have many contacts
among the lumberjacks to
get you facts when someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect,
anyway they already expect you
to all give a check to tax-deductible charity organzsationS.”
Thus, the full rhyme structure is built like this:
ABABAB (1st Stanza)
BDBDBD (2nd Stanza)
EDADAD (3rd Stanza)
BAFAFA (4th Stanza)
EDDDAD (5th Stanza)
EGCGBG (6th Stanza)
HGCGCG (7th Stanza)
Clearly, there is a general metrical idea underlying this song but the writer does not always follow this: in stanzas number three, four and seven the first line has a rhyme which collide with the others and in stanzas number five and six, the alternating rhymes are not followed faithfully. It is hard to find repetitive syllabication, however, this is also because of the role of the instruments that add voices which fill the last syllabus.
Mr. Jones could be interpreted as a simulacrum (alter ego) of Dylan. He shows that he was sick and tired of being constantly questioned; a person’s life should speak for itself. But the main character of this song could not only be a self portrait of himself, he could be a famous person or a kind of person everybody know with the same characteristics of Mr. Jones. It is hard to understand what is the truth from the moment he always gave different interpretations about this song. But maybe, in general, he wanted to convey a message: for instance, in an interview he said “There were a lot of Mister Joneses at that time”, it is likely that the world he describes in lyrics is a world in which everything goes and is accepted but the only rule is that you are not allowed to preach to others. Here we find samples of this (it is also easy to find the BDBDBD CD form before the chorus):
“You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
And you say, “What’s mine?” and somebody else says,
“Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God am I here all alone?”
Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is”
With all of these considerations, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” is not so close to the classical literature ballad but, since there are many types of these, Dylan’s ballad could be conceived as one of those sub-groups.
If it is easier to identify Dylan with literature in the first example, it is harder to find really clear links with the ballad. With modern music, lyrics are often at the heart of a project and, when it comes to creating a new track, many artists simply begin with an instrument and voice. Dylan has always said he has written so many pieces of music thanks to his guitar and his note-book which he never abandons: as soon as an idea strikes, he takes his “friends” and jots down what comes into his mind; so he might conveniently refer to it when developing it, but, for sure, there must have been times when what came to mind while driving or dining with friends was exactly what he recorded in some of his records of which millions of copies were sold. At this point, it is important to say that we could compare literature and music at length, trying to understand if they are one and the same thing, but we are talking about two different techniques. Finally, perhaps, it is opportune to allow leeway, thus, leaving scope for human expression and to keep the two different arts distinct for the different moments with which life presents us.
However, this Nobel prize for Literature will always been talked about because of its unexpectedness, but in a world in which “The Times They Are A-Changing” is listened to and read by millions of people as a hymn about not being too reactionary and trying to cope with changes in the present and with the future. this is a fit award for a man who is not only a singer but also a story- teller who has created a new form of poetic expression and rightly worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature
4. Partial references
The Atlantic and Kornhaber, S. (2016) Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Isn’t About Music. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/10/bob-dylan-nobel-prize-lyrics-literature-winner/503972/ (Accessed: 14 December 2016).
Attwood, T. (2014) Ballad of a thin man: The meaning of the music and the lyrics. Available at: http://bob-dylan.org.uk/archives/827 (Accessed: 20 December 2016).
Cunningham, S.P. (2016) Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature is wrong: An analysis. Available at: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/arts/bob-dylans-nobel-prize-for-literature-is-wrong-an-analysis-8859238 (Accessed: 4 December 2016).
Ellis-Petersen, H. (2016) Bob Dylan website acknowledges Nobel literature prize win after five-day wait. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/oct/20/bob-dylan-website-acknowledges-nobel-prize-win-after-five-day-wait (Accessed: 3 December 2016).
Nobel Media (2016) Nobelprize.Org. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-facts.html (Accessed: 3 December 2016).
Treccani (no date) ‘Novella/Ballata’, in Enciclopedia Treccani. Available at: http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/novella/ (Accessed: 4 December 2016).