I hope Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature will help me to persuade our children that he’s worth listening to. At the moment, whenever I put on a song of his in the car they sing out in unison: “It’s Krusty the Clown!” It is not surprising, I suppose. They are currently wedded to Tinie Tempah and the like (who, admittedly, can be catchy).
I love Bob Dylan’s music and his unconventional singing voice is part of the attraction. What is it that appeals? Strong feeling, surging tunes, a sense of being connected to history – his rewriting of American folk music, “at once a recapturing of the past and the opening of a door to what had never been heard and had never been said”, as the rock writer Greil Marcus has it.
As well as that, there’s the pleasure of his irreducibly baffling language – often, as in I Want You, for instance, mixed with a repeated, plain lyric to powerful effect.
He can also set very simple words to heart-rending melodies. We should not turn up our noses at Make You Feel My Love just because it is comprehensible or because Adele has had a hit with it.
Then there’s the Bible. Dylan is steeped in it – even putting to one side his 1980s “Christian” phase – and once you become aware of it you see it everywhere.
In September 1997 he performed Blowin’ in the Wind in front of Pope John Paul II and 300,000 Catholic young people in Bologna. Afterwards, the Pope told the crowd that yes, the answer was in the wind, but not in the wind that blows things away, “in the wind of the Spirit” that would lead them to God.
No one brings these resonances out better than Bishop Robert Barron, whose YouTube talks on Dylan are essential viewing (as are his film commentaries; he is a devotee of the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorsese).
He has opened my eyes. Like the Pope, he sees the wind as the ruach described in Genesis, the Spirit of God that moved upon the face of the waters. And he compares Like a Rolling Stone (“How does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home”) with St John of the Cross and his “nada, nada, nada”.
Most satisfying, I find, is Bob Dylan’s link with Elvis Presley. In 1969 Jann Wenner, the supremo of Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed Dylan and asked him if there were any particular artists that he liked to hear sing his songs. “Yeah,” answered Dylan, “Elvis Presley. I liked Elvis Presley. Elvis Presley recording a song of mine.”
This was the tail end of the Sixties, bear in mind, by which time Elvis was deeply uncool; his star had faded and he was known for formulaic musical comedies tied to listless soundtrack albums. The song was Tomorrow is a Long Time. Elvis had heard the civil rights activist and singer Odetta’s version of it and decided he wanted to record the song – during a 1966 studio session for a Gospel album, How Great Thou Art (Gospel being a musical form he continued to take very seriously).
“That’s the one recording I treasure the most,” said Dylan. So the two great folk geniuses of American music are linked.
Antony Beevor’s latest gripping piece of action-packed history is Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. It’s about one of the most protracted, vicious and wasteful battles of the Second World War, in which Hitler’s Panzer divisions tried to push the mostly young American troops back through dense, snowbound pine forests.
Beevor notes the importance of prayer. Under heavy shelling, GIs dug into foxholes crouched in the foetal position and recited the 23rd Psalm “as a mantra to calm themselves ‘in the valley of the shadow of death’ ”.
General Patton, mindful that the incessant rain could mean the difference between defeat and victory, rang the chaplain and requested a prayer for good weather. Since there wasn’t one in the book, the Rev James O’Neill composed his own: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee … restrain the immoderate rains … that we may advance from victory to victory.”
Patton ordered 250,000 copies to be printed and given to every man in his Third Army.
The next time O’Neill met Patton, the general was in cheery mood: “Well, padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.” And he gave the priest a friendly crack on the helmet with his riding crop.
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