Nobel Dylan

Gordon Ball Click to read more...

Gordon Ball is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and editor of several books with Allen Ginsburg.  His photos of the poet have been published widely, some at <gordonballgallery.com>.  His films have shown in many venues, including the Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives.  He’s the author of ’66 Frames, a volume of prose poems called Dark Music, East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsburg (Counterpoint) and in May On Tokyo’s Edge: Gaijin Tales from Postwar Japan (Red Mountain).  He teaches at Washington and Lee.

     In the fall of 1996 I was one of at least half a dozen  professors, U.S. & U.K.,
including poet Allen Ginsberg, who nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in
Literature. I persisted in doing so annually for a number of years. (Possibly
another or others did likewise, though I’m not aware of anyone else engaging in
such hard-headed doggedness.)

     For Whys & Wherefores, gluttons of detail are invited to my essay on the nomination:
more recent version, “A Nobel for Dylan” in The Poetics of American Song Lyrics,
edited by Charlotte Pence; earlier version, “Dylan and the Nobel” in Professing Dylan,
edited by Frances Downing Hunter.



      A colleague tells me: on October 13, 2016 he enters the department office only
to find our ultra-capable administrative assistant exclaiming out of the blue
“Gordon…Nobel Prize…Bob Dylan…CNN—France 24 TV!” Unable to see any connections
within this litany, he’s as mystified as she. But thoroughgoing and thoughtful
as she is, she’ll alert me to media communiques by phone. Returning home late
in the day I’ll receive her message; “This may all be a scam,” she worries,
before signing off.

     I’d begun the day switching on NPR, for once getting the top
of the news: “The Nobel Prize for Literature this year goes to singer Bob
Dylan.” I’m totally surprised, more deeply moved than I can express. Some
minutes later the phone rings; the Associated Press wants details—they know I’d
written formal (and rather lengthy) nomination letters way back when. We talk,
they call back, How many years you did it?--Ten? No, between twelve and fifteen.
(As I’ll soon see, media sources prefer the larger number.)

     Near the end of this second call, Kathy, worried by early a.m. communications—an aging
relative’s illness or death?--hurries downstairs, finds me winding up the
conversation, sees my moist eyes, fears the worst. I hang up, explain, she too
rejoices.

     It was twenty years ago, while I taught at VMI, that my first
nomination became public (“Man from Military School Nominates Dylan”) so I
wonder if there’ll be more calls, from U.S. and abroad, as there were then. The
first in 1996 came at midnight from a 5 a.m. BBC talk show, waking us and
serving up a bit of ridicule at my American speech as I did my half-alert best
to respond to their queries while ignoring the bulk of their prim chatter.

     But now in 2016 might there really be any further calls? After all, it’s been two
decades, and I’d not written a nomination for several years.

     Less than two hours after that second AP, and shortly after catching another NPR 
one-liner, “The Nobel Prize for Literature this year goes to the man who wrote “The pump 
don’t work/‘Cause the vandals took the handles,” we’re leaving for Staunton (40 miles
distant), for some follow-up work to be done on the new Subaru we’ve just bought--our
first and only new car in 35 years. There’ve been no further calls; I think that’s that,
I’ve been forgotten, no one’s picking up on the AP newsfeed, I can enjoy the quiet bliss
of the unheralded, the unnoticed—though too I wouldn’t mind a little recognition for year
upon-year extended pleadings with the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy (in the face
of occasional put-downs from acquaintances and public alike for persisting in this fool’s 
errand).

     Driving to Staunton affords me--slow driver by nature and even slower
now as Old Guy—additional time to recall long-ago moments, one over half a
century gone:

Newport, 1965
     I’m 20 years old. A dorm-mate friend at Harvard gets
two tickets to the last afternoon and evening of the annual Newport Folk
Festival. Though my admiration for the singer is not nearly as keen as it’ll
become, the Dylan concert that night is what we’re focused on. (I’d been struck
by much of Bringing it All Back Home, but may still prefer the
Byrds’spingly-spangly “Mr. Tambourine Man.”) En route to Newport my friend’s
car radio bursts into life with a new Dylan. It’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

     On a stretch of green land by the sea we’re a good ways back on folding chairs and
the sky’s already dark this midsummer night. Center stage, the young man with
guitar & dressed mostly in black strikes up his band with “Maggie’s Farm.” Soon
I sense a stirring up front, but can’t make out what’s going on; I’m not
acquainted with issues in the folk world of the day and am unaware of the
challenge Dylan’s giving folk purists by appearing electric with a rock & roll
band (or the problems of sound distortion that may bother some). And I don’t
even appreciate the impertinent pertinence of “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s
farm no more.”

