Songwriting and the Hallmarks of Literature
Do song lyrics more closely resemble fine poetry or vapid greeting cards?
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In “Nobel Prize for Gilligan and Simon?” I argued that television writers Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature, in part to inform posterity that in our era, some of the world’s finest literature came from television screens rather than from books. I noted that Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel reflected the significance of songwriting as a literary form as much as it did Dylan’s individual achievements. This prompted a strong dissent from Mr. A— one of Bastiat’s Window’s more colorful and insightful commenters. Combining several of his comments:
“Dr. Graboyes’ mileage apparently differs, but for me the award to Bob Dylan was the final and irrefutable argument for the perversion and irrelevancy of the Literature Prize. … As to the literature prize, what previous award approaches the triviality of the songwriter’s oeuvre? … And after this precedent, who would be surprised by (were fashion to decree it) a Nobel Prize for Literature in greeting cards?”
Mr. A—’s question that deserves a serious response. Does songwriting at its best bear the hallmarks of fine poetry, history, or fiction? Or does the songwriter’s oeuvre more properly reside alongside the Hallmark greeting card display at the local pharmacy? On our search for answers, we’ll visit Russian poet (and Nobelist) Joseph Brodsky, the “Kaddish” (Jewish prayer of mourning), Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March,” Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold, and finally, Bob Dylan, himself.
In a brief blogpost, I can’t prove that songwriting qualifies as a Nobel-worthy genre, but I can show how I would go about doing so. The task demands that we define both “literature” and “great.” First, literature is that portion of writing that achieves some level of artistry. It can be prose or poetry, fact or fiction, read in silence or heard aloud, and entertaining or edifying. Its greatness can come from how it sounds, what it tells us, how it provokes emotions, and/or how it impacts society and history.
I’ve embedded eight worthy videos. If you don’t have 33 minutes to listen to them all, click through all eight to get an idea of what they tell us. Listen with headphones if you can, as several are achingly beautiful—particularly Elis Regina’s “Águas de Março” and the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
BRODSKY, KADDISH, AND JABBERWOCKY: SOUND ALONE
Sometimes, the sound of a work, independent of its meaning, confers greatness. One of my most moving literary experiences was listening to Joseph Brodsky read his poems—in Russian, which I don’t speak. The most gut-wrenching prayer in the Jewish liturgy is the Kaddish—the prayer of mourning; many mourners have no idea what its words mean, but the sounds alone bring tears. The Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a., Lewis Carroll) understood the hypnotic power of sound-without-meaning when he penned his immortal, meaningless “Jabberwocky.”
One needn’t understand Russian to feel the depth of emotion in Brodsky’s profoundly nostalgic poem of things lost to the passage of time: “Почти элегия” / “Pochti Elegiya” / “Almost an Elegy.” In the following video, his poem nearly qualifies as song.
The “Mourner’s Kaddish” (““קדיש), which can be poem or song, opens with the following words in Aramaic:
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba. B’alma di v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei, b’chayeichon, uv’yomeichon uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael, baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.”
Say it outloud, slowly and softly, (taking care to pronounce “ch” as in the Scottish “loch”). The words say nothing of death, but the sounds alone capture grief and finality. Is it prose or poetry or song? It depends.
In “Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll made sport of this neurological imperative to seek meaning in unfamiliar language that is sonorous and rhythmic. The poem begins:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves // Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: // All mimsy were the borogoves, // And the mome raths outgrabe.
In 1987, a few years after we saw him, Joseph Brodsky received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
BRODSKY AND JOBIM: POETRY AND MUSIC
In his 1971 masterpiece, “Натюрморт” / “Nature Morte” / “Still Life (or “Dead Nature)” Brodsky discusses the inevitability of death but, paradoxically, the permanence of life that comes from the endless chain of dying individuals. In translation, one passage is stream of consciousness—the images of a life passing before one’s eyes:
“A tree. A shadow. The earth for the roots underneath. // Monograms that curve. // Piles of rocks. Clay. Leaves. // Roots. Interweave and blend. // A stone, whose weight at once // frees from the prevalent // system of knots and bonds. // Unmovable. It cannot // be lifted or moved once set. // Shadow. A man in its spot, // just like a fish in a net.”
Both stylistically and thematically, Brodsky’s poem resembles a song published a year later (1972)—arguably the single greatest work by the single most poetic songwriter of the 20th century—“Águas de Março” / “Waters of March” by Antônio Carlos Jobim. In English, its opening words read:
“A stick, a stone // It's the end of the road // It's the rest of a stump // It's a little alone // It's a sliver of glass // It is life, it's the sun // It is night, it is death // It's a trap, it's a gun // The oak when it blooms // A fox in the brush // A knot in the wood // The song of a thrush // The wood of the wind // A cliff, a fall // A scratch, a lump // It is nothing at all.
