Maiden with a Lamp

When it was announced that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature there was a substantial reaction asking if songs could be literature—no, that’s not right, I’m mischaracterizing much of the reaction I read as if it was an honest inquiry into this question. No, the reaction I read was more of a conclusion that songs could not be literature, and so this Nobel award to Bob Dylan was a break with tradition, a loosening of standards.

This is complex subject, one I’ll probably return to, as I have much to say on this; but missed in the hoopla and questioning was this fact:  Bob Dylan was the second singer/songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1913 Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee citing:

“Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

In 1913 when the prize was given, Tagore had only one such work they could be talking about: “Gitanjali,”  a 1912 collection of his song lyrics that Tagore had translated himself from Bengali into English prose poems.

Gitanjali title page 1912

The title page of the original English edition

 

Tagore is a fascinating man and artist, with achievements in so many fields that you might think I’m making him up. He wrote every kind of literature, started a university, seriously pursued modern painting, and gave Gandhi the title “Mahatma.” But he was no dabbler at songwriting, having written over 2000 songs. He’s even the only composer to score a hat trick for national anthems, having written the national anthems of India, Bangladesh and Siri Lanka.  His songs are so pervasive in Bengali culture that his thousands of songs have become their own genre.

tagore with Gandhi

“Let me lay it on you Mohandas: it means ‘Great Soul.”  Also, there’s this girl in Detroit who I’m going to call the Queen of Soul.”

Poet William Butler Yeats wrote enviously in his introduction to Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  of the power of songs:

“These verses will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travelers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers.”

This spring as I read Tagore’s “Gitanjali,”  I hoped to find there on the page what is promised in Yeats’ introduction and what would normally be guaranteed by such acclaim. I failed at this. I couldn’t find it. The English of the prose translations seemed so archaic, the expression stilted, the voice vague. From accounts I’ve now read, this seems to be an acknowledged problem; and it appears that, for whatever reasons, Tagore purposely framed his translated work in an incomplete way. In the longer term, I will seek some of the newer translations. In the short term, I stood back and remembered something.

Song. These are songs.

Not only are they missing their music, but songs, like plays, are works for individual voices and talents to embody. Their creators are not claiming the real, complete thing exists on the page, that they are performing them mutely with ink on the white page. No, they expect, demand, that someone step in them, surmise their meaning, fill the blank white space with emotions, and speak them.

All art is like this really. Songs admit it. Songwriters generously say: I need you to fill these things, your humanity is better than any of my approximations.

So, today’s episode is the second of my attempts to bring something to a piece from Tagore’s “Gitanjali”  using his original prose translations, as that’s all I have for now.  With the last post here, “Light,”  I tried to meet Bengali music partway, but this time I’m staying firmly in the Western side, maybe even a bit on the Country and Western side. As I read this piece on the page I heard it as sounding like one of those weird Lee Hazelwood arrangements from a few decades ago, but since I was producing this myself, I had to sing the Nancy Sinatra part as well.
 
If you wonder about the floating light ceremony mentioned in the song I call “Maiden with a Lamp,”  it may be this one.

To hear me perform my vaguely C&W version of “Maiden with a Lamp,” use the player below.

 

On First Hearing Blonde On Blonde

Earlier here you’ve heard me proclaim that Bob Dylan changed how folks wrote songs. Before Bob Dylan circa 1964, no one wrote songs like Bob Dylan. Afterward, the things he did (portrayal of fragmented personal experience, florid and unlimited imagery, a questioning attitude toward accepted beliefs) were everywhere, until by today we may have forgotten (or for younger generations, never knew) that these things were once “Dylanesque.” And because songs with lyrics were the primary way late 20th century people experienced poetry, that revolution impacted the culture generally.

Of course, page-poets had already done those things. Some European poets worked with these concepts decades before Bob Dylan. American modernists of the first part of the 20th century did these things too, and in American English. And the Beats, Dylan’s slightly older siblings, knew those achievements and applied them to the post WWII American landscape.

So, take away the Nobel prize! Dylan had influences! And his revolution was maybe the fourth time around!

