Geoff Johnson: Bob Dylan’s words are as relevant as ever


It was 1964, and as an undergraduate studying literature at Sydney (New South Wales) University, I was deeply immersed in the poetry of John Donne, Keats, Coleridge, e.e. cummings and Australian poet Judith Wright.

I was certainly not interested in the awkward, self-conscious rhyming couplets of the folk songs of the day.

To make matters worse, as a musician myself, I was a confirmed snob about anything except jazz, and restricted my listening to Grant Green, Barney Kessel, Dave Brubeck, even George Shearing.

So when a close friend suggested we go to hear an American folkie, I all but rejected the idea with a dismissive snort.

She was insistent: “He is supposed to be really good and I want to go.”

What’s a young man to do? So we went.

It was Pete Seeger, and in the space of two hours he changed my thinking about a lot of things — music, poetry, social justice and what music was really all about.

Standing alone on the stage of the university theatre, Seeger with his incredible voice was unaccompanied except for his own five-string banjo and a 12-string guitar.

There was something about Seeger’s pure authenticity that was riveting, and I remembered where I had heard that clear, strong voice before — as a member of my dad’s favourite vocal group, the Weavers.

About halfway through the concert Seeger said: “There’s a young songwriter who is making his mark and some of us have begun using his material. I’ll sing one of his now. His name is Bob Dylan.”

Then Seeger, accompanied only by his growling 12-string, sang A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

“I saw 10,000 talkers whose tongues were all broken

I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard

It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

My first thought, and I remember it clearly, was: “Good grief, how have I missed out on this?”

That moment changed my thinking about two things: First, that I had missed out on the true purpose of music, which was to reach down through my mind to a deeper place common to all cultures — a place that only music can reach.

The second epiphany was about literature and the fact that as Seeger sang Dylan’s words, I knew intuitively that I was listening to something important, something I should not turn away from.

Jose Luis Borges spoke of literature as “a dialogue … it is not an isolated being, it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships,” and with Seeger singing Hard Rain as if he and the rest of us were living it, I knew what Borges meant.

The following day, I summoned up my courage and raised the issue of Dylan’s poetry with my seminar leader, the fearsome (and we were all justifiably intimidated by her enormous intellect) Germaine Greer, who later wrote the feminist bestseller The Female Eunuch.

I thought Greer might dismiss Dylan as a trite folk poet, but to my surprise she paused and said: “I believe he’s writing the best stuff coming out of the U.S. right now.”

Forty-six years later, in a 2010 interview in The Atlantic, Sean Wilentz, author of Bob Dylan in America, said: “There’s no one person who defines a culture … but Dylan has had an incredibly important role … in changing the tone of the culture in all kinds of ways.”

The news that Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is already doing what great literature has always done — shake us out of our ennui and comfort zone about important issues and about what we take for granted.

Simply put, literature, all literature and especially much of Dylan’s poetry set to music, represents the evolving culture and tradition of a language or a people.

No other present-day songwriter has produced such a vast and profound body of work. Dylan’s songs demand that we not only listen but that we feel.

They are, as Rolling Stone put it: “at once awesomely ancient and fiercely modern.”

Hard Rain, like much of Dylan’s poetry, is Dylan describing his task as an artist: to sing out against darkness wherever he sees it — to “tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it.”

Written in 1963, the poem was a timely warning against lethargic blindness to the ever-present potential for political and social catastrophe — timely then and just as relevant, perhaps even more so, today.

© Copyright Times Colonist

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