Bob Dylan & the Nobel Prize — Song for a Sunday

The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.

Finally, this week, Dylan forked over his speech—not in person but in an audio recording. The Academy described the speech as “extraordinary” and “eloquent.”

Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.

Bob DylanNot that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.

Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:

“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”

And that’s it.

That’s it?

That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.

Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel

I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:

“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”

Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.

Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)

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Instant Happiness – Pentatonix Christmas

This has been a “bah, humbug!” season for many of us, but the Pentatonix Christmas album—subtly titled Pentatonix Christmas—managed to make me smile so much I actually put up my Christmas tree. (Here’s a link to the album on Spotify.)

The opening track, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” is just pure happiness in a bottle. Forget the lyrics—I’m not trying to shove Christmas down your throat; Mike Pence will do that soon enough. I suspect this may become my go-to track on those mornings when it’s hard to get out of bed. It’s impossible to hear that beat and not move.

The group has released a video of the song, but YouTube won’t let me embed it here. The best I can do is a link. Do yourself a favor: watch the video or listen to the recording.

From Pentatonix Christmas to Dylan Thomas’s

I found another source of joy Tuesday night. This is my first real Christmas in New England and when I walked into the 120-year-old cottage that passes for my neighborhood’s branch of the town library, I thought I’d stumbled on an old Cabot Cove set from Murder, She Wrote. A group of local actors read A Child’s Christmas in Wales and in between sections of the story a small choir led us in Christmas carols. It didn’t hurt that one of the actors reading Dylan Thomas’s densely evocative language is himself Welsh.

not Pentatonix Christmas
The library’s main room features a tiny, perfect stage

Again, I don’t think it matters what (if any) religion you practice. The Thomas piece isn’t about theology, it’s about a sense of place and memory. And the language, oh my goodness, the language draws you in from the first paragraph:

“One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”

You can find the full text online here (thank you, Public Domain).

From Pentatonix, Dylan Thomas, and me—enjoy your day.

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