Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Poetry, Shmoetry —The Dude Had This Blogger With "The Times They Are A-Changin'"

For the performance of his work at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremonies, Bob Dylan asked Patti Smith to perform “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and it was a brilliant choice for this day and age. Today's daily double provides Dylan's acceptance speech in absentia along with Patti Smith's incredible rendering of the song Dylan chose for the Nobel performance. Both selections will lift you up in the dark days of the late fall in 2016. If this is (fair & balanced) music appreciation, so be it.

Vannevar Bush HyperlinkBracketed numericsDirectory]
[1] Nobel Banquet Speech, in absenta (Bob Dylan / Given by US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji)
[2] Patti Smith Accepts Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize (Amanda Petrusich)

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Nobel Banquet Speech
By Bob Dylan, in absentia / US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji

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Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I'm sorry I can't be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I've been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don't know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It's probably buried so deep that they don't even know it's there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I'd have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn't anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

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?"

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

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.

My best wishes to you all,

Bob Dylan ###

[Bob Dylan; born Robert Allen Zimmerman is a songwriter, singer, artist, and writer. He has been influential in popular music and culture for more than five decades. Much of his most celebrated work dates from the 1960s, when his songs chronicled social unrest. Early songs such as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" became anthems for the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Leaving behind his initial base in the American folk music revival, his six-minute single "Like a Rolling Stone", recorded in 1965, enlarged the range of popular music. In addition to his music, Dylan has published seven books of drawings and paintings, and his work has been exhibited in major art galleries. As a musician, Dylan has sold more than 100 million records, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. He has also received numerous awards including eleven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and an Academy Award. Dylan has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." In May 2012, Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 2016, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Dylan attended the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for his freshamn year.]

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A Transcendent Patti Smith Accepts Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize
By Amanda Petrusich

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"A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"
Performed by Patti Smith with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

At Saturday morning’s Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, after the Swedish royal anthem was played, Carl-Henrik Heldin, the chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation, delivered a brief speech to the collected laureates and guests. King Carl XVI Gustaf, his wife, Queen Silvia, and their daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, had assembled behind him, bedecked in gloriously elaborate, heavily festooned ensembles. The air was rarified. Onstage, things were glinting. “In times like these, the Nobel Prize is important,” Heldin said. What he meant by the phrase “times like these”—that our days were dark—seemed immediately evident to everyone in the room. “Alfred Nobel wanted to reward those who have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

This remains such a beautiful, generous mandate. Theoretically, the Nobel Foundation’s mission is expansive in scope, but it’s profoundly simple, too: Whose work has best improved the world we share? In the months leading up to the ceremony, there was copious chatter about the recipient of this year’s award for literature, the American musician Bob Dylan. Did Dylan deserve it? Are his songs in fact a kind of literature? Are any songs a kind of literature? Can a lyric be successfully untangled from a melody? Can a piece of music be distilled into its constituent parts? At the beginning of “Sympathy for the Devil,” when Mick Jagger belches that first, frantic “Yow!”—is that language? What about Blind Willie Johnson, mumbling his way through “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”—his woeful, gravid moaning, is that poetry? Are those words? Is what Dylan has done fundamentally comparable to what William Faulkner or Doris Lessing or V. S. Naipaul has done? Who knows?

The choice incited plenty of pearl clutching across the globe—people were miffed by the idea of a (supposedly) low art receiving validation by a group as historically highminded and discerning as the Nobel Prize Committee. And besides, couldn’t a more obscure, non-Western author have been granted this colossal boost? Of course, critics have been bickering about Dylan’s academic bona fides since at least 1965, when Time published an entire treatise on the question of whether Dylan was “the literary voice of our time and a poet of high degree” (the best quote in the article came from sweet old W. H. Auden, who merely offered this: “I am afraid I don’t know his work at all.”)

Following the announcement, Dylan refused to publicly acknowledge receipt of the prize—a continuation, perhaps, of his willfully and delightfully obtuse approach to fame and accolades. Maybe it was a meta-commentary on the absurdity of institutional affirmations of art. It felt consistent, at least, with Dylan’s own self-mythologizing. And it’s that narrative, after all—the one Dylan has written for himself—that’s perhaps literature in the truest sense. He is his most dynamic creation.

After the presentation of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, to Yoshinori Ohsumi, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra played Jean Sibelius’s “Serenade,” from “King Christian II Suite.” The measured Swedish commentator who was delivering a polite play-by-play of the proceedings introduced the punk-rock singer Patti Smith by saying, “Soon we will hear music of a different kind. Something that a lot of people probably have heard before.” Any haughtiness was surely inadvertent, but there it was: prepare yourselves for a shift toward the popular. Every yahoo on the street knows this one!

Smith was accompanied by the Philharmonic performing a spare and gentle arrangement of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” orchestrated by Hans Ek, a Swedish conductor. She looked so striking: elegant and calm in a navy blazer and a white collared shirt, her long, silver hair hanging in loose waves, hugging her cheekbones. I started crying almost immediately. She forgot the words to the second verse—or at least became too overwhelmed to voice them—and asked to begin the section again. I cried more. “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith admitted. The orchestra obliged. The entire performance felt like a fierce and instantaneous corrective to “times like these”—a reiteration of the deep, overwhelming, and practical utility of art to combat pain. In that moment, the mission of the Nobel transcended any of its individual recipients. How plainly glorious to celebrate this work.

The second verse, the one Smith paused on, describes a dystopian nightmare state, a landscape ravaged by a surreal despair:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Dylan wrote the song in the summer of 1962, for his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” He has said it was inspired, structurally, by seventeenth-century balladry: a question is posed, and answers stack up, though none are particularly comforting. It’s the questioning, though—and, moreover, the accounting it inspires—that seems essential. Who hasn’t, in a moment of true desperation or fear, surveyed our world and found only ugliness? Dylan’s intelligence is often antagonistic—his instinct is to seethe—but here, he seems to be encouraging his listeners to shore each other up, to acknowledge the darkness and to bear it.

That Dylan ultimately accepted the Nobel with a folk song (and this specific folk song, performed by a surrogate, a peer) seemed to communicate something significant about how and what he considers his own work (musical, chiefly), and the fluid, unsteady nature of balladry itself—both the ways in which old songs are fairly reclaimed by new performers, and how their meanings change with time. Before Smith took the stage, Horace Engdahl, a literary historian and critic, dismissed any controversy over Dylan’s win, saying the decision “seemed daring only beforehand, and already seems obvious.” He spoke of Dylan’s “sweet nothings and cruel jokes,” and his capacity for fusing “the languages of the streets and the Bible.” In the past, he reminded us, all poetry was song.

Has Dylan conferred great benefit to mankind? Listening to Smith sing his song—and watching as audience members, dressed in their finest, wiped their eyes, blindly reached for each other, seemed unable to exhale—the answer felt obvious. The answer was on their faces. ###

[Amanda Petrusich is a contributing writer for The New Yorker (Online) and the author (most recently) of Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (2014). Petrusich teaches courses in writing about pop music and pop culture criticism at the Gallatin School of New York University. She received a BA (English & film studies) from The College of William and Mary and an MFA (nonfiction writing) from Columbia University.]

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