Like Brodsky’s “Nature Morte,” “Águas de Março” is a fatalistic description of decay and death, but somehow, its overall message is optimistic—the permanance of life built from impermanent beings. The song describes Rio de Janeiro’s relentless March rains, whose torrents plummet down the steep streets, carrying sticks, stones, building materials, and mud, and yet the lyrics declare that all of this desolation is about “the joy in your heart” and “the promise of life.” In 1972, Jobim’s health was poor and he was depressed; he said that writing the song was his substitute for psychoanalysis.
Just as one need not speak Russian to feel the Brodsky’s power, one can sense the emotion of Jobim’s original words, even if one doesn’t understand Portuguese. Here it is, sung by my candidate for Brazil’s greatest singer ever—Elis Regina, whose life mimicked the story of “Águas de Março.” The recipient of almost cult-like adulation, her life swept her downward to an early grave at age 36, with her daughter, Maria Rita, picking up her mantle as a singer after nearly two decades of bitterness over her mother’s cocaine-induced death.
As this recording of Elis shows, “Águas de Março” / “Waters of March” is a song that is nearly a spoken poem, whereas Brodsky’s “Pochti Elegiya” / “Almost an Elegy” is a spoken poem that is nearly a song.
And here is Jobim himself, singing the song in English. (My favorite English version is Art Garfunkel’s hit version. Stacey Kent did a lovely version in French.)
Does great songwriting rise to the level of great poetry? Find Elis Regina’s recording of Jobim’s “Retrato em Branco e Preto” / “Portrait in Black and White.” Read the lyrics aloud in Portuguese and in English. For me, that song answers the question in a hushed but determined affirmative.
Jobim died in 1994—22 years before the Swedish Academy awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan for his songwriting. In the years leading up to that award, I had told friends that I wished for a joint award to Dylan and Leonard Cohen (who died only 25 days after Dylan’s prize was announced). It does not diminish my esteem for Dylan or Cohen to say that had Jobim been alive in the 2010s, I would have been suggesting him for a solo Nobel.
SONG AS LITERATURE AS HISTORY
Sometimes, a body of literature is reckoned to be great by dint of its impact on history. Winston Churchill’s Nobel largely honored the role his wartime oratory played in saving civilization from the Nazis. Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Another literary work played a similarly critical role in delegitimizing slavery and preserving the Union. In 1861, poet Julia Ward Howe wrote new lyrics to the melody of “John Brown’s Body,” and the result was “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Howe’s lyrics have given me the chills since I first learned them a lifetime ago. Her language is apocalyptic, millenarian, biblical. Both the raw sounds, the irresistible cadence, and the trance-like visions tear at the conscience. From the third verse:
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.
‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.’
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel.
Since God is marching on.”
When 500 Union soldiers, rotting in a squalid Richmond prison, learned of the Union victory at Gettysburg, they sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and some said the sound made the prison walls quake. Whatever the Union’s purpose was at the outset of the war, Howe’s song made it all about ending slavery. In England and France, millworkers chose to endure poverty and starvation, rather than to work with the Confederate cotton on which their livelihoods depended. Howe’s literary assault on slavery played a powerful role in girding them for self-sacrifice—and in persuading the British and French governments to distance themselves from the Confederate cause. It matters that Martin Luther King, hauntingly anticipating his death the next day, chose to speak the words, “Mine EYES have seen the glory … of the coming of the Lord.”
In this video, the U.S. Army Field Band performs the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s celebrated arrangement of Howe’s literary work:
Nearly a century before Howe’s attack on slavery, former slaveship captain John Newton performed a similar service via his “Amazing Grace.” The song, which was originally a spoken poem, became a mighty force behind Great Britain’s decision to launch history’s first great anti-slavery military crusade. For 50 years, the poem was sung to many melodies before finding its home in a tune known as as “New Britain.” Tom sang it in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Eventually, the poem became inextricably bound to a folk melody called “New Britain.” Here is Ladysmith Black Mambozo’s rendition of Newton’s masterpiece.
The literary merits of “Amazing Grace” are undeniable. Does its power reflect the contribution of a poet or that of a songwriter? An additional verse, written by enslaved African Americans, made its way into a collection titled, “Jerusalem, My Happy Home.” This brings us to a more recent song.
“JERUSALEM OF GOLD”
I can think of no finer example of songwriting-as-literature than Naomi Shemer’s “ירושלים של זהב” / “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” / “Jerusalem of Gold.” The Hebrew lyrics are as sonorous as the words of Joseph Brodsky or Antônio Carlos Jobim. The tone is as spiritual and as moral as the sentiments expressed by John Newton. Like the “Kaddish,” Shemer’s song speaks of one thing but tells of another. And, like Howe’s immortal creation, Shemer’s words marked a moment in history and gave hope to a people facing oblivion at the hands of immoral forces. The context is relevant:
Shemer wrote in “Jerusalem of Gold” in early 1967, for the Israeli Song Festival scheduled for May 15, 1967. 18 years earlier, the United Nations had voted to divide British Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews said yes, and the Arabs said no. As Britain departed, five Arab nations invaded in hopes of driving all Jews out of their ancient homeland. The Arab armies proved inept and lost, rather than gained territory in the struggle. For 18 years, West Bank Arabs were ruled by Jordan and Gazans were ruled by Egypt; both lived in squalor and neglect. Arabs in Israel became citizens, with parliamentary representation from Day One. Arab armies expelled Jews from their homes in areas seized by the invading armies and barred them from setting foot in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank.
