Monday, October 17, 2016

Dylan: A Voice That Matters

When I heard on the radio that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last week, I was both happy and stunned, because that was just not one of those thoughts that had ever crept into my mind before.

You see Dylan and I have a long history, one that has been interrupted over the years. Many years ago, when I was a teenager and my cousin Mike first played a Dylan record for me, it was an enlightenment that interrupted and blew away everything I thought I knew about popular music. My earliest love in music was classical music and for a while I took violin lessons, but I was disenchanted with the traditional type of training that went with it at the time. So the first instrument that I taught myself just by listening was the harmonica, especially the style that is known as blues harp.

I had started to be interested in learning to play the guitar because the sound was the primary driving instrument of the pop music that was the engine in our world then. So I bought an acoustic guitar, a chord chart, and a Bob Dylan songbook, and that is what I used to teach myself how to play. I also got other sheet music for pop songs, and played in bands and solo for a while. I kept the guitar in my life for a long time, jamming and playing for friends.

But the lightning bolt that came with learning Dylan songs kind of blew away all the other songs and spoke to something deep and mystical within me. After listening to the radio continuously playing sweet little boyfriend/girlfriend ditties, to suddenly be exposed to songs like "Chimes of Freedom," "The Times They Are a Changin,""My Back Pages," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Masters of War," "Maggies Farm," "It Ain't Me Babe," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "Like A Rolling Stone" just got into my bones and cut me to the quick the way no other songs had.

At the time, the struggle for civil rights was hotly contested and the Vietnam War was being loudy protested, and his songs were the only songs the spoke directly to those important issues that we were struggling with. His songs somehow helped me see the world in a whole different way. So I sat in my room, practicing over and over until I felt comfortable playing in front of other people. I used to stuff a rag under the strings by the bridge to mute the sound while I was practicing.

In time, "Blowin' in the Wind" became an anthem of the civil rights movement, sang on that same massive gathering where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

If you think that all of this is just a dated irrelevant memory, look at what is still going on in our world right now. Go to You Tube and look up and listen to "Chimes of Freedom" and see if those lyrics don't grab you bone deep. Or give another listen to "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Positively 4th Street."

It is true that he has never been known for his beautiful singing voice. What resonates a half century later are the incredible lyrics. Many other pop musicians launched careers or added noteworthy songs to their repertoire by creating more melodic versions of his songs.

Some songs are made for dancing. Dylan songs are made to stick in your mind and cause you to think all kinds of thoughts. His songs have been an important part of my life and the Nobel committee just reminded us that poetry and songs deserve the same kind of recognition as good books.

How does all this resonate now? Yes, when I was young I protested against the Vietnam War because I did not feel that we should ever get into a war unless it was an absolute matter of self defense, and yes, I feel that we should still avoid getting into wars whenever we can. Yes, I am one of those dreamers who wants to see a peaceful world with justice for all people. Dylan has always been a voice for those ideas and so I think that it is quite a powerful statement that he got that award, and I am happy that he got it. If you are not familiar with his music, give it a listen.

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