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  #46  
Old 12-21-2020, 07:03 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Originally Posted by mc1 View Post
Yet I often see these comparisons of Dylan to the great writers of history, and I think that's what doesn't sit quite right with me.
I agree. Such comparisons are silly, because the older the writer is, the more of a head start they have!

E.g., using that criterion, we can't compare Dylan to Shakespeare until another 400 years have passed. And even then, the only sensible comparison would be between Dylan's reputation around 2400 and Shakespeare's reputation now! Hard to imagine any more pointless exercise.

An easier and more sensible exercise - if we're going to use a criterion of popularity or influence during the artist's lifetime (i.e., disregarding any literary quality of the work) - is to compare Dylan's reputation now with what we know of Shakespeare's reputation in his own lifetime.
Given that Dylan is (of course) not a playwright, I think you can roughly equate them there. Shakespeare was certainly popular and successful - even pre-eminent - in his lifetime, at least within the society that would have heard of him. (Dylan has an unfair advantage thanks to technology and mass media.)

Once you start looking at literary quality, that's a lot more difficult, due to the evolution of the English language if nothing else.

Personally I don't agree with the opinion that Dylan is a great poet. Certainly not in comparison with plenty of actual poets - i.e., ones who are not also songwriters, and may well be extremely obscure in terms of fame. I mean, if you want to read great poetry - even just poetry of the 20th century - you don't go to Dylan. You go to a poetry book. (There is worse poetry around in books than Dylan's best lyrics, of course, but also a whole lot better.)
Is he a "great poet" in comparison with other popular songwriters? Undoubtedly yes - but that's not setting the bar very high!
Is he the greatest poet among other popular songwriters? IMO, no. IMHO, Joni Mitchell is at least his equivalent, and Leonard Cohen is better.
But Cohen, arguably, has the unfair advantage of being a published poet (and author) before he became a songwriter. I.e. poetry was his business, in a way it was never Dylan's. Cohen was a professional wordsmith (and it shows in his songs), whereas Dylan was always involved in music and singing skills as well. (Here is where we get the popular opinion that "Dylan can't sing". Maybe now he can't. But in the 1960s and 70s, at least, his vocal delivery was part of his genius. That's an opinion, of course, not a fact. )
Dylan's skill with words is - IMO again - more in the realm of narrative than pure poetry. That's what really seems to interest him, and where I think he's done his best work: setting up characters and scenarios that draw you in, take you somewhere - more like a novelist, in that sense (or even a film maker), than a poet. He certainly has poetic skills, but they're more like flashes of genius, in certain songs, rather than his main concern. There are too many examples of really crass lyrics in his songs (doggerel at best) for poetic craft to be something that concerned him very much.

My favourite example of crap Dylan lyric?

"Now the beach is deserted except for some kelp
And a piece of an old ship that lies on the shore.
You always responded when I needed your help
You gave me a map and a key to your door."

It's just embarrassing! The important line for the song ("Sara", about his wife) is the second one, so he needed a rhyme for "help". Instead of trying to rephrase the line so it ended with an easier rhyme (easily done), he just invented a couple of totally irrelevant lines about a beach so he could get "kelp" in. He should have been ashamed of himself - but I get the sense that shame is not a common sensation for Dylan... ;
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Last edited by JonPR; 12-21-2020 at 07:09 AM.
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  #47  
Old 12-21-2020, 10:30 AM
Taylorneil Taylorneil is offline
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What would all those great voices sing if there hadn't been any great songwriters?
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  #48  
Old 12-21-2020, 10:56 AM
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hubcapsc hubcapsc is offline
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I'm trying to remember what Holden Caulfield said on his way out of Percy Prep.

I wonder if it was the same thing Dave Barry said after his Movi Prep?

‘‘What if I spurt on Andy?’‘

-Mike "nobody else could make that subject funny..."
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  #49  
Old 12-21-2020, 12:10 PM
catdaddy catdaddy is offline
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Shakespeare's melodies were weak and his chord progressions mundane. A Mel Torme he wasn't.
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  #50  
Old 12-21-2020, 12:49 PM
The Watchman The Watchman is offline
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Originally Posted by Hoyt View Post
Blowin in the Wind is one of the greatest sentiments in the world. I guess you had to live then to understand it’s impact.
That's right. Context is important.

