Beyond words: Dylan’s music contains meaningful messages

Last week I wrote about the presentation of the Nobel Prize for Literature to musician and poet Bob Dylan.

As I was zigging and zagging about the internet researching facts about the newly-named Nobel laureate, I came upon a song of his with which I was not familiar. It is a song I have not been able to get out of my head or out of my thoughts. It is becoming a problem for me. For this reason I beg your indulgence for one more week of musings about Mr. Dylan and especially this particular song.

The song is “What Good Am I?” from his 1989 release “Oh Mercy.” This disc is one of his albums I never owned. (In my defense, he has released 60 albums since 1962, and I try to be selective in my musical purchases.) The version I heard during my information search I found on YouTube. It was performed by Louise Hoffsten at a ceremony in Sweden in 2000, where Dylan was being awarded the Polar Music Prize. Sweden, of course, also awards the Nobel Prizes. They must really love Bob Dylan over there.

Hoffsten’s rendition is beautiful, delicate and profound, and the tune itself is one of those melodies you can’t get out of your head — at least I can’t. But it is the song’s lyrics that I have mostly been dwelling on since I heard it. The words go to a struggle, a dilemma, a confusion I have been having with myself for a long time.

See, as I have gotten older, I find that I want to stay home. I just don’t have the desire to go out in public. I love my friends and appreciate the people I deal with on a regular basis, and when I am with them I am happy to be there, but often, somewhere in the back of my mind, I am longing to get back to my home in the woods. I feel the need to be by myself and away from the world.

On the other hand, my core convictions tell me that other people should be my priority. My understanding of the spiritual beliefs I claim to hold convinces me that doing for people, interacting with my fellow humans, helping others when I can as often as I can is the right and proper way to live a full and vital life.

So then Dylan comes along and writes:

What good am I if I know and don’t do

If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you

If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky

What good am I?

and later lines like:

What good am I then to others and me

If I’ve had every chance and yet fail to see …

If I just turn my back while you silently die

What good am I?

Well, it is pretty clear to me on which side of my mental/spiritual battle Bob Dylan would stand. To tell the truth, I know which side is the right side. It is just that it is so easy to be lured in by the siren call of self.

Unless you are some kind of saint, it is a battle that must be constantly fought. And you know, I suspect even saints have their struggles.

I am so glad I learned a new song by Bob Dylan. A song that is not only pleasant to hear but contains meaningful lyrics that make me think beyond the words. But I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, that is the way great literature works.