Beth Midrash Sh’or Yoshuv, 1971 
     Far away from Manhattan on Far Rockaway, Long Island, a cold February night, 
in a vestibule increasingly filled with others just now arrived like ourselves,
I’m talking with Stephen, an old friend of mine & Ginsberg’s; the wedding of a
mutual friend is about to be celebrated.  In profile a young Jewish fellow, 
almost translucently pale skin, blue eyes under granny glasses, a Russian ushanka
hat with ear flaps up, passes in front of me: young kid trying to look hip, I think.

     A moment later as he enters our midst, I realize who he is as he greets my friend
gladly. The two recall times together Bay Area fall 1965 as Stephen turns to introduce us
and we shake hands.  I can’t hear what the young man says to me as by now we’re surrounded
by a handful of Jewish mothers fairly bursting with joy, “Look!  Bobby’s here!  Bobby’s here!”

     Inside the meeting hall—women kept across the way behind a chest-high barrier—a silent 
Dylan seated like Ginsberg on one side of the head rabbi barely moves to the plaintive,
sometimes joyful live music, and only at Allen’s urging joins the other men in dancing 
hand-in-hand at the very end.

Charlotte, North Carolina, 1978
     Dylan, who’d recently released an album I’d liked (Street Legal), performs at the
Coliseum.  It’s partly exhilarating but I’m troubled that some of his own adaptations
of his originals seem severe and that his band includes horns and a chorus of backup
singers. That combination was extremely effective on the album but is much less so with
his revised standards. Afterwards I go to look for him backstage, he’s standing there
alone, a little distance away, in jacket & jeans, a watch cap clasping his skull. 
What’ll I say to him? A guard stands between us.  I turn away. 
                                                                      *** 

     The work on our new car will take longer than expected but before we head out
the door in a loaner to drive about Staunton we run into friend and Washington and
Lee colleague musician Terry Vosbein—I start “Say, did you hear” he interrupts “Josh
Harvey called me first thing this morning.”  We exclaim at joyful happenstance,
compare notes, Kathy & I take off. 

     She and I browse through Goodwill (where I pick up Andrew Wilson’s Patricia
Highsmith biography) and other stores, unable to find a Wal-Mart microwave 
micro-enough to fit into the small available space in our kitchen.  For lunch,
it’s Wright’s Dairy Rite drive-in & diner, a paean to 1950s culture: curb service,
traditional soda shop fare burgers malteds, etc., plus barbeque & desserts.  
Inside, ancient booths & a bright big yellow red & green Wurlitzer jukebox named
One More Time. As we’re leaving the Isley Brothers’“Twist and Shout” becomes the
day’s song of triumph. 

Once our Subaru’s finally ready—I’d grown increasingly anxious there could be some
phone messages after all—I ball the jack down Lee Highway & spend close to the first
hour at home listening to calls on answering machine—many more than expected--from
friends, radio stations, newspapers.  Still thinking in 1996 terms, I don’t turn
to email until dealing with most calls--and don’t notice right off two from
major media outlets:

Urgent CNN-I interview request for Gordon Ball (4pET)

… 

CNN International is requesting an interview with you today. The interview would be conducted by CNN’s Paula Newton for our flagship business show called “Quest Means Business”, which is live between 4-5pET.

