News & Commentary

Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kanye and the merging of literature and popular music

| |

In 1987 I used key lines from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men as the basis of the chorus for an early Boom Crash Opera song, Sleeping Time. They perfectly suited the theme of the song and, in my deluded pretentious under-grad mind, tenuously linked my rock band (on Countdown at the time) with the mighty canon of ‘Literature’.

Just prior to the release of our first album I called our publisher to ask ‘do I need to clear this?’. All hell broke loose. International lawyers conferred. The edict, apparently from The Estate Of Eliot, was explicit: the great man had insisted his verse was never to be set to music. ‘What about Cats?’ I meekly mewed, before slinking away. So much for my pathetic attempt to hitch a ride on high art. I’m no Dylan tragic but I blame him for my lofty aspirations.

Dylan introduced freewheelin’ imagery and non-linear semantics, partly borrowed from the Beats.

In the early and mid-’60s Bob Dylan spearheaded a revolution in ‘Popular Music’. Up until that point the lyrics in pop, show tunes and early rock’n’roll dealt, primarily, with romance, and ranged from witty through sentimental and banal to inchoate and libidinous (‘a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam- boom!’).

Porter, Gershwin et al exhibited lyrical craft and skill but personal expression, profundity and dense imagery were virtually unheard of. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a poem by Abel Meeropol set to music by the poet, was an exception and it most certainly did not start a trend. Dylan, on the other hand, was an epoch shattering earthquake. He introduced freewheelin’ surreal imagery and non-linear semantics, borrowed in part from the Beats. He changed the face of popular music. But seemingly not the face of Literature.

Meanwhile the Beats – Ginsberg, Kerouac et al – and modernist poetry in general were making their way down the digestive tract of high-art literature. Some years earlier in Australia, James McAuley and Harold Stewart staged the Ern Malley hoax, where they mocked and satirised modernist poetry. They were attempting to buttress the fortress of Literature against the pretenders and invaders. The fact that Ern Malley’s work (fake poetry by a fictitious character) is well-regarded is a delicious post-modern irony.

Dylan’s ‘literary’ approach to pop and rock lyrics inspired others or, at very least, facilitated others being heard. Leonard Cohen, who in 1965 was already a published writer, came to prominence with a lyrical style more compressed and disciplined than Dylan’s.

In the ’70s Hip Hop sprang to life (showing) a facility for figurative language and complexity of structure that left Jim Morrison in a grave in Paris.

Both used literary, biblical and mythical references which enhanced their ‘literary’ status but it was still Popular Music, not Literature. Jim Morrison, blowing his mind on booze, drugs and William Blake, fashioned himself as a poet and visionary. Joni Mitchell, with a visual artist’s eye for imagery, equaled Dylan in the lyrical realm and eclipsed him in the musical. In the ’60s she was the confessional poet/waif. By the mid- ’70s she’d left all that behind. Paprika Plains, on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, is a 17 minute through-composed tone poem; a canvas of dream-like imagery and colour. Patti Smith exploded in the mid- ’70s – seized by a poet’s sensibility but fired through with rock’s energy. Literature was embedded in Popular Music now and there was no getting it out.


But had Literature taken on Popular Music? Richard Goldstein in his 1969 book, The Poetry Of Rock, attempted to draw the new wave of elevated and expressive rock lyrics into the literary tradition. Goldstein promoted the portentous spoken word stylings of the Lizard King Morrison on Horse Latitudes, and the ‘poetic sounding’ pastoral musings of Procul Harum’s Keith Reid (Whiter Shade Of Pale). As Pete Astor notes in his 2010 re-appraisal the book, Goldstein appeared to be seeking ‘high culture legitimacy’ for rock lyrics. Trying to sound ‘ye olde literary’ in art rock became a thing. Consider the work of Pete Sinfield who wrote the mock-mythical, pomp-nonsense of King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. Years later Sinfield wrote the lyrics for Buck’s Fizz’s Land Of Make Believe, which is probably better known for its lack of literary pretension.

While Goldstein focussed on lyrics that affected a heightened, formal, almost 19th century idea of poetry, it’s telling that he completely missed out on Lou Reed, whose terse and compact lyrics on The Velvet Underground’s first album were, as Astor puts it, ‘eminently literary’. Lou was too street.

From the middle of the ’70’s onwards Hip Hop sprang to life. Suddenly African American music, up to that point generally strongly felt and compellingly expressed, acquired a facility for figurative language and complexity of structure that left Jim Morrison in a grave in Paris.

The density of imagery and complexity of rhythm and rhyme in, say The Corner, by Common, is worthy of an academic dissertation. This track also features the Last Poets, 1960s pioneers of agitprop spoken-word literary polemics (ok – you may need to filter out Kanye’s presence on this song).

The power of literature, like music, is not intrinsic. The value of any work of art comes from outside the work; assigned by us.

The revolution that Dylan helped spawn – the elevation of Pop Music to Art and the way audiences became attuned to that modality – created problems for The Academy. The worlds of Classical Music and Literature were locked in their own self-referential methodologies. Unlike science which uses empiricism, the various arts had devised their own self-enclosed, self-reinforcing arbitrary aesthetic value systems to legitimise practice and provide a framework for assessing works. ‘You measure up – you’re in … not so fast Mr Zimmerman’.

