By Karen Zautyk
A few weeks ago, the name of Oxford, Miss., came up in a casual conversation having nothing to do with politics, civil rights or anything of consequence. Yours truly had even forgotten the town’s links to 20th century history. Yet, a couple of hours later, I found myself singing:
Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town.
He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town.
I hadn’t even heard that song for years, but there it was – lyrics and tune – stuck in my subconscious, ready to be resurrected. It concerns the violence surrounding the 1962 enrollment of James Meredith as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, and it, along with the better-known “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in The Wind,” became an anthem of the civil rights movement.
And all were written by Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
When the award was announced, there was a bit of an uproar. The literature award? To a songwriter? And a hippie-dippie one at that? Tsk, tsk.
The tsk-ers are still at it, grousing about Dylan’s failure – as of this writing – to even acknowledge, much less thank the Nobel Committee for, the recognition. To which I say: Hey! You’re dealing with Dylan. Rebel to the core, even at age 75.
Obviously, I have no idea why Dylan has been silent, but it doesn’t surprise me. But does he deserve this honor? Absolutely.
The Nobel citation is for his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Can’t argue with that.
Dylan, more than any of the multitudinous folk artists around at the time, was – not to coin a phrase – the voice of a generation. And he didn’t just write music, he lived it. For instance, when he was 19, he travelled (hitchhiked?) cross-country just to meet his idol, folk artist extraordinaire Woody Guthrie, who was then being treated for Huntington’s disease at Greystone Park State Hospital in Morris Plains.
Now, I must confess that I haven’t followed Dylan’s career for a very long time. Indeed, when I started researching this column, I was stunned at the total number of songs in his discography, with most of which I was unfamiliar. I guess I’m stuck in the ’60s, or maybe inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again. My intent now is to catch up (and the newer ones also must have played a part in the award).
Nevertheless, the works I do recall – and there are many – I recall vividly.
These are not limited to the protest songs of a rebellious youth. Dylan could touch your heart, your soul. I even adore “Like a Rolling Stone,” which triggered literal outcries from purists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival because Dylan had “sold out” his art by using an electric guitar. I guess not all members of the peace-and-love crowd were as tolerant as they professed.
For a taste of Dylan’s range, do yourself a favor and check out “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (based on an actual murder case and an injudicious judicial system); the rip-your-heart-out “Ballad of Hollis Brown”; the poignant love ballads such as “Girl From the North Country” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and the classic “I Shall Be Released,” which has been covered by more artists of various genres than you can count.
Dylan also possesses a distinctive talent for wit and humor. Dark humor. Which can be very therapeutic if one is in a dark place, such as the middle of an assured-mutual-destruction, we’re-all-gonna-die-when-they-drop-the-bomb childhood. To this day, his “Talkin’ World War III Blues” can still make me laugh. It begins:
One time ago, a crazy dream came to me.
I dreamt I was walkin’ in World War Three.
Went to the doctor the very next day
To see what kinda words he could say.
He said it was a bad dream.
Now, those of you who are aware of my political leanings might be surprised by my ongoing admiration of Dylan, to which I say, those of my ilk are not as intellectually restricted as you have been told. Besides, I became a fan a long, long time ago. I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.
As for the Nobel Prize, IMHO Dylan deserves the award more than Hemingway (1954) did. But that would be fodder for another column. Let’s just say that if you want a taste of true literature from the Jazz Age, read Fitzgerald.