… SARTON DU JONCHAY Isabelle …    Goodmorning Profesor . France24, French TV network based in Paris would like to interview you tonight at 2pm or 430pm. … But it’s 5:17 when I start to answer the first, too late for both. Later I’ll learn that PBS closes its NewsHour with
>PROFESSOR OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, GORDON Ball, NOMINATED DYLAN FOR THE NOBEL PRIZE 15 YEARS IN A ROW, BEGINNING IN 1996.
Interviews continue on and off the next ten days, and I’m scheduled in December to speak on Dylan’s prize at Washington and Lee as part of its annual series of presentations on the year’s Nobel winners by members of appropriate departments. And a very special invitation comes by email, to meet with students (ages 6 through 12) and faculty of EarthSong Community School in Lexington. And so I spend what’s for me an unforgettable morning there: leaving the car I’m struck by a full-length banner stretched across front porch with “WELCOME DR. BALL” spelled out in thirteen individual multicolored sheets of 8 x 10 paper. Inside I sit with the young people in a circle on the floor, talking & answering questions: What’s your favorite song (“Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” “Desolation Row”); least favorite (“Mixed-up Confusion”); first job (busboy in college cafeteria); why nominate him (studying Nobel expectations and previous awards I felt he deserved it, and I wanted to expand the sense of what poetry can be), etc. Then we sing together their own adaptation—printed out--of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which celebrates their guest. It’s very sweet, I’m profoundly honored. Finally we move into the kitchen for some snacks and talk with teachers too. Bowing and thanking I take my leave. Ten days later I’m bound for the Dylan concert in Roanoke’s Berglund Center, nearly four decades since Charlotte, and ten or so years since two (one with Willie Nelson) in a minor league ball park in Salem. Now I’m an old man, white-haired and stuffed in a padded coat for extra warmth, with a huge blind spot regarding all things computer-related. I manage to get a ticket online (& discover price is tremendously inflated for doing so). I can no longer drive any real distance & so—mass transit’s alien to our area—have to pay for a driver for my first visit to the Berglund Center. As many dozens gather in front this cool autumn night, my driver drops me off at the large Berglund under cover of darkness. Not sure if this electronic paper ticket business will really work, I unfold it from my pocket, present it at the window, and am admitted—but with the admonition that all cells must be turned off during concert. There ensue numerous complications regarding cell phones, low-light conditions, and general crowd confusion…. This short vivid moment gives me, as it were, a magical charge, for almost immediately afterward I see the right door and make my way down the steps & shimmy through the row to my seat among two thousand others. At virtually 8:00 on the dot the stage darkens, a barely illuminated large man (David Hidalgo?) appears stage left, runs some guitar chords, other band members quietly appear one by one in the dimness, & a spotlit smallish man enters from right rear, light colored hat flat-brimmed, black suit with double white piping. Skinny, angular, bony; approaching microphone stand he looks his 75, reminds me of my grandfather Bopsie. Many of us—nearly 2,000—are standing, applauding. He grips the shiny narrow mic stand—it will become almost an instrument as he clings to it, brandishes & tilts it much of the evening—and as his quintet strikes up he growls
A worried man with a worried mind No one in front of me and nothing behind

as if introducing himself to his hosts: it’s the opening of his 2001 Oscar-winning “Things Have Changed.” Throughout the nearly two-hour set (including two encores, an hour and three-quarters) the band is tight, energetic, precise as they deliver the old and the new sometimes “straight,” sometimes in modes I hear as Caribbean, rhythm and blues, country. Just once, to great applause, he pulls from his pocket a small shiny rectangular device, plays his harp. Several times he seats himself at the piano, playing it fiercely, though the words are harder to make out. The night’s adaptations are never intrusive or imposing as in Charlotte 38 years earlier. Also unlike Charlotte, without alteration or embellishment he covers several of the Tin Pan Alley standards he heard in earlier days, and so on an evening in November, half a century after what proved a tumultuous night on a stretch of green land by the sea, I’m touched hearing Bob Dylan croon
…I miss you most of all 
My darling
 When autumn leaves 
Start to fall
Then, in the densely packed lobby as many hundreds of us shoulder-to-shoulder slowly make our way out, a middleaged woman, a total stranger evidently disturbed by some of the arrangements for his old standards—or by the rock n roller’s crooning?--turns toward me. “Was I supposed to like that?” she implores. “I don’t know,” I answer, “I did.”
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