Well You Must Tell Me, Baby, How Your Head Feels Under Something Like That: Bob Dylan’s Brain on Tradition and Genre

When Bob Dylan received the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, reactions across the literary world varied—wildly. Eye rolls as well as applause sounded from all kinds of writers amidst continued controversy, from his slow acknowledgment and acceptance of the award, to more recent claims that he plagiarized parts of his acceptance speech from, of all places, Sparknotes. (Indeed, I myself wondered when I first read it, “Why is he spending so much time summarizing Moby Dick?”)

But it is this speech—the whole of which you can read, or listen to him deliver, here— I want to write about in this post, and not its allegedly plagiarized parts! The first section contains its best moments, and I would place a high bet that Dylan wrote it himself, precisely because of how candidly he describes his singer/songwriter development as steeped in an array of musical genres.

I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads and country blues, but everything else I had to learn from scratch. I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

Dylan’s originality is stamped with traditional stories and songs, and traditional ways of telling them. The same can be said of Homer, as well as Dylan’s observation that one has “to know what to play and when.” (In the Odyssey, Odysseus frames his story in such a way as to endear himself to a queen who will decide if her court will help him get home). I like to think of the Nobel committee’s affirmation of Dylan’s literary importance as an affirmation of the ancient bard, a singer who can manipulate vast stores of stories and songs into new work relevant to present audiences.

Dylan: “None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day.” A connection with the past that creates insights for the present marks the work of many artists: H.D., Derek Walcott, Anne Carson, Edmund Spenser, Langston Hughes, Sandra Cisnernos, Carol Ann Duffy, Rita Dove, Thom Gunn . . . . Because Dylan knew what kind of things happen in different kinds of songs, and what different types of music can do, and where they take place—from crowded street corners to lonely highways—he was all the more capable of innovation in those musical genres.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

When you’ve known and seen and done all this, you can revise basic plots, reconfigure characters, rewrite myths on larger or smaller scales. You can turn the Atlantic into a boggy creek.

Dylan hints that it was his early reading that prepared him to be a student of music:

But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature  . . . . I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

I underlined that last line because this is the heart of what creative writing students can take from Dylan’s speech—that knowing what’s been done will enable you to do something that’s never been done before. It’s every writer’s hope to achieve something original, and Dylan’s speech helps us see how originality is born out of tradition.

I am not arguing that we should value literary tradition for its own sake—really, its for our sake—or undervalue the importance of interrogating the Western canon. (And there’s plenty of writers within that canon who needed to completely blow off everything they read in order to produce their work. Even Philip Sidney’s speaker in the first poem of his Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence calls other poems “strangers in my way.”) But “traditional” can be something of an insult these days—“that’s so traditional” is not something we generally want to hear said about our work. But as writers we should appreciate the root meaning of it, “to hand down,” and get excited about what that sense of handing down can do for us.

Creative writing professors, myself included, are always encouraging our students to read—A good writer reads! Every writer is a reader first! Read before you write!—but maybe we should be more explicit about why we say these things. It’s not so the Well-Read Fairy can, with a tap of her magical vellum-bound wand and a sprinkle of glittery library dust, designate you Ready To Write. It’s because our brains, like Dylan’s, can explode with words and images all the more when they’re ricocheting (or reacting) against what we’ve read.

Sara Danius of the Nobel academy noted that when Dylan finally accepted his prize in Stockholm, “Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse.” The inscription is a line from Virgil’s Aeneid which translates, “and those who improved life (for all people) with their discovered arts.” The phrase “discovered arts,” inventas artes, is tricky to translate due to the beautiful ambiguity of the Latin verb invenio, which can mean, “to find, to come upon, to meet with,” or “to discover” or “to learn” or “to invent.” We usually think of finding something that’s already there and inventing something for the first time as two completely different acts, and so I love how this word can teach us that often what we create has, in some way, been there all along.

– Prof. Katie Hartsock

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