Someone explained to me once that Dylan (and some of his imitators) purposely made up a lot of nonsensical lyrics as a mockery or just a break, from the moon-June-spoon romanticism of previous generation pop music. So it has a multi-level purpose. I dont know if thats true or not, but this is a tempest in a teapot. Its not a competition, just a matter of what appeals to you.
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  #51  
Old 12-21-2020, 04:57 PM
FrankHudson FrankHudson is offline
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Oh is this thread in my wheelhouse! I've spent the past four years or so putting up over 500 examples of words (mostly poetry) combined with original music as the Parlando Project and writing about the experience at my blog. As the name might indicate, I don't always turn words into songs, as my singing voice is a weakness.

I'll try to add things that haven't already been said in the thread.

The thread has revisited the puzzlement/disagreement with Dylan's Nobel prize. Dylan was actually the second (or with footnotes, third) songwriter to get the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first? Rabindranath Tagore, an incredibly multi-talented Bengali man who wrote more songs than Bob Dylan along with a ton of other things he did. When he got his Nobel, the only work available in European languages was his own translation into English of some of his song lyrics.

How did he get noticed in the English speaking world? Well, one reason is his book in English had a preface with high praise from William Butler Yeats, who made the point that as a songwriter Tagore's work would be on more lips than most poets. So a Nobel essentially for a book of song lyrics in 1913.

Why was Yeats so interested in a songwriter? Because, with footnotes, he wanted to be one too. Yeats (who also tried to become a dramatist, so he was very interested in expanding his literature beyond the page) at one point commissioned a luthier to build a harp/lyre like instrument and and had a professional performer tour playing his musical pieces. Yeats (like me) was apparently a bad singer, thus one reason for having someone else do the performing. He also didn't think his poems should be sung as such, but there was some kind of musical chanting involved. How'd it work? No recordings exist, but George Bernard Shaw (working as a music critic at the time) panned a performance he saw. The tune used by most musical performers today of Yeats "The Wandering Aengus" AKA "The Golden Apples of the Sun" may either be the one Yeats wrote for that attempt, or the one he personally approved for use back when he was trying this. So Yeats may be songwriter/Nobel winner #2.

Lastly, from my experience, how possible is it to make poetry intended only for the page into a musical performance? Well, opinions differ, and tactics I use vary, but in general it can be done, by my project with my limited musical capabilities, and by others in other ways. If you want refrains and lyrics as hooks, there's no reason with material in the pubic domain to not find some material in the page poem that can be repeated to provide that. Interestingly, Dylan, while an eclectic songwriter, often eschews choruses and refrains. (and they're called choruses because a chorus used to sing them in Greek drama).

Now the other side. Are song lyrics really poetry? Well, since poetry started as words accompanied by music that could be viewed as a backwards question, but work in performance is different than work on the page, they use different things to work in different contexts. If I was to take my Seagull Folk acoustic guitar to a venue's stage expecting an all-night rave it wouldn't work. 50s TV comic Steve Allen used to do a bit where he'd recite "Be Bop A Lua" as if it was oh so serious poetry for laughs, but the same guy figured it was cool to play piano behind Jack Kerouac. Novels, even plays, need to be changed to make them movies. Play scripts (even Shakespeare) often seem a little flat on the page read as if they were novellas.

Here's one of my blog posts with me performing what two Nobel Prize winners had to say about the worth of songs and the worth of literature. Note that both of them agree that it isn't the form of literature, some ranking of degree of difficulty, or a particular literary tactic that justifies their art, but what it can do for the audience, us, the listener.

The Poet's Voice

.
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  #52  
Old 12-22-2020, 05:12 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Originally Posted by catdaddy View Post
Shakespeare's melodies were weak and his chord progressions mundane. A Mel Torme he wasn't.

Yeah, it's a good job he stuck to writing plays. You'd see him down the local tavern trying to sing along with the minstrels. They'd always tell him to shut up. "Listen Will, our music is the food of love. Yours ain't!"
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  #53  
Old 12-22-2020, 05:24 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Originally Posted by The Watchman View Post
Someone explained to me once that Dylan (and some of his imitators) purposely made up a lot of nonsensical lyrics as a mockery or just a break, from the moon-June-spoon romanticism of previous generation pop music.
Dylan was certainly capable of cynicism, of sending up critics and fans alike. I'm not aware he wrote songs with that purpose, but I wouldn't put it past him.

What is certain, however, is that John Lennon felt that way, and wrote I Am The Walrus as a deliberate parody of nonsensical lyrics, believing (quite rightly) that most listeners didn't care whether Dylan's surrealist lyrics made any sense or not. The psychedelic era was all about pushing boundaries, exploring the arcane and mysterious, and if lyrics made no literal sense that was all good - they became like dream images in that sense. It was good brain exercise trying to work out if they actually might mean something... It's all "wow man, far out!" If you found you could actually understand a lyric, that might make it disappointing!

