Homer and Dylan
By Michael Bouman
Language No One Speaks
Somehow I got hooked on Homer again at the end of January. I have been hooked on Homer before. There are five or six translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey at home, and I have savored them all.
I came to Homer not in a college classroom, but in my own time, when I was ready to give him persistent attention. His poems are long; the language is rich; some of the scenes are heartbreaking. I got to Homer through Plato and Thucydides. After The Peloponnesian War, it was time to enter a story of a community's fracture and misery, all because of the willful anger of a leader. The Iliad, for me, was a whirlwind of pity.
A few weeks ago I participated in a discussion of the tenth chapter of The Odyssey. We had been given the 1996 translation by Robert Fagles. I had long looked forward to reading this translation because it was Fagles who had set my mind on fire with his Iliad. To give you a sense of the power and directness of Fagles' translation, I'll give you the first few lines of The Odyssey:
You have to understand here that I'm not about to write about Homer. I'm just a cheerleader where Homer is concerned, or where Robert Fagles is concerned. He's a champion, they both are. If you like distinctive writing, there is a "voice" that Homer's best translators suggest to your ear, a voice that seasons you to directness.
It is hard to shift immediately to another book after finishing Homer, not without a break, and there are plenty of very interesting notes about the translation at the end of the book to ease you out of the grip of Homer's world. I was still feeling that grip when I picked up Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan, and was so taken with Dylan's book, seized around the heart I'd say, that I read it three times.
My imagination is populated with remembered lines of verse that I first heard Bob Dylan sing. We readers accumulate quotations like a yard keeps dandelions, I think. I've got scripture twined through my brain like ground ivy, but Bob Dylan's lyrics are in the ivy along with a lot of other lyrics, some in German, some in Italian, some in Latin or French. I've got a soul woven of remembered lines. Do you?
I retain Dylan's lines in a context of sound frozen in time by the recording machine. It's jarring to realize that Dylan is not frozen in time and never performs a lyric the same way twice. He is less a troubadour than a bard. The lines have a tenuous connection to melody at best; each delivery of them amounts to a journey of risk and discovery, each listening the same risk, same chance of discovery.
What prompts me to recall Dylan in the same memory as Homer is that Dylan's language is "Homeric" in one peculiar way. Bernard Knox, in his Introduction to the Fagles translation, says, "The language of Homer is a problem in itself....it is not a language that anyone ever spoke. It is an artificial, poetic language...brimful of archaisms--in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar--and of incongruities: words and forms drawn from different dialects and different stages of the growth of the language."
"It ain't no use
in turnin' on your light, babe
Think Twice, It's All Right, Copyright © 1963;
renewed 1991 Special Rider Music
I like that "babe" and "knowed" in the same stanza. No one who sang or loved this song ever said "knowed" in everyday talk. But we ardently learned this one and many others that were pseudo-folksongs in a pseudo "unlettered" language. And if we wrote songs, too, and if "knowed" seemed fake, we wrote "knew" and found a different rhyme, just as Dylan did when he listened to a different muse.
Dylan's artistic growth between the ages of 19 and 22 amazed the elders in the New York music scene. The renowned critic, Nat Hentoff, who wrote the liner notes for Dylan's second record, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," says in those notes, "Not yet twenty-two at the time of this album's release, Dylan is growing at a swift, experience-hungry rate. In these performances, there is already a marked change from his first album, and there will surely be many further dimensions of Dylan to come."
In Chronicles, Volume One, Bob Dylan introduces himself in this period of personal "big bang." His arrival as a young folk musician and his flowering as a "singer/songwriter" are the central story here. He leaves for later volumes the rapid development of his songwriting interests. In this period, he doesn't intend to become a songwriter at all; it is a thing that unfolds for him and becomes a door he must walk though.
There is a point in his New York development where he observes that he is "fully loaded." The zeal that propelled him from Hibbing to New York has produced a man thin as a candle wick and burning. As this opening section of his career draws to a close, Dylan is about to become an international celebrity, a father, and a fugitive from his own fame. A simple twist of fate is just around the next curve in the road.
Me and Bob
About the time Bob Dylan posed with "Little Richard hair" for his high school yearbook, I was entering high school. I spent evenings in my room with my guitars, learning songs -- Belafonte records, Kingston Trio -- and I'd experienced a sudden compulsion to write poems. Although we differed in age and location, boys our age all over the country went through the same awakening of our creative side. If we were musicians, we bought guitars, horns, or drums, bought records, hung out with each other, formed small bands and played at school dances from the 8th grade onward. If we were sensitive, even a little, and if we were introverts, we expressed the surging energy of our adolescence in reams of "poetry."
Dylan doesn't say so in his book, but by the time he went off to college in Minneapolis he had occupied himself so much with writing poetry that his mother hoped he would outgrow what may have seemed a compulsion. Although "me and Bob" were enthusiastic about girls, the actual channel for our emotions was that page we wrote on and that guitar we played. I recognize a lot of the story Bob tells in Chronicles. Two introverted, wordy musicians...I wonder if we would have been friends if we'd known each other then and were a little closer in age.
