Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture: Heard Melodies Are Sweet
On June 4, 2017, as part of his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance, Bob Dylan recorded a speech in Los Angeles. Please listen to it here, before you read it, and absolutely before you read anything about it.
The text of the speech has also been printed by the Nobel Foundation.
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.”
The music that kicks in to accompany Dylan after “purposeful” is of a piece with his recent albums of American standards — a loungey piano. I felt like I might be listening to Rick Blaine reflecting, while Sam played that piano, in a parallel universe.
From that strong, Romantic I, Dylan leads you straight into his very own memories, and does so with a bang: himself at eighteen, looking at Buddy Holly, just a few years older, on a stage in front of him in the Duluth Armory on January 31, 1959.
As I listened to Dylan describing Holly, I realized that around 1965, at around the same age, he looked like that “older brother” Holly — those glasses, eyes behind the glasses, neat suits. Even “the way he tapped his foot” — still in concert today, and hundreds of times before, I’ve watched Dylan’s right leg alone ripple in time to the music, just like Holly’s. Holly wrote his own songs — “songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great — sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be.”
Buddy Holly, just 21, and the Crickets, 1957
Buddy looked him in the eye, Dylan says, and “transmitted something.” Almost simultaneously, someone — “somebody I’d never seen before — gave him Lead Belly’s recording of “Cotton Fields” (1940). It was, Dylan recalls, “Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.” From Buddy and Huddie, his own personal versions of Virgil and Beatrice, Dylan’s odyssey as a singer-songwriter began.
The passages where he talks about folk music are utter gold. Why folk music, instead of Holly’s kind of songs, instead of Elvis’s rock and roll? It was a calculated reason. Something about folk music came guaranteed: “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.” It was also Dylan’s education. The cafés of Greenwich Village and Sunday afternoons in Washington Square were his Yale College and his Harvard. “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.”
Now Dylan speaks a paragraph he delivers like a litany.
“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 Darnell stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.” *1
I stopped the recording of the speech at this point, backed up, and listened to the paragraph over and over again, with all the songs flooding my head.
But “the folk lingo” wasn’t Dylan’s “only vocabulary.” A hungry reader since he was a boy, he immersed himself, literally, in books in the libraries of friends like “Ray Gooch and Chloe Kiel” of Chronicles Vol. 1 (2004), and in the New York Public Library, when he arrived in New York to become a singer-songwriter. And Dylan wanted to use fundamental literary themes to “write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard.”
Well, the last I heard of Arab
He was stuck on a whale
That was married to the deputy
Sheriff of the jail
But the funniest thing was
When I was leavin’ the bay
I saw three ships a-sailin’
They were all heading my way
I asked the captain what his name was
And how come he didn’t drive a truck
He said his name was Columbus
I just said, “Good luck.”
The three works Dylan chooses to illustrate these themes are Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) and The Odyssey (around eight centuries B.C.). One grounds him essentially in America (Moby-Dick might just be the Great American Novel), one in Modern times (World War I and its aftermath, which is to say the whole 20th century), and one in the beginning of Western literatures and what used to be called “Western civ.”
Dylan doesn’t go chronologically, beginning with Homer, but starts with America instead, and Herman Melville’s massive and multitudinous novel of whaling, sailing, seas and cetology, democracy and races and nations and, literally, Lord knows what all. Dylan has already spoken of fundamental themes, and recounts Moby-Dick’s “straightforward” plot with, not quite, a straight face: Ahab and the whale, and a “lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes.” Simplistic and fundamental: he recites this part of his speech like it’s a bedtime story, summing up for all the people who haven’t read Moby-Dick, which is to say most of the people in the world. *2
Dylan’s portmanteau comments on religion are arresting. “Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures.” And, later, “All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules — they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale.” Saints and heroes as dragon-slayers, whalers all, cutting up past beliefs to construct new ones.
Dylan is right, too, that far too often in literature and in life “[w]e see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.”
Literally, we see only the surface in Moby-Dick. Humans are constrained to the surface of the sea. All we can do is interpret. The only creature that can go, and see, below the surface of the sea is the great white whale. The sharks and vultures (or gulls, but hell, vultures are more appropriate to death) follow the ship, not only for the leavings from the try-works as dead whales are chopped to bits, but for what remains when the great shroud of the sea rolls on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
His writing about All Quiet on the Western Front reads like Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke swirled together — though Erich Maria Remarque was, of course, writing from the opposite line of trenches: clouds of gas, shellbursts, rats and mud, “butterflies perch[ed] on teeth” of skulls, and everywhere the broken bits of bodies of the dead. You can bet whatever you want that Dylan has seen the overwhelming 1930 film version of Remarque’s book, starring Lew Ayres as Paul Bäumer, more than a few times. That final butterfly will shatter your heart over and over again. Dylan’s recounting of the book will too: “You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips…. 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.” Dylan uses the powerful words of “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me” by Charlie Poole, a redheaded banjo player from North Carolina who drank himself into a fatal heart attack at 39, to conclude his discussion.
Lew Ayres and the butterfly, conclusion of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door
You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin’ every battle
The Odyssey is — just like The Aeneid — a story of the aftermath of the Trojan War. It is a sequel to The Iliad, that poem named by Homer, like the war itself, not for the winners but for the losers: Homer, a Greek poet, writing not the Helleniad, but the Iliad. Virgil makes it clear in The Aeneid that, through the Trojan prince Aeneas, Rome is directly descended not from Greece but the intellectual, contemplative, artistic aristocrats of Troy. What is true in all these classic classical poems is that all the combatants were praying to the same gods and goddesses.
