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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

10/26/2016

See That My Grave is Kept Clean
By Blind Lemon Jefferson, as done by Bob Dylan

Well, there’s one kind-a favour I’ll ask of you
Well, there’s one kind-a favour I’ll ask of you
There’s just one kind favour I’ll ask of you
You can see that my grave is kept clean

And there’s two white horses following me
And there’s two white horses following me
I got two white horses following me
Waiting on my burying ground

Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Means another poor boy is underground

Did you ever hear them church bells tone?
Have you ever hear that church bells tone?
Did you ever hear them church bells tone?
Means another poor boy is dead and gone

And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Now I believe what the Bible told

There’s just one last favour I’ll ask of you
And there’s one last favour I’ll ask of you
There’s just one last favour I’ll ask of you
See that my grave is kept clean

At some point, apparently, T. Bone Burnett said that there was “no way to adequately or accurately laud Bob Dylan. He is the Homer of our time.”

I say “apparently” because although I have seen this quotation in print and online many times this past week, I have yet to find its source. I don’t necessarily doubt that Burnett said it, but since I can’t find where the quotation came from, I don’t want to state definitively that he said it. In the age of the Internet, it’s too easy to rely on an inaccurate source.

There’s something funny to me about not being able to establish the accuracy of the quotation’s source, though, considering the inaccuracy of the quotation itself. You see, in all likelihood, Homer was not just one guy. He was probably a bunch of guys who wrote a long poem in fits and starts over the course of several decades as it was performed around ancient Greece, and at some point it was all written down. I’m not going to footnote that, but I can give you the source of my knowledge: Zach, whose office is across the hall from mine. He’s an expert on the Iliad, which is the poem ostensibly written by Homer (or Homers, or a bunch of guys not named Homer). I can also tell you it’s the first book in the western canon, and the first word in the western canon is RAGE. If you ask Zach, he’ll do the beginning for you in ancient Greek. It’s pretty cool.

What this means for Burnett’s pronouncement on Bob Dylan, though, is that to be the Homer of anyone’s time means to be not merely Homer, but to be a bunch of guys who may or may not be (but probably aren’t) named Homer. Ergo, Bob Dylan is a bunch of guys. Probably not named Homer.

I’m not trying to take things literally for the sake of comic effect. I promise. The thing is, there is accuracy in this quotation, though I doubt it’s how Burnett meant it (if, indeed, he said it). Much of Dylan’s work is not necessarily original with him. His first album was almost exclusively covers of folk songs and blues standards. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is pretty clearly also a Scottish ballad called Lord Randal. Blowin’ in the Wind, from the same album, takes its melody from an African American spiritual called No More Auction Block. More recently, his song Shake Shake Mama from 2009’s Together Through Life, though credited to Dylan and Robert Hunter, sounds uncannily like a traditional blues song of the same name that I first heard on John Renbourn’s Faro Annie, which was released in 1971. Examples like these run through just about every single one of Dylan’s 40-odd albums. Though prolific and successful, Dylan has not always, or arguably even often, been very original.

If you are a Dylan fan, it’s likely your back was way up by the end of that last paragraph. I must be another person in a long list of detractors who is annoyed that Dylan has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. How dare he? I must be thinking.

Well, not quite. Or even a little bit, actually. Dylan began in folk music, a tradition that is meant to be built upon itself: ballads retooled and rewritten by each person who plays them, parts added until there are 17 different verses with five separate points of view and no clear idea who has done what wrong to whom. One melody with six different sets of lyrics, at least two of which appear in the Catholic Book of Worship III, and a secular version that is far too racy to come near the inside of a church. It’s a kind of music that is made by many people with few clear authors.

And though musically Dylan expanded beyond the folk tradition, spiritually he never did. Rather, he took the culture around him, with art high and low, and he crafted it into a body of work that reflected western society, criticized it, and made something new out of the things he saw. He drew from poets and surrealists, but also folk songs and advertisements. He made folk go electric. In doing these things, he blew apart the way people make and think about music in the western world, and that is certainly something to be celebrated.

And in one sense, he is a single author. In another, he isn’t: his work is by a bunch of people who are and aren’t named Bob Dylan.

The idea of the single author itself has gained and lost importance at different times throughout human history. Ancient Greece and Rome give us texts by single individuals, but the medieval era is populated by epic poems written down for no particular reason and attributable to no particular person. It’s the way culture was made and transmitted before the written word, before the printing press, before widespread literacy, before the wax record. The idea of the single author is probably on the wane again, with copyright law falling apart in the face of mass communication and culture fragmenting in all sorts of different ways.

Of course, that idea doesn’t work particularly well with awards like the Nobel Prize, which hinge on the idea of individual genius — that there is an author so clearly superior to others they deserve a big ceremony in Sweden. They write Important Books about Important Things. And for some reason, we have to choose the Best Genius of the Year. And all the other people who wrote books feel a little bad about themselves for not writing an important enough book yet.

This year, though, they gave it to someone who has written no important books, and there’s been an argument in literary circles over whether or not that was a good idea.

The trouble, as I see it, is no one bothers to ask whether or not the Nobel Prize is a good idea.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings