Sunday, October 16, 2016

"She opened up a book of poems and handed it to me " Considering Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize.

I grew up in a household of vinyl music-- Mexican, Chicano, and Anglo music of the 1950s and 1960s.  My parents would play all three kinds of music interchangeably.  I learned to sing to Les Paul and Mary Ford one minute (here they are singing "Vaya Con Dios"), and Los Tres Ases the next.

Here are Los Tres Ases, singing a song I learned: "Sufro Tu Ausencia." I would laugh at the odd twangy sound of Les Paul and Mary Ford's Spanish while playing out the drama in the lyrics offered by Los Tres Ases:
"Yo quiero besarte, ser solo de ti
Quisiera sentirte, hablarte y amarte,
Y nunca en la vida dejarte partir"

Later, I would go back to "Vaya Con Dios" but the Freddy Fender version (check it out here), and then I'd move to Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."  And what better way to follow "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," than with José Alfredo Jimenez's, "Estoy en un Rincon de Una Cantina."  By that time, my mother would change the record and infuse the house with Las Hermanas Huerta singing "Mal Pagadora de Amores."

Las Hermanas Huerta
Later, Amalia Mendoza would follow with Paloma Negra:  "Ya me canso de llorar . . . "  And that's how it would go-- so much "sentimiento" and drama en la casa which included gritos and impromptu dancing.  I also can't forget Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Herb Albert and his Tijuana Brass playing "A Taste of Honey." How often did I stare at that Herb Alpert "whipped cream" cover that my parents would have on display for all to see:

Later, my sister and I would listen to the folk era of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, followed by the Beatles, etc.  I always thought of Bob Dylan as Joan Baez's "experiment."  She was the star in the 1960s, known later as "the girl on the half shell" (after Botticelli's painting, The Birth of Venus), falling in love with the "Dylan boy" and bringing him onto her stage, introducing him to the world-- until he took off without her.

An aside:  I'm thinking here of Dylan's song, "Tangled Up In Blue"-- specifically the following lyrics:

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
I thought you'd never say hello, she said
You look like the silent type
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
and everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you
Tangled up in blue . . . 

Another aside:  So glad that years later, The Indigo Girls came on the scene and queered up this song to make it much more interesting! (Click here to listen)

One more aside: Regarding contemporary groups that transform cover songs,  La Santa Cecilia's cover and video of The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever," brings a renewed focus to our contemporary farmworker struggles.  Their version (click here to see) is masterful.  

In Alfred Nobel's will, he described the Nobel Prize in Literature as an award honoring an author's lifetime of works that are deemed "outstanding in an ideal direction."  "Ideal" has more often been interpreted as "idealism"-- giving the award a political emphasis.  And so it should if we are considering a person's lifetime works. Politics is who we are, how we choose to live. The first half of Bob Dylan's music was just that:  ferocious in its political intent.  I think of how he influenced so many during this time.  I think of Cecilia, the Spanish singer who died so tragically at 27--who lived during the last part of Franco's dictatorship, and how her music was often censored in Spain, how her rendition of Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind still affects me deeply today, realizing what was at stake for her and for Spain: (listen to it here).

And yet-- last week, I questioned the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Bob Dylan-- not because I don't like his music (as some seemed to allude on Facebook, just because I questioned it)-- but for two reasons.

The first:  Anna North (NY Times Op-Ed)!  She says what I was thinking, when she wrote:  "Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist.  Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography, [and, I dare say, Bruce Springsteen's autobiography so much better!].  Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry.  But Mr. Dylan's writing is inseparable from his music.  He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer."

Second:  If indeed the Nobel committee means to now include musicians and their mastery of the lyric, then I have to side with Joni Mitchell.  She not only was brilliant in the 1960s-- she moved her craft into various areas of study-- from folk to jazz--and she stayed true to the "ideal" of which the Nobel description leans.

Therefore, I leave you here with two of Mitchell's quite searing pieces of lyric brilliance.  The first is Hejira. The term comes from Muhammed's departure from Mecca to Medina in AD622-- an exodus or migration.  The melody places the listener on a definite journey and today I think of all of those right now across the world migrating, leaving what they know. The lyrics span this larger global consideration while also describing the minutia of two people in and out of coupling (lyrics here):

I know, no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone . . . 

We're only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone

The second-- is Mitchell's powerful song, The Magdalene Laundries. The video here (click here) includes her explanation of how it came to be.  She had been told to write during the day because a friend felt she might come up with a more upbeat (not as dark) song.  She says how she followed her friend's suggestion and tuned her guitar in the sun-- tuning it to the sound of the birds, the wind, etc. (who tunes their guitar to the sounds of nature?  Wow!) and she did achieve an upbeat rhythm. Afterwards, she went grocery shopping and came upon a newspaper story at the check stand concerning "The Magdalene Laundries"-- a story that is as prescient and searing now as it was in Ireland between the 18th and on into the late 20th centuries.  This story became the lyrics to her flora and fauna infused melody, creating a powerful historical record of misogyny, assault, and femicide:

I was an unmarried girl
I'd just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a Jezebel
I know I was not bound for Heaven
I'd be cast in shame 
Into the Magdalene laundries

Most girls come here pregnant
Some by their now fathers
Bridget got that belly by her parish priest
We're trying to get things white as snow
All of us woe-begotten daughters
In the streaming stains
Of the Magdalene laundries . . . 

There are many more Joni Mitchell songs that leave me breathless with the fullness of their import.  That is not to say that Dylan's music is not important.  His is also a record of our American heritage with all its messiness, frailty, trauma. Joni, though, does the same, but in a much more intimate, hit-you-in-the-gut way.  I feel fortunate that I had parents who played a lot of music in the house, who made me aware of how a song can move the body physically, spiritually, intellectually.  That said, I end here with the "woman on the half shell," Joan Baez, singing "Gracias a la Vida" with Mercedes Sosa.  (click here)
Mercedes Sosa y Joan Baez


Nancy said...

So wonderful to reminisce with you, and keep learning more about everything. You are always just the tip of an iceberg...

Unknown said...

Beautiful tribute. Your weaving togethervchilhood and its telationshipvto music is its own poem