There are definitely some phrases in Dylan songs which resist any sensible interpretation, and could well be a put-on. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" has several. Ostensibly about Joan Baez (a kind of oblique love song), it has - among some beautifully evocative phrases - some nonsense ones like "curfew plugs" and "warehouse eyes". it was as if he was writing at the boundary of meaning, and just occasionally stepped across the border...(hey who cares... let the critics chew on those...)
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  #54  
Old 12-22-2020, 06:41 AM
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Probably too much thread drift, but many songwriters don't get as much credit as they deserve. Google lyrics and you'll often find no mention of the composer.

1 - First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
2 - My Way by Frank Sinatra
3 - Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin
4 - Cover Of The Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook
5 - The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers
6 - A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash
7 - Queen Of The Silver Dollar by Emmylou Harris
8 - Marie Laveau by Bobby Bare
9 - Put Another Log On The Fire by Tompall Glaser
10- One's On The Way by Loretta Lynn

Granted, these people did cover the songs, and some made them famous, but the composers were:

1 - Ewan McColl
2 - Paul Anka
3 - Kris Kristofferson
4 - Shel Silverstein
5 - Shel Silverstein
6 - Shel Silverstein
7 - Shel Silverstein
8 - Shel Silverstein
9 - Shel Silverstein
10- Shel Silverstein

I almost forgot
11- Snake by Oscar Brown Jr.
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Last edited by Kerbie; 12-22-2020 at 07:24 AM. Reason: Edited.
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  #55  
Old 12-22-2020, 07:06 AM
PHJim PHJim is offline
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https://thehardtimes.net/music/tom-w...iC5max6rbULkfs
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  #56  
Old 12-22-2020, 08:00 AM
unabowler unabowler is offline
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Default a different direction

Oddly enough I realized the importance of songwriters when Eddie Van Halen died. I don't mind Van Halen, but it's not my favorite type of music. When he died I listened to some of their material and noticed how good their first album was. After that, they always had good songs but seldom great albums. Eddie's guitar playing was always great and he was truly one of the best ever in his genre, but awesome guitar playing didn't save mediocre material (AT ALL).
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  #57  
Old 12-22-2020, 09:44 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PHJim View Post
Probably too much thread drift, but many songwriters don't get as much credit as they deserve. Google lyrics and you'll often find no mention of the composer.

1 - First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
2 - My Way by Frank Sinatra
3 - Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin
4 - Cover Of The Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook
5 - The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers
6 - A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash
7 - Queen Of The Silver Dollar by Emmylou Harris
8 - Marie Laveau by Bobby Bare
9 - Put Another Log On The Fire by Tompall Glaser
10- One's On The Way by Loretta Lynn

Granted, these people did cover the songs, and some made them famous, but the composers were:

1 - Ewan McColl
2 - Paul Anka
3 - Kris Kristofferson
4 - Shel Silverstein
5 - Shel Silverstein
6 - Shel Silverstein
7 - Shel Silverstein
8 - Shel Silverstein
9 - Shel Silverstein
10- Shel Silverstein

I almost forgot
11- Snake by Oscar Brown Jr.
I'm guessing you're a Shel Silverstein fan...
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  #58  
Old 12-22-2020, 09:46 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Originally Posted by PHJim View Post

(I almost thought it was serious for a moment...)

You may enjoy this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGgp2R6JoUA
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  #59  
Old 12-22-2020, 10:09 AM
FrankHudson FrankHudson is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PHJim View Post
Probably too much thread drift, but many songwriters don't get as much credit as they deserve. Google lyrics and you'll often find no mention of the composer.

1 - First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack
2 - My Way by Frank Sinatra
3 - Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin
4 - Cover Of The Rolling Stone by Dr. Hook
5 - The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers
6 - A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash
7 - Queen Of The Silver Dollar by Emmylou Harris
8 - Marie Laveau by Bobby Bare
9 - Put Another Log On The Fire by Tompall Glaser
10- One's On The Way by Loretta Lynn

Granted, these people did cover the songs, and some made them famous, but the composers were:

1 - Ewan McColl
2 - Paul Anka
3 - Kris Kristofferson
4 - Shel Silverstein
5 - Shel Silverstein
6 - Shel Silverstein
7 - Shel Silverstein
8 - Shel Silverstein
9 - Shel Silverstein
10- Shel Silverstein