Chronicles rolls out one vivid memory after another, page after page, like the feasts served to visitors in The Odyssey. "Appetizers aplenty," Homer says, and they are here, too. His attention to detail is meticulous. "I never forget a face," he says, but he also never forgets an impression, an environment, the quality of a musical influence. He seems wired to every nuance in his environment. Towards the end of the book, when he's wrapping up the story of his first year of living hand-to-mouth in New York, he admits to the reader that he has a "supersensitive nature."
The Style of Chronicles
Bob Dylan's creative life has revolved around an introverted zeal for performing. Obscurity and concealment are familiar ingredients in his song lyrics. So is truth. Much of his work strikes me as a tug of war between drives to conceal and reveal the self.
I wondered how he would do in straight narrative. Right away, his "template" for the book was clear...immediacy, fast-moving lines, feasts of imagery, and a narrative structure that loops through a full lifetime while centering on one decisive period of a few years. Volume One is the story of how he found out what he was about, how he lost himself several times, and how he found his way again after long patches of rough going. You might call this story an Odyssey.
I imagine he determined that he wanted his book to have the energy he remembered from Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound For Glory. Dylan says that when he read it he realized that he could open to any page and "hit the ground running." That made me want to see Guthrie's book, and I'm so glad I did! Guthrie's book opens inside a speeding boxcar in which more than sixty "tramps" are jostling for room and respect some September day during the Second World War. Here is the first passage:
[From Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie, Copyright (c) 1943 by E.P Dutton. Renewed copyright (c) 1971 by Marjorie M. Guthrie.]
There's the style that Bob Dylan wants to match. Here is the opening of Dylan's book. Like an English ballad, it enters immediately into a critical moment of action.
[All quotations are from Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan, Copyright (c) 2004 Bob Dylan]
"Bob Dylan Slept Here"
Dylan starts the book at the moment in his life when he has had a bigger stroke of luck than he thought possible. He has worked his way up from scrounging every meal, sleeping on borrowed couches, and passing the hat in Greenwich Village dives to a regular paid gig at Gerde's Folk City, and he's been noticed by a critic from the New York Times and by the kingmaker, John Hammond. Hammond is
I think Dylan included that last detail because it was a marketing strategy, and it turned out to be ironic. This supersensitive personality really was a Wunderkind. At age 19 he had formed vivid impressions of country music, show music, popular standards, early rock and roll, and folk music. He was absorbing influences like a sponge, moving with fire and passion into what captured his interest. At the moment, it was folk music that held his attention. Before long, he would outgrow it.
He must have been recalling the 1960 hit recording of the old spiritual, Michael Row the Boat Ashore when he wrote that last line. Fertile, refreshing, wonderful language! What a song to remember. Of course he knew that song. We all did.
Some sections of the book have long digressions forward or backward in time, but they are unified by a literary device of "an imagined day in the life of young Bob." A section may begin with Bob waking up some time after noon, rummaging around the library of his friends, describing records that come to mind. Pages later, the smell of steak and onions frying in the kitchen brings the story back into this specific apartment on this imagined day.
The day-in-the-life device allows Dylan to keep the story simple and free of sometimes unflattering details that one finds in a book like Down The Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes (2001). Dylan says nothing at all about how much money he had when he arrived in New York. From the feel of the story, he had resolved to subsist as Woody Guthrie had for as long as he could.
There are a lot of scrounged meals in Chronicles, Volume One, a lot of borrowed couches. You can't help but wonder how such an unimposing, scrufty figure made any headway at all in New York City. His unauthorized biographer, Sounes, interviewed dozens of people who spoke of how he "stood out," had "charisma," even though he sounded awful much of the time.
Dylan writes of meeting Harry Belafonte and having his professional recording debut as a harmonica player on a Belafonte record. (He does not say that he got bored with the experience and walked out of the session after cutting only one song with Belafonte.) He writes of meeting Tiny Tim, Richard Prior, of having known Peter Yarrow of what would become Peter, Paul, and Mary back in Minneapolis. He talks about his buddy Noel Stookey being recruited to be "Paul" of that same group and speaks of Stookey's phenomenal talent as a mimic:
Impressions and Influences
Dylan's account of his musical influences is lengthy and wonderful! To name a few, he mentions Hank Williams, the song writer Harold Arlen, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and (the first thunderclap) Woody Guthrie. Later, Dave Van Ronk and the 1930s bluesman, Robert Johnson. During a brief period in Minneapolis, Dylan had a transformative experience when he first heard the recordings of Woody Guthrie. He formed himself into a Guthrie clone until an acquaintance in Minneapolis told him he was wasting his talent. The acquaintance played him records of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had taken Guthrie's influence and gone miles beyond it. Dylan writes of outgrowing the Minneapolis folk scene and catching a ride to New York to meet "destiny" head-on. In a classic bit of understated word-play he says this destiny was "manifest."