Social and Cultural studies adapted to Popular Music by assigning arbitrary cultural values, based on bogus notions of authenticity, to pop and rock: rock is real /pop is fake, raw processed, Velvet Underground/ Jethro Tull, black skinny jeans/ flares. It’s not about content. It’s about context. Bob Dylan was, therefore, a social phenomenon.

The Classical Music Conservatoire tried to adapt its analytical model to Popular Music by examining content: – chords, keys and melody – but they missed the point. Popular music, Rock in particular, is also about sex and drugs et al and doesn’t have many chords.

The conservatoire’s majestic analytical framework, while highly useful, is only truly meaningful when analysing work made within its own self-defined realm. Use it to analyse Brahms. Approach God Only Knows with caution. Don’t go near droning, three-chord Bob Dylan. The guy can’t sing.

There’s resistance to giving Bob the Nobel nod; ‘it isn’t literature’. Meanwhile he’s the subject of thousands of academic dissertations. It’s as if his literary worth is acknowledged but he cannot be fully merged with the tradition or let into the inner sanctum. The power of literature, like music, is not intrinsic. A poem, or a song, is not a pill with innate magical powers. The value of any work of art comes from outside the work; assigned by us. We impose it, arbitrarily, by convention. This does not lessen or devalue the power and mystery inside the art. But it means the framework of interpretation is a moveable feast – values can change. It’s time for the fortress of Literature to crack open and anoint Bob.

Now let’s sing a dumb little song from Literature. You all know the tune:

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

10 responses to “Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kanye and the merging of literature and popular music

  1. “Prickly pear” nothing. What about this verse from Eliot which, if you didn’t know it was by T.S. Eliot and was sung in the appropriate Dylanesque while, you’d be convinced belonged on “Blonde on Blonde:”

    When you’re alone in the middle of the night and you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
    When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and you wake like someone hit you on the head
    You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.
    Hoo hoo hoo
    You dreamt you waked up at seven o’clock and it’s foggy and it’s damp and it’s dawn and it’s dark
    And you wait for a knock and the turning of a lock for you know the hangman’s waiting for you.
    And perhaps you’re alive
    And perhaps you’re dead
    Hoo ha ha
    Hoo ha ha

    1. that would never have made it on Blonde on Blonde….outtake!….much as I love T.S. Eliot that’s hardly his finest hour, there, doesn’t
      scalp prickle
      the way
      Desolation Row does….

    2. I think I’ll take Blonde on Blonde thanks:

      Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet…

      Or Highway 61:

      When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez…

      Or Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie:

      When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
      When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb

      Or [insert lines of your choice…]

  2. Oh dear, just so wrong despite the flowery worded distractions…and confirmed in the opening paragraph….”insisted his verse was never to be set to music”. Yep, literature is a separate entity to music – that may ‘be set’ to each other. The Nobel Prize for Literature to be awarded to a separate category of Music is incorrect, wrong & ridiculous…. no matter who the musician is.

  3. Of course Bob Dylan is an arts & entertainment icon -song writer, singer, leader in the protest movement – but not someone you could call an legitimate literature award winner. Nobel judges got it all wrong. I could name a dozen or more Writers who have contributed great literature to the world who are deserving of the Nobel Honour. Pity we will never know who we’re the other finalists. I’m sure there are Scientists who dispute some of the awardees in different categories, just as it is hard to justify the Peace prize going to the Colombian leader who has yet to achieve a peace agreement. Maybe the Nobel committee needs to consider a range of categories in the arts as they have in the sciences for awards. Dylan would certainly get my vote for “contributions to music as an art form”.

  4. Some seem to confuse “music” with words. Music is the carrier, the vehicle, for the words. Many a poem has been set to music, without any detraction from the content or meaning of the words conveyed. Indeed they may have been enhanced. Does a musical background reduce the significance of Shakespeare’s writing? Much (most?) music has no words, constructed of complex notes and tones, created via an assortment of instruments. Words are a medium of their own, though capable of being constructed in a rhythmic pattern, and able to be rendered in a musical format. It is the imagery words are able to generate in the human mind (and heart!) that lift them to the level of “literature”, and enables their impact on life and thought.

    Many a recording of songs will contain a booklet with the words/lyrics of the vocals printed thereon. Very rarely does such a booklet provide musical notation or chord progression. That is because it is the words that matter. They are printed so as to be read, as well as listened to. The music is a backdrop, a frame for the words, for the writing. There is thus no contradiction in awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to a writer who has chosen to use musical accompaniment as the carriage for their writing and the ideas, thoughts, images, and experiences contained therein.

    1. Absolutely agree Orlando. I used a very similar argument against a Dylan detractor on FB. Dylan is a writer who chose music rather than print to present his work. His writing is neither demeaned or embellished by the choice. However, the use of music does reinforce mood and impact … and he’s always done that brilliantly.

  5. When I listen to ‘serious’ modern poetry and I then hear the best of Rap, or Slam Poetry, I have no doubt that the latter two classes inherit the mantle.
    Poetry should be verbal images, emotions or messages set to rhythm or rhyme and designed to be spoken aloud. The sound patterns should amplify the meaning of the words, or imbue them with emotion.
    So poetry embedded in music is more consistent with poetic tradition than free verse on the page.

  6. So good to see a mention of “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter”. I first heard it in the 1970s and have never really felt I’ve got to the end of it. I listened to it just the other day and it was just as new and surprising as the first time. I never imagined I’d be a man in my fifties jogging around a suburban playing field listening to it on my pocket computer-phone, but hey, you have to take your poetry where you find it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *