October 13, 2016

When English borrowed from rock and roll.

Desmond Macedo

In conversation with a friend some years ago, I said, ‘Bob Dylan’s name frequently comes up for nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but the Swedish folk have always turned it down because, according to them, lyrics of rock and roll music do not constitute literature.’

His eyes squinted, and his face wrinkled. It was the facial equivalent of ‘Rubbish.’

Then he said, ‘I can think of quite a few lines from rock and roll that have become so well known, they have entered popular, everyday usage. English has borrowed from rock and roll.’

And he began with Dylan’s ‘The answer is blowing in the wind,’ followed by:

Another brick in the wall
With a little help from my friends
The sound of silence
Give peace a chance
Itsy bitsy teeny weeny
Bridge over troubled water
Never on a Sunday
The best things in life are free
Money can’t buy me love
There’s no business like show business
I’ll do my crying in the rain
A whiter shade of pale
The long and winding road
I’ve become comfortably numb

‘People quote lines from great songs just as they quote lines or verses from great writers,’ he said.

'What about those beautiful words that came from a nagging woman?' he continued, trying to explain:

Words are flowing out like
Endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe

‘You know what?’ he turned to me after a while, now a little annoyed, ‘There are passages from rock music that will remain longer than the tune that helps people remember them:

And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

Then you run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it’s sinking, racing around
To come up behind you again

He paused after those lyrics, and then said, ‘Tune has a way, you know, of bringing back lost words.’

‘Meaning, tune is a mnemonic for lyrics?’

‘Yes. When you forget the words of a song, you hum the tune, or play the tune on your guitar or whatever instrument you play and the words come back.’


‘But some lyrics will outlive the tune that people remember them with.’

I was quiet.

We said bye that day, and when we met some days later at his place, he had just settled on his music stool with music sheets propped up in front of him on a metal stand, and had begun playing his guitar, and singing:

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain

With his fingers still pressed on chord E, he said, ‘These lines always turn me wonky.’  He looked down at the fret board, and, as if to say, ‘Never mind,’ thus ending the conversation of yesterday, continued with the song, his fingers now on A.

Time moved on. Bob Dylan won the Pulitzer Prize. Years moved on. The New York Times began to say Dylan is a literary giant.

And now I find it hard to listen to that Beatles' song my friend once sang, sitting on his music stool. This verse is particularly bad. It makes me feel wonky:

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I loved them all

‘Some lyrics outlive the tune that people remember them with.’

Post Script: Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I had made notes for this story long ago.