Amid the raucous cheering, disbelieving emojis and graceless carping that accompanied the awarding of the latest Nobel prize for literature, anÂ 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 â€œmusicianâ€, others the historical and more precise â€œsinger-songwriterâ€; but mainly they stuck toÂ â€œsongwriterâ€. 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 â€œbecauseâ€, according to the citation, â€œofÂ his profoundly sensitive, fresh andÂ beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature ofÂ the westâ€. The citation for Bob Dylan, which acknowledges him for â€œhaving created new poetic expressions within the great American song traditionâ€, is different from but oddly reminiscent of the one from 1913, when honouring an Indian â€“ someone located in the world of gurus and sÃ©ances â€“ must have seemed as puzzling as giving a â€œseriousâ€ 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 â€œverseâ€ is actually songs, or that theyâ€™re translations from Bengali. But Tagore translated the title of the book that got him the prize, Gitanjali, almost literally, as â€œSong Offeringsâ€ and itâ€™s a compendium of lyrics turned by him into strange English prose poems, selected from three slim Bengali collections ofÂ songs â€“ songs that are not only performed today day in Bengal, butÂ performed ad nauseam.
The main difference here is that, unlike Dylan, Tagore had a capacious, remarkable and completely modern body of poetic works. Poundâ€™s urgent message to Harriet Monroe about TSÂ Eliot, that he had â€œactually trained himselfÂ ANDÂ modernised himselfÂ ON HIS OWNâ€, could have applied equally to Tagore, though Pound chose to compare Tagore to a â€œjongleurâ€, a Provencal minstrel. The other difference is that Tagore wasnâ€™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 â€“ much like Dylan â€“ 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 wasÂ much older, of â€œTobu mone rekhoâ€ (â€œStill, remember thisâ€), 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. Itâ€™s also to understand the nature of Dylanâ€™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 â€œDonâ€™t Think Twice, Itâ€™s All Rightâ€, â€œTangled Up in Blueâ€, â€œLove Minus Zero/No Limitâ€ andÂ â€œIdiot Windâ€ 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 â€œWho Killed Davey Mooreâ€, his song first written and performed in 1963, butÂ unreleased on any album until The Bootleg Series in 1991. This accounts for the late discovery. Itâ€™s a song about the death of the eponymous featherweight champion, who died soon after losing a prize fight: but itâ€™s not a protest song about the welfare of boxers. What is it then? In 1964, Dylan wasnâ€™t sure, though he had ingeniously appropriated the childrenâ€™s rhyme â€œWho Killed Cock Robin?â€ to make the song. As he told his the crowd at his show in October 1964: â€œItâ€™s got nothing to do with boxing, itâ€™s just a song about a boxer really … Itâ€™s got nothing to do with nothing. But I fit all these words together… thatâ€™s all … Itâ€™s taken directly from the newspapers … Nothingâ€™s been changed … Except for the words.â€ Dylan canâ€™t be certain about what the song represents because itâ€™s not really â€œa song about a boxerâ€, itâ€™s aÂ 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 â€œWho Killed Davey Mooreâ€, the material comprises the American folksong, the childrenâ€™s rhyme, the public tragedy and the narrative â€œtaken directly from the newspapersâ€ and subjected to the sort of estranging synthesis in which â€œnothingâ€™s been changed … except for the wordsâ€.
A few years ago, I realised that Tagore was a Dylan of his day at least in this â€“ 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 â€œJodi Tor Dak Shune Keu Na Ase Tobe Ekla Cholo Reâ€ (â€œIf noÂ one heeds you when you call, walk aloneâ€), it seemed I was hearing an experiment very similar to â€œWho Killed Davey Mooreâ€, because Tagore had chosen for the songâ€™s tune a baul melody whose original words spoke of an obsession with Krishna (baul means â€œmadâ€, and is thus a million miles away from Tagoreâ€™s refined Brahmo upbringing), and lifted it unhesitatingly, almost thoughtlessly, into another context thatÂ should have been as ill-fitting as a childrenâ€™s rhyme with a boxerâ€™s death. This rearrangement was common practice for Tagore, as, decades later, itÂ was forÂ Dylan, and leads to a multiplicity of tones in their work. They are both lyricists, but if the redefinition ofÂ the lyric impulse goes back to the personal and generational confession that is Wordsworthâ€™s â€œResolution and Independenceâ€ (â€œWe Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madnessâ€), then we need to look, among Dylanâ€™s contemporaries, to Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€œChelsea Hotel #2â€ and its shabby-plangent depiction of sex with Janis Joplin, or,Â especially, to Joni Mitchellâ€™s extraordinary work. Both these songwriters did what Dylan didnâ€™t; that is, expanded the song lyric to contain theirÂ own lives and those of their peersâ€™, 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 LÃ©vi-Strauss somewhat disparagingly called â€œbricolageâ€, where the aim is to not so much to create afresh (despite the Nobel citationâ€™s proclamation) as â€œalways to make do with whatever is availableâ€. And so much was available to both these creators â€“ the rhythms of folk songs; political slogans; religious exhortation; the novel; the modern poem; four chords; various ragas! The â€œbricoleur addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavoursâ€, said LÃ©vi-Strauss, and his motto, according to the critic GÃ©rard Genette, is: â€œThat might always come in handy.â€ This sums up both Tagoreâ€™s and Dylanâ€™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, orÂ even jongleurs, but bricoleurs, who occupy a separate category because they work across genres. If there hadÂ been a Nobel prize for art, or for music,Â these two could have got it for their songs on the same grounds: of not creating, but indefatigably recreating, tradition.