Shemer’s song reflected the misery of exile and the nostalgia for things lost. Over the next few weeks, the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria massed to finish the ethnic cleansing they had set about to accomplish in 1948. Again, their ineptitude was legendary, and Israel ended up controlling the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula (which they later returned). For the triumphant liberators massed around the Western Wall, Shemer quickly added an extra verse to her song—describing the joy of having ended the years of banishment and exile. As with Brodsky and Jobim, one need not understand the words to feel their power:
“Avir harim tzalul kayayin / Vereiach oranim, / Nisa beru'ach ha'arbayim / Im kol pa'amonim. // Uvetardemat ilan va'even / Shvuyah bachalomah, / Ha'ir asher badad yoshevet / Uvelibah chomah.”
Here is a magnificent rendition, sung a few years back by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella, conducted by Alexander Tsaliuk.
Upon Shemer’s death in 2005, Israeli songwriter, Ehud Manor, said:
“She is the single most important figure in the history of Israeli music. There were a few titans, but they were all either composers or poets. She was the first to marry words and music with such power, and she did it to perfection.”
I can muster no argument to deny the status of “Jerusalem of Gold” as literature, or to afford it lower status than other modern literary forms. One of Israel’s greatest singers, Chava Alberstein, disliked Shemer’s politics but eulogized her as “an artist at the level of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.” That quote brings us back to our initial question. Can songwriting be high literature, and did Bob Dylan deserve the prize?
DID BOB DYLAN DESERVE THE NOBEL?
As should be clear by now, I consider songwriting to be a Nobel-worthy literary form. To repeat, I think that in 2016, Dylan and Cohen were the obvious choices for a Literature Prize, though I wish Jobim had lived to receive it. Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, and Chico Buarque would have been plausible alternatives.
But Dylan really was the obvious choice. At his best, his lyrics rise to the level of fine poetry in ways that recall Brodsky or Jobim. Here, his “song” is barely more musical than Brodsky’s reading of “Nature Morte.”
“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 … … As pointed threats, they bluff with scorn // Suicide remarks are torn // From the fool's gold mouthpiece the hollow horn // Plays wasted words, proves to warn // That he not busy being born is busy dying”
“That he not busy being born is busy dying” is a phrase that can rank with the words of the immortals. During Dylan’s lifetime, song played an outsized role in the course of politics and history. “We Shall Overcome” was a mighty weapon against the scourge of segregation that prevailed in my own hometown. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” to aim at Jim Crow as surely as “Battle Hymn” had done against slavery a century earlier. (I had the honor of hearing Simone perform it at Carnegie Hall.) Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” gently shakes a lapsed conscience from its hurtful somnolence.
In the borderlands between poetry and song, Howe and Newton summoned forth the world’s outrage over slavery. Brodsky and Jobim offered audiences hope from the depths of desolation. Shemer gathered a nation in grief and in triumph. Dylan touched raw nerves on murderous racism (“Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll”); segregation (“Oxford Town”); judicial injustice (“Hurricane”); nuclear war and pollution (“A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War”); peace, war, and freedom (“Blowin’ in the Wind”); employer/employee discord (“Maggie’s Farm”); elitism (“When the Ship Comes In); and destructive urban planning (the never-recorded “Listen Robert Moses!”).
For better or worse, Bob Dylan is, at the very least, the primus inter pares among the literary songwriters of his lifetime. His output has been enormous and varied and often experimental. His messages often rebelled against his own image. And, more than any other songwriter of his era, he inspired legions of other songwriters to aspire to literary heights in their work.
My aesthetic secret. Until recent years, I never listened very much to Dylan’s recordings of his own music. Later in life, perhaps because of my own raspy singing voice, I came to appreciate growling singers like Dylan, Cohen, and Tom Waits. But for decades, I mostly listened to Dylan through the mouths of other performers—particularly Peter, Paul and Mary. “When the Ship Comes In” was one of the favorites of my childhood.
So is songwriting high literature, and if so, was Bob Dylan the appropriate exemplar of the genre? For me, poetry qualifies as fine literature and fine songwriting is barely distinct from fine poetry. We view the Book of Psalms as great literature, and those works are merely songs whose melodies were lost to time. In the Middle Ages, troubadours sang prose and poetry, because that was an essential tool for imparting literature to a preliterate society. And on the question of Dylan, it’s difficult to think of a living songwriter whose output has been as literary—or as influential to other literary songwriters.
Back to you, Mr. A—.