There are many, many richly detailed thoughts in the book about the singers he has admired during high school:
Did Yogi Berra write that last line? I'm sure this is Dylan at play again.
Here is part of an extended portrait of Dave Van Ronk, a giant on the Greenwich Village folk scene who epitomized for Dylan the necessary level of intensity in performance.
Here is Roy Orbison:
There is plenty more where that came from! He uses a lot of words and images to explain how it happened that an amateur poet (who he has not acknowledged himself to be) turns into a songwriter. This was clearly not on his mind when he went to New York to perform folk music.
Even as he is establishing himself as a folk performer, Dylan begins to realize that he lacks a natural gift. What I enjoy so much about this book is that Dylan is on a journey through what he likes and wants toward what he is.
The crucial awakening in New York was a consequence of several encounters with Mike Seeger.
Bob Dylan, folksinger, was also Bob Dylan, theatre-goer and Bob Dylan, jazz-fan. His writing about the cultural life of New York in the early 60s is richly detailed. A girl friend was involved in a musical revue of songs by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and it was at a performance of this revue that Dylan had another vision of what could be done in songwriting.
Dylan writes a vivid description of a performance of the song "Pirate Jenny." He sat in the dark theatre feeling menaced. He had never before encountered a combination of lyrical structure and content that affected him so powerfully. You can see Dylan, the young craftsman, in his account of what followed that evening in the theatre.
Fugitive From Fame
Bob Dylan writes passionately about one of the darkest periods of his life. Having become an international celebrity by 1966, he found himself unable to have a private life in which he could raise a family. In fact, he is so resolutely private about this life that neither of his two wives is named in the book, nor are his children.
There follows a most remarkable story of image-suicide as Dylan moves the family from one address to another and resolves to create recordings that will bewilder anyone who wants to categorize him as a spokesperson for a generation. This period of dodging ends with a set of bucolic "family man" songs in a record titled, "New Morning." Included on this record are several songs he wrote at the request of Archibald MacLeish for the 1971 play, Scratch. Dylan's account of the brief working relationship with MacLeish is probably worth the price of the book. Dylan credits the old poet with teaching him to "swim the Atlantic."
Burnouts and New Beginnings
For me, one of the most moving portions of the book is the story of a second lease on life after a serious injury threatened to prevent what would have been an artistic redemption. The chapter titled "Oh Mercy" begins this way:
Dylan's moment of new light came during a grueling tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He was weary of his repertoire and felt burned out. During a break in the tour he was scheduled to fill in the time with a run of concerts with the Grateful Dead, who had an enthusiasm for Dylan's old repertoire that knocked him off balance. He left a rehearsal determined not to go back, but then something providential happened, something revelatory, and he found a new source of creative energy that made him envision an expansive new era in his career. There would be new audiences to win, incessant touring to find them, and new sounds to be created for his old material. All this was spurring him on when his hand was mangled.
This long section of the book describes the miracle of writing new songs while the cast was on his arm, of the chance circumstances that led to his teaming up with the record producer, Dan Lanois, and with the creating not only of new songs, but of new kinds of arrangements.
He titled this "comeback" CD "Oh Mercy." One of my favorite songs on that one is a simple storefront gospel song titled Ring Them Bells, and this is the verse I wait for:
them bells St. Peter
[ From Ring Them Bells, 1989. Copyright (c) 1989, Special Rider Music. http://bobdylan.com/songs/ring.html ]
I like the way that the "sacred cow" exists in the same imaginary world of "rush hour." This is vintage "Dylan-sense."
Waiting for the Next Volume
The scope of time in Chronicles is framed by an explosive arrival into the folk scene and a miraculous redemptive experience in 1987, with a heroic journey of image destruction and regeneration in the middle. That's a curious way to build a memoir, but it certainly held my interest. I hope he has the energy to undertake the next two planned books. Even though it is unlikely that he will reveal much of the personal detail that one finds in the biographies or fanzines, the prospect of reading more about his artistic interests makes me eager.
There is an enormous amount of commentary about Bob Dylan on the internet. It's also possible to hear what the "real" Bob Dylan sounds like. For most of his career, Dylan forced his voice to be a rasp of an instrument. The real Bob sounds youthful, even on an NPR interview with Steve Inskeep last October 12 to promote Chronicles. You can listen to the archive of that interview at NPR.
There's a superb essay on the cultural legacy in the 2001 CD, "Love and Theft" by Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz on the Dylan web site:
http://bobdylan.com/etc/ Follow the link on that page to "Love and Theft and the Minstrel Boy." While you're there read the other great essay by Wilentz.
Most of my colleagues, perhaps all of them, knew nothing about Bob Dylan except his name. If you're in that category, I will offer a short list of things to listen to. Every Dylan fan has such a list, and no two are alike.
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