No. First off, the page-poets did not generally ally their words with music. Yes, I know there were exceptions to this “generally” statement—and I think those exceptions deserve more notice and listening—but that’s my point, those exceptions didn’t get much of an audience. As the Parlando project seeks to demonstrate, poetry gains resonance when paired with music. The inherent abstractness of music allows listeners to more easily accept abstractness and difficulty in words, so those producing the more difficult, abstract or hermetic writing needed music even more.  Add to that music’s ability to amplify and re-cast emotions, and Dylan’s linking of those page-poet concepts to music meant his was a new force.

So, I say the very thing that causes some to say Dylan should not be considered a literary hero: that he is a songwriter, is one very good reason he is just such an authentic hero.

And here’s another reason. We sometimes like to pride ourselves in finding what we believe are the first movers of things. In songwriting, Dylan is just such a first mover, but if we take his words or his music in separation, he is not the first mover. However, as to impact, it makes less difference who did something first compared to who got the experience to the audience, the listener, and/or the reader at the time and way they were primed to hear it. So, if we artificially separate Dylan’s words and music we can say they weren’t the first, we can even believe they were not the “best,” however we figure that out, but that combination of words and sound was a revolution that succeeded in ways that previous efforts didn’t. It’s romantic to mourn failed revolutionaries, but let’s not let our mourning obscure the power of successful ones.

While I wrote this post’s audio piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” it is not the sort of work I usually put here. It’s a recounting of personal experience, something that is already over-represented in poetry and particularly in spoken word poetry. That can be a valid kind of poetic expression,  but there’s no lack of it elsewhere, and as a creator I’m instructed by my experience as a reader that most poems about the writer’s personal experience fail for several iatrogenic reasons, such as the writer’s inability to fully see and question their own assumptions, an approach to individualization that can cut the writer off from their connection to and balance with the rest of the world,  or even the simple ability to judge what another person will be interested in.

If I work out getting permissions for more current work by other authors, there will be more poems spoken in a personal voice here, but I believe they will gain from being selected by someone else, and spoken by someone else, not by the poet themselves. That’s one of my Parlando principles: “Other People’s Stories.”

“On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” is published here, not because it’s a tale about myself, but because it tries to convey that listener experience that occurs when the listener is primed to hear something. Will someone who listens to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” record album, as suggested by the Nobel Secretary last week, hear a different album than I heard nearly 50 years ago? On one hand, surely they will. Every ear in every time is always its own. On the other hand, I could give you answers—I just typed and erased some now—but instead I leave you with wishes for more, and perhaps better, questions.

Next post we move on from Bob Dylan. Which is about right. After all, even Bob Dylan got tired of being Bob Dylan, several times in fact.

To hear the LYL Band and the audio spoken word piece “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde,” click on the gadget that should appear below. We recorded the basic tracks the afternoon the Nobel Prize for Dylan was announced. Yes, the Dave Moore mentioned in the piece is the same Dave Moore whose voice and keyboard playing has been heard here.

 

Under The Harvest Moon

Early in 1964 the then 22-year-old Bob Dylan and some friends decided to go on a road trip, and so they all piled into a new Ford station wagon. The group had (or developed along the way) some objectives. Some sight-seeing. Dropping off some donated clothes for mine workers. A couple of scheduled concerts (one sold-out, the other had to be re-sited to a smaller venue due to lack of ticket sales). They probably had some generalized youthful expectations of adventure, the “whatever comes our way” feeling. Bob Dylan was also expressly trying to change his songwriting.

Bob Dylan, the performer, was not yet widely known, but Bob Dylan, the songwriter, was a going concern. That summer his song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had sailed up the pop charts when sung by another group, and other performers lined up to record the song.

Bob Dylan was writing a lot of songs; in quantity alone, amazing to those in the know at the time, and yet “Blowin’ the in the Wind” seemed to be a different kind of song. What was its difference? It was clearly a song about social issues, the sort of topic that never challenges the dominance of desire and partying as popular song subjects–but also it dealt with those issues in a metaphoric way. That was not unprecedented. For example: Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes “If I Had A Hammer” was written in 1949 and had also been a hit that summer for Trini Lopez, and that song used verse by verse metaphors in a similar way—but still this poetic approach was not common for topical songs.

