I am a lone wolf type of person, preferring to ascertain truth (always lower case) by means of intuition rather than sensation. I make decisions based on logic rather than emotion and my conclusions are subject to change based on new evidence. That makes me an INTP by Meyers-Briggs reckoning and defines me, to some extent, as an “intellectual.” Unsurprisingly, early on I bumped heads with America’s anti-intellectual bias. It took me a long confused time to understand it, but years of studying American history, religion and politics has taught me how and why this societal meme became so firmly entrenched in a society that purported to value education. This debilitating prejudice seems to me to be the basis of much of Trump’s support – he’s brought it out of the closet and into the playground.
However, almost any prejudice has a flip side, a mirror image of itself. The “awe-shucks” guy and gal have a counterpart in the intellectual snob who wants to dis anything smacking of popularity or successful commercialism. Which brings us to Bob Dylan and the controversy surrounding his Nobel prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dylan was wildly successful at synthesizing various genres of American music such as jazz, swing, blues, and pop into a unique sound. The commercial success of his innovations encouraged other musicians to dare their own kinds of fusion. He insisted from the very beginning on being his own person and has never stopped insisting. To quote Bill Wyman’s NY Times Op Ed piece in September,2013 “Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
Sometime in the late 1960’s women took “the personal is political” as a rallying cry. It resonated all the way through me the first time I heard it. I knew exactly what it meant. Bob Dylan’s lyrics exemplify that phrase. Dylan’s blend of the political and personal is unforced and natural, because he makes these connections intuitively. Art has often been used as a conscious vehicle for the expression of political ideas, but Dylan’s perspective of the world derives naturally from an understanding of how things, people, place relate to one another. His art arises out of questions he asks about the meaning behind what people do and feel.
Certainly there are places in his lyrics where the words and ideas don’t logically align in a straightforward direction, but this is poetic license, painting a mood and scenario true to whatever he attends to in the moment. His lyrics retain the tang of truth because he tempers them with a reserve of skepticism, questioning even his own opinions and motivations. He manages to observe humanity without distancing himself from us and thus he remains relevant.
To those who argue that lyrics are neither literature nor poetry, I agree with Salman Rushdie’s opinion, “From Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.” Dylan’s ability to present poetry to the world depended on his use of music, certainly he wasn’t a beautiful singer nor even, when he began, a great musician. The combination of powerful poetry with wordless raw emotion embodied in those poor-man’s instruments, the voice and harmonica, let Dylan cut across class, religion, gender and race to appeal to the political and personal heart of audiences around the world.