It’s been a while since I cried before going to sleep.
This is Patti Smith singing Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall’ at the Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm Saturday night. The New Yorker described Smith’s performance as transcendent. I found it powerful, direct and tender, framed by humility and grace, with Smith’s vulnerabilities, as she stumbled and paused during the song’s darkest and most desperate passages, mirroring many of our own.
Her performance and reaction, and that of most of the 1500 people on hand at Stockholm’s Concert Hall to her performance, seemed to answer the question raised in some circles after Dylan was announced as the recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, which was: does Dylan’s work qualify as literature?
That wasn’t a question I even entertained. One of his works were included in the textbook for my college freshman Intro to English literature course. That was in 1983; we didn’t seem to think the topic –Is this literature?– even warranted debate back then. The answer was obvious, even to 18 and 19-year-olds struggling with the early Reagan years who were pleasantly surprised to see the lyrics of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind‘ included in a collection of required reading. Reading them on a printed page added an entirely new layer of context to the song, a thrilling one, “legitimizing” folk rock protest songs in an academic sense. I haven’t listened to the song the same way since.
In his speech on Saturday, Nobel Committee member Horace Engdahl called Dylan “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.”
“If people in the literary world groan,” Engdahl said, “one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing.”
If you don’t know the song, kick back and get acquainted. You’ll be surprised by how much seems familiar. It’s as much 2016 as it was 1962.
As expected Dylan didn’t attend, but he did deliver a statement read at the ceremony by US Ambassador Azita Raji. A few portions:
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.
But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.
But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
If the video link above disappears, watch and listen here on the Nobel channel.