Around the same time Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he wrote another song, one with even more uniqueness: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” How unique? Nearly seven minutes long for starters. Instead of the neat metaphors of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “If I Had a Hammer” marching in ordered procession, the images come rushing out as if they are escaping for their lives rather than being marshalled for presentation. Social issues aren’t being addressed in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” they’re being hit with a fragmentation bomb. It doesn’t aim to be another polemic so much as to convey the experience of the polemic forming. It doesn’t try to convince you of its opinion so much as to entice you into having a passionate opinion.

There was no song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before Bob Dylan wrote it, and afterwards you can see holes from its shrapnel everywhere. The man who could write “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be a successful songwriter. The man who could write “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” could win the Nobel Prize for Literature, even if that would take a while.

That previous summer, poet Allen Ginsberg was at a party. Someone puts on Bob Dylan’s LP, the first side. The side begins with “Blowin’ In the Wind” and ends and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and as that last song plays Ginsberg says he wept, because “It seemed that the torch had been passed to another generation. From earlier bohemian, or Beat illumination. And self-empowerment.”

But back to our 1964 car trip. How much of this does this 22-year-old Dylan know? Who can tell. The best supposition is that he knew he was onto something and he wanted to do more of it. So in the back seat of the car he has a portable typewriter—the mechanical, steam-punk laptop of the day—and throughout the trip he’s writing songs. Principally he’s writing “Chimes of Freedom.” Again, who can tell, but I think a lot of creatives would empathically suspect he was feeling a heady mix of excited and relieved that he could do it again.

Their car trip gets to North Carolina. Dylan says they must visit a poet who lives around there somewhere. Not only does Dylan’s era and car lack laptop computers, they lack smartphone apps and GPS.  So they stop and ask a local.  This is how Dylan biographer Anthony Scaduto tells the story:

“Where’s Carl Sandburg’s place?” (Dylan) asked the tall gangling mountain man in coveralls. “You know, the poet.” The mountain man considered that for a while. “You mean Sandburg the goat farmer?” he asked.
“No, I mean Sandburg the poet.”
“Don’t know about no poet. There’s a Sandburg has a goat farm. Wrote a book on Lincoln. Little guy. Littler than you, even. If that’s the one, take this road two miles up there, turn left after the little bridge, can’t miss it.”

So here’s the 22-year-old Bob Dylan, the man who is about to take his own jangled and re-mixed reception of modernist poetry and societal criticism and collide it with guitars and transistor radios in an unprecedented way, and who does he want to see?  The 85-year-old Carl Sandburg.

Accounts of what happened next differ, and may not matter if we consider only that one thing, that Dylan wanted to see Sandburg.

I’ve talked about this before here. Everyone who influenced us had an influence. It’s a great long chain across time. Dylan was influenced by Woody Guthrie, Woody was influenced by Carl Sandburg. Sandburg was influenced by Walt Whitman. Whitman was influenced by William Cullen Bryant. Bryant was influenced by Homer.  And now going forward from 1964: Every rapper’s flow that jumps from one thought and observation to the next without catching its breath, every indie-rock song that decides to show the oblique confusion and emotion of confronting experience without boiling it down to conclusions, every self-penned ballad where the singer insists we hear how specifically she or he saw things comes (however indirectly) through Bob Dylan’s lyrical revolution.

So after all that introduction, here’s a short autumn-themed piece with words written by Carl Sandburg with music I did myself. Like Dylan’s later work, Sandburg’s “Under the Harvest Moon” unflinchingly addresses issues of love and death.

A small anecdote about the process of recording this piece.. As I set up to do the basic track for “Under the Harvest Moon” the power went out, and stayed out most of the afternoon. I so wanted to “try out” the composition, as much as I could, so I dug out and old hand-held digital recorder and a 12 string guitar and recorded the vocal and acoustic guitar track in a dimly lit room. As happens fairly often with musician’s demo tracks, I liked the demo well enough to keep it. Later when power came back on I added bass, an electric guitar part and the string –section part of the final track. To hear the resulting “Under the Harvest Moon” click on the gadget below.