“What Have They Done to My Song, Ma”: Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize and the Meaning of Literature

Bob Dylan’s not the only one to use “Ma” in a song title. Of course not; not much of what he has done is singular, though that’s another matter. His “It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” hearkens to the tradition he also used in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” that of “Lord Randall,” a song of the Scottish Lowlands. Quite familiar with the older song when I first heard Dylan’s, I was electrified. “Hard Rain” quickly became a favorite of mine, the melding of the old with the new one of the reasons.

For that reason, and not simply because the song has renewed significance in a world collapsing once more into insanity and destruction, I was pleased at the choice of “Hard Rain” for the Nobel ceremony. Dylan, it is once more confirmed to me, holds a special place in our world.

Melanie Safka wrote “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma” in the late sixties, when Dylan had already taken his own songs electric. She was as certainly influenced by him as he was by ballads like “Lord Randall” that had been passed down through the centuries. As a folksinger, she was also as aware as he of the tradition of addressing a song to a mother.

One of Dylan’s greatest talents has been his ability to take the old and, in the words of Ezra Pound (from two decades, at least, before Dylan was born), “make it new.” His  process and its results have inspiring thousands of subsequent songwriters and not just those who simply listen.

In addition to the title itself, leaving alone the genesis of the song, one of Safka’s verses seems particularly  relevant to Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature:

Wish I could find a good book,
I’d like to live in the thing now.
Wish I could find a good book, now,
If I could find a real good book, you know,
I’d never have to come out and look at
What they done to my song.

We tend to see books as art, songs as products to be bagged, as Safka also writes, in plastic. The covers of a book protect it; the wrapping of a record, not so much. At least, not so symbolically. Though album covers from a certain era are themselves collected as art, it’s not really for the music within. Iconic book covers reflect the contents in a way music jackets do not. When collected, they are treasured as much for the work within as for the design.

Of course, the original jackets for old 78s often housed more than one disc and were designed to look like books. One could even flip through the records like pages. The intent was to give the recordings the status books had in the home, a status we refined in the 18th and 19th centuries into “literature.”

One of the truisms of the study of literature is that Shakespeare was a craftsman, a creator of plays with no pretension to the immortality of “art.” Dylan, in the acceptance speech for the Prize read for him in Sweden, makes reference to this, saying, “I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’” By the 20th century, writers were taking that question so seriously that, for many, it dominated their creations and, indeed, their lives. Dylan long ago made his attitude toward this quite clear, writing in “Desolation Row”:

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row.

Dylan has always been skeptical of those who cherish the division of avant-garde and kitsch, but he never turned his back on them (his knowledge of Eliot’s most famous poem is, of course, in evidence in this verse).

Given his embrasure of artistic traditions that many claim fall outside of the bounds of literature, it is easy to imagine that it must have been difficult for Dylan to process the news of his own Nobel Prize. Should he be ‘appropriately’ grateful to people whose views of art, quite frankly, he had been countering his entire career? Or should he snub people who, just as obviously, he respected? I was not surprised that it took him so long to respond and feel that he has taken an appropriate middle road, a road reflected in his remarks, which include this noteworthy passage:

As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried.

That reminds me of lines of his from “Absolutely Sweet Marie: “But to live outside of the law you must be honest/I know you always say that you agree.” Dylan has spent his life outside of the law of literature and, I think, has been trying to be as honest as possible in his reaction to receiving that most ‘inside’ of prizes.

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