I almost forgot
11- Snake by Oscar Brown Jr.
A pet-peeve of mine too. There's something to the old saying "that singer made the song their own," so I get why this happens, but as a writer it bugs me. And I'm such a bug about this, that for me the problem extends to those that don't know who the lyricists were for a song and think the music composer who might also be the singer or bandleader wrote the lyrics (common examples: Carole King, Elton John, Brian Wilson).
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'00 Guild JF30-12, '01 Martin 00-15, '07 Parkwood PW510
Epiphone Biscuit resonator, Merlin Dulcimer, and various electric guitars, basses....
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  #60  
Old 12-22-2020, 10:58 AM
FrankHudson FrankHudson is offline
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Originally Posted by JonPR View Post
Dylan was certainly capable of cynicism, of sending up critics and fans alike. I'm not aware he wrote songs with that purpose, but I wouldn't put it past him.

What is certain, however, is that John Lennon felt that way, and wrote I Am The Walrus as a deliberate parody of nonsensical lyrics, believing (quite rightly) that most listeners didn't care whether Dylan's surrealist lyrics made any sense or not. The psychedelic era was all about pushing boundaries, exploring the arcane and mysterious, and if lyrics made no literal sense that was all good - they became like dream images in that sense. It was good brain exercise trying to work out if they actually might mean something... It's all "wow man, far out!" If you found you could actually understand a lyric, that might make it disappointing!

There are definitely some phrases in Dylan songs which resist any sensible interpretation, and could well be a put-on. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" has several. Ostensibly about Joan Baez (a kind of oblique love song), it has - among some beautifully evocative phrases - some nonsense ones like "curfew plugs" and "warehouse eyes". it was as if he was writing at the boundary of meaning, and just occasionally stepped across the border...(hey who cares... let the critics chew on those...)
Yes, this move to random connections and purposefully mixed diction is an old Modernist literary tactic that was at least 50 years old when Dylan started putting it to use in popular song lyrics. It originated during WWI when what passed for conventional wisdom was easily questioned by a group of artists who called themselves by a nonsense word: Dada. Some Dada lyrics and poems were just not-actual-words sounds, essentially pointing out the arbitrariness of language itself (rock'n'roll derivation, Gerry Goffin's lyrics to Barry Mann's "Who Put the Bomp...") Others used made up words or words used in nonsense ways. (Rock'n'roll derivation: I Zimbra by the Talking Heads, lyrics adapted from Dadaist Hugo Ball).

As you point out though, this kind of purposeful destruction or ignoring of normal use of language easily crosses over into meaning for a listener as the linguistic mind finds patterns just as the eye does looking at clouds or starfields.

I've translated some Dada poets myself, and it's a real challenge trying to figure out what to, well figure out as a distinct image, and what was intended to be a impenetrable random set of words.

Here's one of the most popular pieces done for my Parlando Project, translated from Dadaist Tristan Tzara "The Death of Apollinaire," a elegy written about the writer who died of the 1918 flu pandemic while still recovering from his war wounds just before the WWI armistice.

play my English translation and performance of The Death of Apollinaire

I think Tzara was sincere in writing this, or at least that was my best sense after translating it from French, other translators differ.

But when I was presented with the challenge of translating one Dadaist Hugo Ball it was a lot tougher to decide what to make into a perceptible English image and what to leave as random combinations. I wrote about that process in some detail on my blog, but the choice I ended up making was to make it into a blues (a move Dylan often choose too). After all, it's just not Dadaists who make us wonder what they're talking about, when blues like "Smokestack Lightning" are not exactly straightforward narratives even if they have undeniable power.

blog post about translating Hugo Ball's The Ghost into Ghost Blues

Here's a book that helped me consider how framing and expectations can change how one reads a song lyric compared to Modernist poetry. It takes a bunch of transcribed Blues lyrics and prints them as if they are Modernist verse, as if the pre-war Blues folks where Modernists like e e cummings or those Dadaists.

The Blues Line book listing on Goodreads

It took me a few years to decide. Yes, they were Modernists. Bob Dylan was smarter, he figured this by 1965 or so.
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Parlando - Where Music and Words Meet
-----------------------------------
20th Century Seagull S6-12, S6 Folk, Seagull M6
'00 Guild JF30-12, '01 Martin 00-15, '07 Parkwood PW510
Epiphone Biscuit resonator, Merlin Dulcimer, and various electric guitars, basses....

Last edited by FrankHudson; 12-22-2020 at 11:04 AM.
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