Bob Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the Nobel prize for literature – The Guardian

Amid the raucous cheering, disbelieving emojis and graceless carping that accompanied the awarding of the latest Nobel prize for literature, an unexamined claim was made several times: that this was the first time the prize had gone to a songwriter. A couple of newsreaders used the word “musician”, others the historical and more precise “singer-songwriter”; but mainly they stuck to “songwriter”. It struck me that the claim was wrong. The first (and the only other) songwriter the prize went to was the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, in 1913. It was given to him “because”, according to the citation, “of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the west”. The citation for Bob Dylan, which acknowledges him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, is different from but oddly reminiscent of the one from 1913, when honouring an Indian – someone located in the world of gurus and séances – must have seemed as puzzling as giving a “serious” prize to a pop musician. Little was known outside Bengal about Tagore, just as little, really, is known about Dylan. The citation from 1913 is already engaged in invention, making no mention of the fact that the “verse” is actually songs, or that they’re translations from Bengali. But Tagore translated the title of the book that got him the prize, Gitanjali, almost literally, as “Song Offerings” and it’s a compendium of lyrics turned by him into strange English prose poems, selected from three slim Bengali collections of songs – songs that are not only performed today day in Bengal, but performed ad nauseam.

The main difference here is that, unlike Dylan, Tagore had a capacious, remarkable and completely modern body of poetic works. Pound’s urgent message to Harriet Monroe about TS Eliot, that he had “actually trained himself AND modernised himself ON HIS OWN”, could have applied equally to Tagore, though Pound chose to compare Tagore to a “jongleur”, a Provencal minstrel. The other difference is that Tagore wasn’t a jongleur, that is, a singer of his own songs, though he might well have wanted such a career among his several. As a young man, he was – much like Dylan – certainly interested in performing his latest compositions for whoever would listen, but complained bitterly later about losing his singing abilities. His only extant, scratchy recording is from when he was much older, of “Tobu mone rekho” (“Still, remember this”), and gives to us the high-pitched, slightly tentative and astonishingly immediate voice that Bengalis identify with Tagore, and which they never deemed worthy of a singer. To listen to it is to be deeply moved. It’s also to understand the nature of Dylan’s achievement as a performer and recording artist.

I was never a great fan of Dylan while growing up (nor of Tagore), seeing him as a Picasso-like figure, the sort of artist for whom tireless self-publicity and stylistic innovation have merged into one thing. This is not to deny the impact that songs such as “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “Idiot Wind” have had at different points in my life. But my interest in the sort of creator Dylan is grew manifold more recently while chancing upon “Who Killed Davey Moore”, his song first written and performed in 1963, but unreleased on any album until The Bootleg Series in 1991. This accounts for the late discovery. It’s a song about the death of the eponymous featherweight champion, who died soon after losing a prize fight: but it’s not a protest song about the welfare of boxers. What is it then? In 1964, Dylan wasn’t sure, though he had ingeniously appropriated the children’s rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?” to make the song. As he told his the crowd at his show in October 1964: “It’s got nothing to do with boxing, it’s just a song about a boxer really … It’s got nothing to do with nothing. But I fit all these words together… that’s all … It’s taken directly from the newspapers … Nothing’s been changed … Except for the words.” Dylan can’t be certain about what the song represents because it’s not really “a song about a boxer”, it’s a statement about a particular kind of creativity, that has to do with reusing, defamiliarising, reordering and rearranging existing material so that its political and aesthetic registers undergo a transformation. In “Who Killed Davey Moore”, the material comprises the American folksong, the children’s rhyme, the public tragedy and the narrative “taken directly from the newspapers” and subjected to the sort of estranging synthesis in which “nothing’s been changed … except for the words”.

Rabindranath Tagore in 1935.

Rabindranath Tagore in 1935. Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images

A few years ago, I realised that Tagore was a Dylan of his day at least in this – his irreverent, opportunistic and startling approach to whatever constituted his inheritance, his past, as a songwriter. This included Indian classical forms, Scottish drinking songs, marching tunes, the devotional kirtan, and much else. Listening again to his political anthem “Jodi Tor Dak Shune Keu Na Ase Tobe Ekla Cholo Re” (“If no one heeds you when you call, walk alone”), it seemed I was hearing an experiment very similar to “Who Killed Davey Moore”, because Tagore had chosen for the song’s tune a baul melody whose original words spoke of an obsession with Krishna (baul means “mad”, and is thus a million miles away from Tagore’s refined Brahmo upbringing), and lifted it unhesitatingly, almost thoughtlessly, into another context that should have been as ill-fitting as a children’s rhyme with a boxer’s death. This rearrangement was common practice for Tagore, as, decades later, it was for Dylan, and leads to a multiplicity of tones in their work. They are both lyricists, but if the redefinition of the lyric impulse goes back to the personal and generational confession that is Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence” (“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness”), then we need to look, among Dylan’s contemporaries, to Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” and its shabby-plangent depiction of sex with Janis Joplin, or, especially, to Joni Mitchell’s extraordinary work. Both these songwriters did what Dylan didn’t; that is, expanded the song lyric to contain their own lives and those of their peers’, becoming, in the process, as much fellow-travellers with the folk music set as with the Robert Lowell of Life Studies.

Dylan and Tagore deal in lyricism; but, primarily, they deal in what Claude Lévi-Strauss somewhat disparagingly called “bricolage”, where the aim is to not so much to create afresh (despite the Nobel citation’s proclamation) as “always to make do with whatever is available”. And so much was available to both these creators – the rhythms of folk songs; political slogans; religious exhortation; the novel; the modern poem; four chords; various ragas! The “bricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours”, said Lévi-Strauss, and his motto, according to the critic Gérard Genette, is: “That might always come in handy.” This sums up both Tagore’s and Dylan’s attitude as songwriters and explains their large output. Whereas the lyric poet waits and so tends towards silence, these two are always restlessly arranging, adding and rearranging. Not lyric poets then, or even jongleurs, but bricoleurs, who occupy a separate category because they work across genres. If there had been a Nobel prize for art, or for music, these two could have got it for their songs on the same grounds: of not creating, but indefatigably recreating, tradition.


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