Of all the responses to Bob Dylan’s Nobel, my favorite comes from Leonard Cohen, who likened it to “pinning a medal on Mount Everest.” It’s a brilliant line, pure Cohen—all dignity and poise, yet with an acid barb. Not only is Everest in no need of a medal, the attempt to fix one to its impassive torso (imagine the puny pin bending back on first contact) is metaphorically all too apt for the Nobel committee’s current quandary. To the surprise of exactly no one, Dylan took his time responding to the award, waiting over two weeks; it is still unclear whether he will attend the ceremony. As someone who spends part of my professional life thinking about Dylan, I wince at this; just as I was asked to weigh in by a few journalists on the day of the award, I worry I will also be held to account for his churlishness, guilty by scholarly association (not to mention home state—I’m also a Minnesotan).
Compounding all of this is of course the controversy surrounding the award itself, and whether Dylan deserves a Nobel in literature. The day of the announcement I found myself telling a colleague that I felt odd weighing in on what should and shouldn’t count as literature, as I, a music scholar, had “no horse in that race.” He responded with the obvious: “You do now,” adding, “he just came in first.” So, of necessity—and over the course of more conversations—I began to feel my way toward a tentative position, often gesturing to the complex history of literature and performance, a dialectic that has lost some of its animating tension in recent generations, but that casts a long historical shadow, extending back through Shakespeare to Homer. The Nobel committee’s citation helped in this regard. Dylan was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The emphasis on song at once sidesteps the tedious question of whether Dylan’s lyrics “are really poetry” and situates their literary aspects in a network that also embeds music, voice, and the moment of their sounding. The preposition “within” is also helpful. While the committee clearly means “within the tradition” of American song, if one squints a bit one can read “new poetic expressions within song.” The nestling of poetic expressions within the unpredictable alchemy of performed song seems right, for Dylan’s literary efforts have always been most potent when they are tempered—annealed—by the pressures of song, with its demands for formal concision, metric clarity, and verbal thrift. Without that tempering, his writing can be embarrassingly prolix, like Kerouac or Ginsberg on an especially undisciplined day. (I am thinking of his well-nigh unreadable early book Tarantula as well as the liner notes for the early records; his 2005 memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1 is a luminous exception: punchy and vivid, even if brimming with falsehoods and borrowed lines.)
Consider the opening verse from 1965’s “She Belongs to Me”:
She’s got everything she needs / she’s an artist, she don’t look back
She’s got everything she needs / she’s an artist, she don’t look back
She can take the dark out of the night time and / paint the day time black
Here it is the blues that tempers: note the AAB repetition structure, AAA end-rhyme, and the caesuras (rendered here as slashes) that perforate each line. Dylan was then, and is now, a connoisseur of blues lyrics. Unlike legions of British guitarists, he was compelled not only by Robert Johnson’s technical musicianship, but by his inscrutable words:
The songs were layered with a startling economy of lines… Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires… I copied [them] down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction… (Dylan 2004, 283–85)
These words could just as well describe “She Belongs to Me,” in all of its startling economy. Its compression is so intense as to fuses literary registers. The third line—“She can take the dark out of the night time and / paint the day time black”—is at once a “perfect blues line” (Gray 2000, 275) and a nod to the Symbolists who so captivated Dylan: Rimbaud’s hued intoxication (“J’ai rêvé la nuit verte aux neiges éblouies”/ “On green nights I’ve dreamt of dazzled snows”), Verlaine’s celebrated musicality.
Yet here the “musicality” is more literal: this is a song, and it lives in the singing. Note first the preponderance of monosyllables. The only exceptions are the aptly generous “everything” and the “artist” who possesses it. Otherwise, each word pings out a single syllable, its vowel ripe for the work of Dylan’s idiosyncratic voice. In the studio recording of January 14, 1965 that voice does its work within a gentle groove that studiously avoids indexing the blues. Eighths are straight, not swung—Bobby Gregg’s drums all tasteful rim-shots and brushes—and Bruce Langhorne’s guitar punctuates Dylan’s sung lines with rippling sixths that are about as far from the blues as one can get. And then there’s the harmony, which swerves from 12-bar expectations precisely at the word “dark,” with one of the brightest harmonies in Dylan’s vocabulary: a major II# chord, which eases into a diatonic IV at “paint the day time black” (the paradoxically nocturnal raised fourth degree of the II# chord lowering to its diatonic version in IV, under pressure of the artist/lover’s brush). This is in fact a classic Beatles progression, I–II#–IV–I, which had been chiming joyously out of radios and record players since “Eight Days a Week” was released on December 4th, 1964, just over a month before Dylan entered the studio. Whatever influence that song may have had on Dylan here (and he was, recall, the band’s most famous superfan at this point), his singing resists the Beatles’ ecstatic vocal delivery: in contrast to their sharply etched tune, he lazily drapes his voice over the shimmering harmonic swerve, rising nonchalantly to a tonic A3 plateau at several points in the line (“dark” and “paint” receive particular emphasis). The result is an exquisite equipoise of light and dark—verbal, musical, vocal, instrumental—its density of connotation exceeded only by the understated grace of its execution.
Dylan is often celebrated for his syncretism, his knack for mashing-up musical and lyrical readymades. The diminutive “She Belongs to Me”—often overshadowed in the canon by billowing epics like “Desolation Row” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”—is a quiet triumph in this regard. Robert Johnson, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Lennon and McCartney: all sound together in a new configuration. And yet Dylan’s voice—at once writerly and sonic, ideal and empirical—remains stubbornly singular, irreducible to their influence. Is the result literature? The question loses its urgency in the face of the song’s achievement, which coolly leaves debates about medals and mountains to others. And yet, if one listens closely, one can almost hear Dylan’s answer—for once tender as well as aloof—in another song on side one of Bringing It All Back Home, “Love Minus Zero / No Limit”:
In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk over situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks she doesn’t bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge
Image credit: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Entertainment: closeup view of vocalists Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.], 08/28/1963 by Rowland Scherman. Public Domain via U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service, (National Archives Identifier) 542021 and Wikimedia Commons.
This article originally appeared on Musicology Now.