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“The Times They Are a-Changin,'” But Not Fast Enough

Those middle-brows over at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee have once again failed to pay proper respect to our two brilliant novels and countless inches of compelling newspaper copy and all these insightful daily internet essays, an annual slight which we happened to notice while desperately searching for some news to read about about something other than that awful presidential race, but it was at least somewhat heartening to see that the award had instead gone to Bob Dylan.
The selection took everyone by surprise, including ourselves and probably Dylan himself. Dylan is best known not for his little-read and widely-panned prose, after all, but rather for his impenetrable songwriting and nasal singing and sparse guitar strumming and slightly atonal harmonica-playing, so even those Nobel Prize people felt obliged to offer a rather elaborate explanation for their unexpected and apparently inexplicable decision. They could have spared us the effort, as we were around in the ’60s and ’70s and can readily dig all the jive about Dylan being some sort of poet laureate, and after even his creative slump in those long-ago ’80s we’re still punk enough to rather like the idea of our ol’ pal “Freewheelin'” Dylan getting a Nobel Prize in any old category they might have. It gives us hope that our next novel might win a Grammy, or that this daily internet essay will earn that coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award, or that some sort of poetic justice might yet prevail.
We’re at least literate enough to know that his otherwise perfect song “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be more correctly rendered in proper English as “Lie, Lady, Lie,” and to have noticed that a lot of those imponderable lyrics so many of his pot-addled fans have long pondered are pretty much impenetrable to even the most sober listener, and we can’t heartily endorse his Christmas albums or Sinatra covers or some of those ’80s-slump albums, but we have nonetheless been Dylan fans for pretty much as long as we can remember. He first turned up on the radio as a fresh-faced folk singer right around the same time we started listening to the radio, although we were more likely to hear to his songs played by such more polished singers as Peter, Paul & Mary or Joan Baez, and even at that young age we had a natural affinity for his simple melodies and hopeful lyrics about how the answers as are all “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By the time we were old enough to start getting a rudimentary understanding of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests and sexual revolution and other cataclysmic “The Times They Are a-Changin'” stuff that he was singing about he started playing electrified guitar and doing even more nasally-sung and lyrically impenetrable songs, and at that point we were hooked.
It’s hard to explain it to the young folks, but when the acoustic “folk era” Dylan “went electric” at the oh-so-pure Newport Folk Festival back in ’65 it was a big deal, with all the collegiate folk purists feeling betrayed that their hero had gone the wickedly commercialist way of rock ‘n’ roll. As much as we’d liked the folk stuff, we downright loved how he noted that country-and-western players had been electric since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had amped up back in the ’40s, and that those guys had been way more authentically proletarian than all those college-educated folkies he’d been playing to, and even after all these years that “rock era” Dylan still sounds far more quintessentially American to our wind-blown prairie ears. By the time our musical tastes were starting to harden Dylan was scoring top-10 hits with such rough stuff as “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its memorable chorus that “everybody must get stoned,” and the older and hipper kids we got to hang around with considered him the “voice of their generation,” and serious if not-quite-Nobel-Prize-level critics were gushing about something they had gleaned from those indecipherable lyrics, and we congratulated our junior-high selves that we also found something meaningful if inexplicable in that very rough-hewn music. As happy-go-lucky high school sophomores we somehow found ourselves oddly attuned to his beautifully bleak middle-aged crazy and post-divorce “Blood on the Tracks” album, even as we were starting to turn the radio dial to the honky-tonk country and and the old folks’ pop and swing standards and the first-generation punk music to quell our adolescent angst.
During our junior year of high school we got to hear Dylan live in his legendarily all-star-studded “Rolling Thunder Review” tour in what was then called Henry Levitt Arena at Wichita State University, named after local haberdasher, which is now Charles Koch Arena, named after the notorious local free-market billionaire, and we attended it with all those brainy College Hill girls from East High we were so enamored of, and to this day it remains one of our favorite musical memories, which is saying something given all the great American music we’ve heard since then. We caught him again a few decades later at downtown’s Century II, where we were a accompanied by the delightful and sexy but somewhat crazy younger woman we were dating in our own middle-aged crazy post-divorce years, and even though we couldn’t make out any of those supposedly profound lyrics he was warbling we were once again delighted by the strangely musical noise he was making. Our third time live with Dylan was a few years back when he was touring with Willie Nelson and made a stop on a warm autumn evening at the old Lawrence-Dumont baseball stadium by the Arkansas River, and even though we weren’t dating anyone at the time it was also a damned good show. Through it all, even those awful Christmas albums and mediocre Sinatra covers, we’ve been unapologetic fans.
We’re not sure if his career is the stuff of a Nobel Prize for Literature, though, and would have preferred that the award had gone to such writers as Muriel Spark or Robertson Davies before their relatively recent deaths, or to Philip Roth or especially Tom Wolfe in their advanced ages, but then again we’re the old-fashioned sorts who would reserve literary prizes to more literary writers. Those middle-brow Nobel committee people tend to hand these things out according to the latest political fads, though, which explains why the black and female and vastly overrated Toni Morrison was the last American to get the Nobel Literature medal, and although we’re glad to see that a defiantly Christian and Jewish college drop-out from Hibbing, Minnesota, won this time around we can’t help thinking that his reputed but deliberately ambiguous liberalism had something to do with the decision. If you’re handing out Nobel Prizes for Literature to rough-hewn American musicians we’d recommend the ex-con honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year with a body of work that for pure down-and-dirty and right-at-the-heart-of-America-and-this-cruel-world greatness surpasses even Dylan’s, but we can’t expect those middle-brows at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee to grasp that.
Even so, the news of Dylan’s newly-awarded Nobel Prize prompted us to replay that profoundly glum “Blood on the Tracks” album, and that gloriously electrified “Highway 61 Revisited” and all its apocalyptic Old Testament allusions, and revisit a time when top-10 hits weren’t so damn slick and over-produced as they are these bleak days, and it happily hearkened us all the way back to the Depression-era days of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and the real down-and-dirty American music, and all in all it’s made for a pleasant diversion from that awful presidential race. So for that we give thanks to the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, and especially to the still “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, who we hope is still out there somewhere on the open road.

— Bud Norman

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Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman