Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Enigma Called Bob Dylan - Nungchim Christopher, Assistant Professor, Department of History.






Every Year the prestigious Nobel Prize is awarded by the Swedish and Norwegian institutions to those who have made invaluable contributions in the advancement of science, culture, and peace. The declaration of this prize is usually quite uneventful except for the awardees and their academic institutions. However, this year’s announcement was a deviation from the norm when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to an American singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan. The controversy centers on the question as to the pertinence of conferring this  year’s Nobel Prize in Literature to a ‘singer and songwriter.
                               
                                             The Enigma Called Bob Dylan

I usually relax with soft country music before retiring for the night. That night I began with Kenny Rogers’ The Vows Go Unbroken, and Coward of the County, when somehow something changed my mind and I replaced Rogers with Bob Dylan. His unusual bittersweet voice always enchants me. After listening to some weighty questions he threw in about peace and war in his 1962 hit, Blowin’ in the Wind, and his prayers to his muse for inspiration in Mr. Tambourine Man, I was now on The Times They Are a-Changin’ when my phone beeped with an alert. It was my news app Inshorts giving its latest update, “Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in Literature for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. My immediate reaction was a shock. What? Is this real? I soon realised that Dylan’s song is right, the times they are a-changin’!

Yes, since the 75-year-old Robert Allen Zimmerman, popularly known as Bob Dylan, was conferred the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016 on 13th October, interesting mixed reactions have been pouring in from literary circles as to whether the Swedish Academy has made the right choice in awarding the troubadour. It’s not surprising that the naysayers are the minority, with the majority cheering. That’s Bob, an enigma, always captivating hearts throughout the five decades of his career. 

Don’t we believe that a singer needs to have a soft, sweet-sounding conventional voice to appeal to mass audiences? That’s not Dylan who’s endowed with a flat, croaky voice, a detail his critics often accentuate. They say he can’t sing, he croaks, ‘sounds like frog’, his voice is ‘very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire’! It’s fascinating that this croaky and gravelly voice has long won acclaim. It’s not about perfect voice; it’s about believing in the honesty of what that voice is talking about. Subtly, he converted the shortcomings of his voice to his advantage by changing normal word accents and stressing certain syllables. This brought about a distinctive singing style and mind you, he frequently shifts the timber of his voice in the course of his career.

The very contradictions and conflicts within his art have also enhanced Dylan’s fame. It inflates his mystique and keeps fans glued. All is well with his gravelly-voiced singing style of traditional folk songs and covers of blues with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. He confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner. This made him a definitive songwriter of the 60s protest movement crowning him with an iconic stature. 

But enigmatic as he is, instead of basking and wallowing on, Dylan shifted his focus away to more abstract ideas, travelling around notions of deeper insight. His later songs centered more on personal and introspective ideas, and were subsequently far less politically charged. This changed focus outraged many of his radical admirers and friends. Not just was this shift in the themes of his songs but even in his music. His experimentation with electric amplified rock band was a shock to his folk fans who booed him, even calling him ‘Judas’ for ‘betraying’ folk music Dylan was known for. Wasn’t that experiment a symbolic turning point in music? Music, much like culture, must be dynamic.

Instead of being intimidated by fans’ discontent, he further shocked them by departing into exclusively religious songs, even suggesting that the social and political ills that his songs portray are but symptoms of a deep spiritual crisis. But within a short time, this ‘born-again’ Dylan stunned the Christian community by releasing his 1983 album Infidels, which many interpreted as a denouncement of the church. Actually, the album focused on some of the thorny geopolitical themes of a postmodern world. It brought an angry, inquiring Dylan back to his audiences who intensely desired to get their ‘real’ Dylan back.

Dylan mastered the art of ambiguity. Dylan does not provide answers but just goes about his business. When journalists tried to dissect the ’bigger meaning ‘of his lyrics, his evasive responses to them were often riddled with incongruous claims, half-truths, and sometimes even blatant lies. He always makes a conscious attempt to mystify himself and his art by ludicrous responses, thereby making his critics and media speculate. And how about his weird stage rituals where he would setup three microphones and only ever used the middle one? Why should he keep the lighting subdued throughout his two-hour concert, and mostly sing in the shadows? Why does he forbid photography at his concerts? Why did Dylan not say a word to the audiences and keep his back turned towards them in some concerts? Why did he refuse to roll out his hits when audience screamed for them? Why did he render his classics with a melody and phrasing so inverted from the originals that it almost sounded like a different number altogether? 

Thank god that weeks after keeping the whole world in suspense, he has finally acknowledged the Nobel Prize, saying that the news made him ‘speechless’. Yet, on him attending the December 10 Ceremony, in a typical cryptic-Dylan-style, he murmured, “If it’s at all possible”. That’s Bob Dylan, you don’t expect straight simple answers from him, and that’s what millions of his fans worship him for – being enigmatic!

Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. The views expressed here do not reflect the opinion of the institution. Tetso College is a NAAC Accredited UGC recognized Commerce and Arts College. The editors are Dr. Hewasa Lorin, Anjan Behera, Dr. Salikyu Sangtam, Nivibo Yiki, and Kvulo Lorin. For feedback or comments please email: dot@tetsocollege.org.

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