The times they are a changin’: Dylan turned simple song into fine literature

Bob Dylan, right, gestures during a news conference May 22, 1966, in Paris. Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature last week. / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO
Bob Dylan, right, gestures during a news conference May 22, 1966, in Paris. Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature last week. / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

My favorite subject in high school was art. Our hourly sessions were the most open and unstructured classes in our rural 1960s school.

Mr. Huyser set the perimeters for the assignments and would give guidance when and where needed, but otherwise we students had freedom to decide just how our projects would develop. He allowed us to move around the room and chat while we were working. He also let us bring in records to play while we created. That class is where I really got to study Bob Dylan’s music.

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature last week. I’m glad the Nobel Committee finally did the right thing. It is the feeling one gets when something good happens to an old friend, something well-earned and deserved.

To me, Dylan is something like an old friend. I have been listening to his music and reading his words almost as long as he has been making them public. I feel I can understand what he is trying to say even if I sometimes don’t know what he means. I have learned about art and music and words from his work. I have learned a little something about life from him. That seems like a kind of friendship to me.

I hadn’t been playing guitar for very long during those art class years. At home in my room I tried to figure out how to play some of his songs. I learned many of his lyrics one line at a time by listening to the record a bit, then lifting the needle arm and writing down what I thought I heard. It’s time consuming, but it is a good way to memorize lyrics.

As Bob Dylan continued to make records, I continued to listen and learn.

Magazine articles would comment on how his lyrical imagery was becoming quite surreal. We had studied surrealism in art class — melting clocks and bowler-hatted men with green apples — and I knew it had to do with creating dreamlike pictures.

I didn’t always understand what Bob was saying, but he was definitely saying it in an interesting way. The poet Wallace Stevens said, “Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” He wasn’t speaking of Dylan’s poetry, but it seems to apply.

Some of my friends would comment on his singing. They didn’t like it. They thought his nasally voice was hard to take. I would try to defend him by saying his voice was distinctive and even appropriate for his songs.

“It must be an acquired taste,” they would reply. I will admit that other artists often take his songs and sing them in wonderful ways that are quite different from Bob’s vocal style.

One of the greatest recordings of a Dylan song (one of the greatest recordings ever, in my opinion) is Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” Listen to the two versions one after the other as a lesson in making someone’s song your own.

One of the reasons I have enjoyed and admired Bob’s work is he seems to be doing it for himself. Although he has on occasion written a song with an eye to commerce, it’s clear he makes his art for other reasons. He goes his own way and doesn’t worry about critics. He does it his way and, as his career shows, it’s not long before others are following (See Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp). Another lesson from Bob: In art it is best to listen to your muse and follow your instincts.

I am still playing Bob’s songs.

For a recent service our pastor asked if I knew and would play “Gotta Serve Somebody” from the album Dylan made after he became a Christian.

When I play in the Retro Brothers, we sometimes do “All Along the Watchtower.” We try to make it our own. After the announcement, I look forward to introducing it as a song written by Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.