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Another Reflection of Dylan

October 26, 2016

Daughter W sent this letter about Dylan, to a mutual friend and myself, in the context of ongoing conversation about how to provide a just distribution of “goods.”

Dad and Dave –

I’m just a small town – corn fed – Indiana girl, raised by parents who loved music, and literature, and poetry.  I don’t know from distributed justice, Nobel Prize decisions, or actually good writing versus bad…..  (says the girl who reads everything from silly romance novels to Stephen King to Jane Austin…..)  But I know story-telling.  I grew up on it.  From Pa Hart and Grandpa scaring the bejesus out of us girls with their ghost stories, to listening to my dad, and a whole host of other poets, read their stories in my home, and around town.  I was sitting on the stage at the Greek Theater when Arlo Guthrie came out to perform, stood looking at the audience for a few moments, then tore up his song list and sang a 30 minute version of Alice’s Restaurant (a great story!)- it was the first time he had performed it in many years.  He sang it in protest of the draft being reinstated that day.  And I’ve been lucky enough to see Bob Dylan perform at a small venue in Ithaca NY. Singing his stories to us for a couple of hours…….

 This past Friday night I went to a concert in Berkeley at the Freight and Salvage.  It is a small music venue that has been in existence since 1968.  The artist was Paula Cole, a 6 time Grammy winning singer and song writer.  She was on a small stage with just her guitar player, a drummer, and a grand piano. Her voice was incredible…is incredible…. After her opening song she told the audience that her upcoming album was the first one where she was singing only covers.  She wanted to share her favorite songs, the ones that she thinks of as American standards.  Songs that have impacted the lives of many, had stories to tell, and were important …… I don’t remember all of her words… but what I remember is thinking – they are the songs that make you feel life……   she wanted to share with us “an epic story – a ballad – that captures raw emotion, classic blues…”. (And then a bunch of music technical stuff I’ll have to look up…) But I remember her next words…….. “The song was written and sung by one of the greatest story tellers, song writers, and musicians to come along.  ‘The Ballad of Hollis Brown’ by Bob Dylan.  I have taken the liberty to sing it my way, adding in a riff by the fabulous Nina Simone.”  And she sat down and played – and sang… and I sat there and listened, and felt every raw emotion from the story, her voice, the music – and the very recognizable riff that she layered brilliantly into the ballad.   It is a story – told through music – felt to my core – and I was wiping away tears by the end of it….. When the song was over, and Paula turned to the applause – she was wiping away tears as well……  This is what you get out of a good story…..  music alone might make you happy or sad…  but a story – by a great storyteller – can make you laugh, and cry, and bring every emotion you have to the surface…hopefully not all at once……but maybe.

 So, I think that  Bob Dylan is a great story teller deserving of the Nobel Prize for literature… His stories impact people in so many ways.  They make us feel, and think, and grow….. And when you take those stories and put them to music  they become even more powerful.  Powerful enough to make both a small town, corn-fed, Indiana girl, and a hugely accomplished well known singer/songwriter, feel the emotions in the story deeply enough to cause them both to wipe away tears…… 

 Music has little fingers that weave their way into your heart where they hold you and heal you…..  At least that is how it feels to me……

 Here is one of Bob Dylan’s versions of the Ballad

Here is Paula Cole Singing it – on a video someone was not supposed to take…  

And here is the incomparable Nina Simone – with the Riff


Likely I should include song in the list of archetypal forms. I’ve been approaching those forms from a literary point of view, and I don’t know much about music. But the African-American heritage, for example, gives us a wonderful range of oral rhythm and melody, from moans through hollers, play songs, work songs and sorrow songs, blues and jazz, gospel, rock n roll, rap. Langston Hughes is one of my favorites among poets who tap that wellspring. And of course musical oral forms cross fertilize with conversation, story, and image.

[My take on justice, in this regard, is that W’s experience is an example of our healthful, aesthetic experience of Being, as it presents itself to the “heart’s imagination” (Keats, Hillman), in the form of beauty, in a specific artistic occasion of being. I’ll call her experience “delight” (Blake). * Delight and production of delightful experiences are natural to our species; and they are so necessary to human health (I agree with anthropologists who speculate that they developed originally as tools for survival) that a just society distributes them as broadly as possible.

We can ask whether the Nobel Prize is helpful in that regard.

Art is not necessary for an experience of this essential kind, since being presents itself as beauty outside of the arts, but a healthy imagination is necessary. Art is the epitome of it, and artists specialize in producing it. Luckily, because we take so naturally to the production and sharing of beauty, and of art, we are all capable of being both artist and audience, producing, distributing, and receiving these goods for ourselves and each other; we should encourage each other to cultivate it and wallow in it.

And to remind ourselves of injustice and the protest power of art, another rendition by Nina Simone, with photos.  In the heart’s imagination, beauty embraces ugly with truth to inspire good.  “For beauty is an accusation.” (Pound)

* I’m going to suppose that “delight” is a state of the brain (with involvement of the whole organism), in which the brain is most fully being its natural self. It’s in its groove. The state is a homeostasis, but a very active one, including high, harmonious awareness of itself, humanity, and Being. Following Jung, I’ll suppose that much of its activity is unconscious; but it is also, very significantly, a highly conscious state of activity, a peak consciousness. Art specializes in producing that high consciousness. It’s very exciting. But also calming, as e.g. Aristotle pointed out. It’s a return to health.]

[“Another” refers to this page.]

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