The mad magical mythical unlikelinesses of The Odyssey, Dylan says, apply to us too. We haven’t challenged Polyphemus or Circe, six-headed monsters or Scylla or Charybdis, but
“In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.”
The pronoun shift and slippage from that commencing I is remarkable, and complete. From the start in his own memory as an 18-year-old to the shifting into a sometime “you” to talk about folk music to that powerful “we” at the line “We see only the surface of things,” Dylan has swung into a “you” to discuss All Quiet On the Western Front that makes him into a nameless soldier. In this passage above from his discussion of The Odyssey, the “you” is become us all.
There’s a lonesome freight at 6:08 coming through the town
I’ll be homeward bound, I’ll be homeward bound
There’s a lonesome freight at 6:08 coming through the town
And I feel like I just want to travel on
Done laid around, done stayed around
This old town too long
And it seems like I’ve got to travel on
And it seems like I’ve got to travel on.
(Lyrics to the above: Paul Clayton, David Lazar, Larry Ehrlich, and Lee Hays. A hit for Billy Grammer; Buddy Holly’s opening song, January 1959 )
John Donne, that lyric poet and Dean of St. Paul’s from ballad days, makes a coda appearance near the end of Dylan’s speech. Dylan quotes from Donne’s radiant Elegy XIX, and a long passage in which a lover’s body is equated with the entire mythological Mediterranean world. Donne was a priest, but he was also a poet, and both a passion for his religion and his “three-person’d God,” and for ancient verse and images, grace his lines.
“John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, ‘The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.’ I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.”
That “either” is meant to include us, but Dylan knows full well what Sestos and Abydos are, and he knows other poems about them, too. They are the home ports, separated by the Hellespont, of Hero and Leander. He swam to see her until the night when he drowned in a storm; when she saw his body on the shore, she jumped from a tower to her death. Ovid, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, among many poets, tell their story, but Lord Byron went them one better, and actually re-created Leander’s fatal swim in May 1810. He survived, and wrote a poem about it. The man who once signed himself “Lord Byron Dylan” in a book of Byron’s poems he gave to Suze Rotolo, and who named his first son Jesse Byron…maybe he’s read this poem a time or two?
If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
( What maid will not the tale remember? )
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!
If, when the wintry tempest roar’d,
He sped to Hero, nothing loth,
And thus of old thy current pour’d,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat to-day.
But since he cross’d the rapid tide,
According to the doubtful story,
To woo, — and — Lord knows what beside,
And swam for Love, as I for Glory;
‘Twere hard to say who fared the best:
Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drown’d, and I’ve the ague.
If you don’t know what Sestos and Abydos as loves, not lovers, means, well, yes, it still sounds good as Donne delivers it. But knowledge of references, as well as attention and a wish to enjoy, are what every person has within themself, as they listen to a poem, or a song. Dylan says, “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.” Songs move you not in their standing alone as sung, but as heard by generations of people, varied audiences, individuals, you.
Dylan is specific about the difference between songs and poems. Forcing a song’s reading as a poem is always a debatable thing to do to a song not designed as a poem; in the Bob Dylan class I taught last term at The New School in New York, I’d never have dreamed of teaching the lyrics without the tunes. There’s music that was written with and for those words. “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.” You don’t read, you listen.
Dylan uses Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 translation of The Odyssey for its opening, and his own concluding, line. Perfect. This is the translation of his and our lifetimes, rather than those by Albert Cook and Robert Fagles, which both move right to Odysseus himself, that man of twists and turns —and eliminate the full power of the invocation and prayer that the muse sing in the poet himself. Guess what? It’s Bob Dylan. The poet, the man of twists and turns, and perhaps even the muse are all-in-one.
Here. If you disobeyed and didn’t listen first, take that half an hour and do it now. Rhythm of words, emphasis, breath shaping speech. Don’t read it: listen to Dylan as he recites — as he performs — and feel what it does with your own imagination.
1. nota bene whoever transcribed Dylan’s speech for the Nobel website: there’s no “Lord Donald.” What Dylan says is “Lord Darnell,” whose bloody ballad was sung best, for my money, by Paul Clayton on Folksongs and Ballads of Virginia (Folkways 1956). The alternate version “Matty Groves,” naming instead the doomed lover of Lord Darnell’s wife, belongs to the untouchable Sandy Denny (here, with Fairport Convention in 1969).
2. Yesterday, the online site Slate ran a story alleging that Dylan had appropriated lines from SparkNotes in his speech. Rolling Stone put Slate’s elliptical allegations into plain unvarnished English, reporting “Bob Dylan Accused of Plagiarizing Lecture From SparkNotes.” Andrea Pitzer, the story’s author, tweeted about this on June 5th; and after an exchange with Scott Warmuth, who has written perhaps the most about Dylan’s unattributed use of quotations, she said on Twitter that she had “found a ton of stuff from the site” and pitched to “an editor who wants a short piece on it[.]” Feel free to keep up with the story as it develops or sinks, and form your own opinions. For my part, this speech is not a term paper being written for a college grade; nor, by the bye, does SparkNotes bother to give their writers the dignity of naming. I have also long liked what Sean Wilentz said years ago, speaking of Love And Theft (2001) — that Dylan steals what he loves and loves what he steals. And as a bottom line, always, I care less about any of Dylan’s sources than what he does with them. Though it should not be necessary to, I might also note that Dylan has, as many of us ourselves often give free rein to, a sense of humor.