Bob Dylan and the English Language Posted by on Oct 13, 2016 in Culture, English Language


Bob Dylan is the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His work was specifically cited “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. The honor seems to directly expand the Nobel committee’s definition of literature, since many of Dylan’s lyrics rely on musical accompaniment and his unique voice to deliver the full appreciation of his composition. Yet, Dylan’s poetry is an amalgamation of many diverse influences, and his use of language is often challenging and complex.

Of course, one of Dylan’s most famous songs, “Lay Lady Lay”, is grammatically horrendous. Some have criticized the honor for this reason alone. But author Salman Rushdie said that “We live in a time of great lyricist-songwriters – Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits – but Dylan towers over everyone.” He embodies the tradition of the great troubadours, commenting on current life and times with wit, insight, and astonishing imagery.

At the start of Dylan’s long career, when he moved from his home state of Minnesota to New York City, he sought out his hero, the folk-balladeer Woody Guthrie, who was dying of Hodgkin’s disease. Guthrie’s songs encapsulated the sentiments of wandering loners and America’s less fortunate in the first half of the 20th century. Possibly of even greater influence on Dylan were the beat poets. As exemplified by authors like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beats espoused individualism and criticized authority using freestyle, non-rhyming, highly vivid word play.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at
dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient
heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the
machinery of night . . .
From “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg

For Dylan, this kind of writing offered a freedom to express himself without the traditional constraints songwriters faced.

By combining the political sensibilities of Guthrie and the Beats with Guthrie’s home-spun Americana, Bob Dylan became the singular voice of his generation. He challenged authority, changed consciousness, and defied conventional songwriting. Pop music stylings were tossed away, replaced by a vivid honesty. Gone was the kind of rhyming that merged love with dove. And, if he could add a dimension of sex to a song through a scatological reference, then grammatical conventions would be ignored.

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Whatever colors you have in your mind
I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine.

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile
His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
And you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen.

Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Why wait any longer for the world to begin
You can have your cake and eat it too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he’s standing in front of you.

Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead
I long to see you in the morning light
I long to reach for you in the night
Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead.

© Bob Dylan Music Co.

Dylan has long maintained that he is not a political poet, although there is no denying that he gave voice to a counter-culture, anti-war movement in the 1960s. As he has developed, and there have been many different periods in his artistic life, the one constant has been his playfulness with language in order to make just the right connection of words. After more than 55 years, he remains an evocative master of his language.

“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fools gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proved to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover
That you’d just be
One more person crying.

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to you ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred.

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their marks
Made everything from toy guns that sparks
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand without nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despite their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platforms ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God Bless him.

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in.

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him.

Old lady judges, watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes
Must get lonely.

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me ?

And if my thought-dreams could been seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

© Bob Dylan Music Co.

Photo by Xavier Badosa on Flickr

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  1. Eduardo:

    Should the Nobel prize’s winner had to say: “Lie, lady, lie”?