The Great American Songbook

November 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s one surprise after another. Mind you, some surprises are so jaw-dropping incomprehensible that you truly realise the world has slipped into madness. You would have thought that the Swedish Academy was the least likely institution to auger the world tumbling towards Armageddon but no they went ahead and nominated Bob Dylan as the Nobel Laureate for literature. Bob Dylan!

Now, I can’t say I have a problem with popular music having the same literary status as say J.M Coetzee or Pablo Neruda, far from it. Indeed, soul-inspiring and accessibility always coalesce in the best literature but Bob Dylan! I’ve listened to Dylan for fifty years and in that time seen him twice, once at the Albert Hall when I was seventeen and once at Frinsbury Park about fifteen years ago. Live he was terrible, albeit in a different way each time. The Freewheeling Bob Dylan was the first album I ever bought, not for myself but for my girlfriend at the time. Okay, the hours of listening intently while staring into each other’s eyes while contriving meaning from the trite lyrics eventually paid off, but I’m still not sure that the effort was worth it. Sure, I’ve been listening to him since, usually accidentally and sometimes thought “that’s not bad” but pretty much by the time I was twenty-one I’d given up on trying to convince either myself or others that I was more cerebral than I actually was so stopped pretending that Dylan’s music was a gateway to another dimension.

To me, what excludes Dylan from the literary greats is not that he is a miserable misanthrope, which he is, but because that is all he is. I enjoy a good wallow in misery as much as most of us, yet warmth, humour and optimism are as much a part of the human spirit as despair. Why is it that however much I listened to Dylan, he never made me smile, even wryly or ironically? In contrast the renowned miserabalist Leonard Cohen (Canadian of course) had a warmth and humour that transcended melancholia. The already much missed Cohen understood that life was far too serious to take seriously and sometimes you just have to get off your soap box and laugh, even if it’s at your own expense.

The truly evocative lyricists make us smile at our own foolishness rather than being defeated by it. When Hank Williams writes:

Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
And a woman’s lies makes a life like mine”

you smile wryly in self-recognition and when you hear Goffin and King’s:

“Tonight you’re mine, completely
You give your soul so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow”

you are immediately touched by the familiar complexity of hope and fear. And then there is the great Smokey Robinson:

“People say I’m the life of the party
Because I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I’m blue”

Simple lyrics yet so immediate and telling. The great American song book is full of them. One of Dylan’s predecessors in Greenwich Village, the wise and humane Tom Paxton signals all our regrets when he sings:

“Are you going away with no word of farewell,
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind.
You know that was the last thing on my mind.”

And then there’s Kristofferson capturing loneliness:

“Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head, that didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.”

Every day a hundred half remembered lyrics from great American songwriters tumble through my mind, enhancing my experience with their warmth, intelligence and humour. Nothing ever comes to me from Dylan except, annoyingly, something about a joker called Johnny mixing up medicine in a basement. So how come the miserable old anti-social sod gets the Nobel Prize?

I caught sight of the news the other day and watched a few demonstrators gathering in American cities. I thought for a moment that they were protesting about Dylan getting the Nobel when everybody with any knowledge of either music or poetry knows it should have been the truly singular great American bard, John Prine. This is the man who in one sentence demonstrates the pain of both war and addiction

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Or who captures the perceptual traps life creates for us

“Broken hearts and dirty windows
Make life difficult to see
That’s why last night and this morning
Always look the same to me”

And unlike Dylan’s pretentious pseudo intellectualism, Prine writes with down-to-earth warmth and wit; who else can write:

“A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down…and won”

Or portrays children falling asleep after a family party in Kentucky by singing:

“The kitchen light fell asleep on the bedroom floor.”


Okay, I know taste is subjective but as hard as I try I just cannot believe that Dylan is a better songwriter than John Prine. As this is a literary discussion, I confess I’m engaging in a smidgen of hyperbole to emphasise a point but even so, with the best will in the world, I would be hard pushed to put Dylan in the top ten of great living American songwriters. It is all arguable and I can completely understand those who would press Dylan’s claim to be the greatest and would say in my defence that pretentious tosh is not to everybody’s taste.

Now if I can understand that, you’d think I’m a pretty understanding sort of bloke yet some things remain totally incomprehensible to me. Most pressing is the question that has been confronting me for the past few days. How is it that an amazing country like the United States which abounds with energy, culture, diversity and decency and which amongst all the other geniuses it nurtures, produces the most astonishing song writers still willingly and knowingly elect as its president a man such as Donald Trump? I wonder if the Swedish Academy had a say in it!


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