|Paul Gaughin (1848-1903), |
via Wikimedia Commons
Le Joueur de Guitare,
Portrait de Francisco Durrio,
oil on canvas 90 × 72 cm
private collection, London
The list of musicians who set works of literature, notably poems and plays, to music is long. And the list of poets who wrote song lyrics at one point or another in their career is probably just as long. But at all times there have also been men and women who combined musical and literary skill, who couldn’t write poems without thinking of the music to accompany them and the other way round. These songwriters probably played just as important a role in the development and above all dissemination of literature as books copied by hand in monasteries and later printed from movable type thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. Only think of the medieval minstrels and troubadours who put often ancient myths and legends into verse and spread them all over the European continent. Not to forget minnesingers like Walther von der Vogelweide who were the celebrated stars of love song in their time.
The music of those medieval songwriters may be lost today because it wasn’t written down (or their scores haven’t yet been discovered), but their words have survived and are as impressive as they were when they first resounded in the world. Of course, musical forms and lyrical themes have considerably changed since then, but the tradition of songwriting is very alive and there can be no doubt that Bob Dylan is one of the important figures of the twentieth century in it. Many of his songs keep being sung and heard worldwide, quite some of them even after more than half a century. I’m tempted to say that they have become “evergreens”, but at least in Germen the word has a connotation of the antiquated and outdated which doesn’t apply to Bob Dylan’s songs, though. Nonetheless, they are products of their time expressing a spirit and frame of mind closely linked to their historical background.
To my big shame, I must admit that apart from Blowin’ in the Wind I know only very few of the songs that Bob Dylan wrote and sang. Leafing through a song book in the shop, I found only three or four other titles that actually sounded familiar to me. Of course, with only the lyrics it’s difficult to tell if you have heard a song or not, especially when you are like me listening to music mainly on the radio and not really paying attention. Moreover, Bob Dylan is my parents’ generation, i.e. he made his fame already before I was born. When I finally reached the age to be really interested in music – in the 1980s – , other musicians long outshone him, and besides, my English wasn’t good enough to understand his lyrics, not to mention that I was too young to get the deeper meaning. That came only some time later... when I no longer cared.
The fact that the Swedish Academy decided to award Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 pushed him and his music back into my focus quite unexpectedly. I never thought of him as a literary man or a poet, but considering that he didn’t just write empty songs like scores of others, notably in this new millennium, and that Alfred Nobel wished to reward “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency” in literature, I think that the choice is at least understandable. Besides, I found out that apart from his lyrics and several art books with his drawings Bob Dylan also published the prose poetry collection Tarantula (1971) and the first part of his memoir titled Chronicles. Volume One (2004). So give him a chance. I certainly will.