When Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, much ink was spilled on whether his songs were, in fact, literature. But for most of the rest of the world, the Nobel decision is less an endorsement than a decree. It is a speech act that fires up the machinery of acquisition, printing, and advertising. If Dylan’s songbook was not literature then, and if it is not now, it would not change the fact that his lyrics are sold and read, the world over, as literature.
Here in China, the machinery set into motion in May 2016 turned its last cogs in 2017. After a yearlong editorial process involving some 15 Chinese poets and music critics, Guangxi Normal University Press published the complete lyrics of Bob Dylan (1961–2012) in eight volumes, which include both the original English and the Chinese translations. In distinctive Chinese fashion, the marketing of these books involved a meme-able, if easily misunderstood, quirk: each volume came packaged in potato chip wrappers. The flyer reads, “just as you buy a pack of chips from a supermarket — you tear, bite, pop, and cut it open. We hope it can go from the bookstore to the streets, to the subway, to grocery shops, to vending machines — and extend into people’s lives.” It is an irreverence that Dylan himself might appreciate. He said in his Nobel lecture, “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means.” These lyrics are made for consumption.
But it is, of course, consumption of a particular sort. The publication of Dylan’s songbook as literature prefigures how it will be received: it will be read as a book of lyrics. In parts of the world where recordings of English-language folk music are not popular or readily available, reading may soon become the predominant mode of encountering Dylan. In most bookshops that I have visited in China, Bob Dylan is placed alongside Kazuo Ishiguro and Alice Munro. The accompanying item is not a CD but more text: a translation of Dylan’s memoirs, Chronicles: Volume One. The question, then, is not merely how this publication will be received in China but how its mode of presentation will affect the way in which Dylan is understood.
For some, the translation of Dylan’s songbook represents the introduction of a revolutionary element into the culture of a stiff, illiberal state. When Dylan last performed in China in 2011, there was a small uproar over the Chinese Ministry of Culture’s claim that Dylan had “performed with the approved content.” It prompted Dylan, in a rare move, to issue a clarification on his website: “if there were any songs, verses, or lines censored, nobody ever told me about it.” But here, six years later and in a seemingly more restrictive political climate, is Dylan in his entirety. Bob unabridged, and Bob on-the-record. “Chimes of Freedom,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Maggie’s Farm” — the reckless celebration of freedom, youth, iconoclasm, eccentricity, and resistance — in English and in Chinese. That Dylan’s lyrics arrived in China under the banner of the Nobel Committee, which in 2010 outraged Beijing by recognizing the dissident activist Liu Xiaobo, only adds to the transgressive frisson.
For others, the transcription and translation of Dylan’s songs saps them of some of their energy and charge — their latent dangerousness. In her 2004 article, “Music — Drastic or Gnostic?” musicologist Carolyn Abbate describes the “carnal effects” of music as “devastating, physically brutal, mysterious, erotic, moving, boring, pleasing, enervating.” The worry is that Dylan’s lyrics, separated from their performance in song, will lose some of these qualities. Dylan himself voiced this concern in his Nobel Lecture, analogizing his songs’ desire to live on with that of Achilles: “whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.” Songs live in performance: “But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read.” And so the lecture ends with a plea: “And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days.”
The trouble with both these responses is that they attach too many expectations to Dylan and his work. The quarrel over Dylan’s 2011 shows reveals the limits of appropriating his songs for some subversive agenda. Critics decried the omission of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” from the China setlist as evidence of censorship, and of selling out. But absent from their denunciation is any account of how a Chinese audience might receive lyrics like “For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / there’s a battle outside / and it is ragin’,” let alone how they might connect them to a critique of the Chinese Communist Party. Missing too was an explanation of what these songs might have achieved that “Gonna Change My Thinking,” with which Dylan opened both shows, could not. For the most part, mining Dylan’s songbook for explosive content is an exercise in finding out that the words do not hold up. And that’s because the meaning of protest music has so much to do with its context — with the listeners’ memories and associations, and with the movement. The expectation that a songbook, published in another place and at another time, will recreate its revolutionary reception will certainly be disappointed.
Just as dubious is the claim that Dylan’s lyrics lose their power in print. The concern reflects an impulse, characteristic of both the artist and his fans, to preserve the mode of his work’s reception. Dylan might be right that “the words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in song are meant to be sung, and not read on a page.” But it is also true that Shakespeare’s plays are rewardingly read as text, and that this confluence of forms has always been a part of how they are received as “literature.” Dylan, who prolifically borrowed from printed records of Homer’s oral epics and from as many songbooks as recordings and live performances, must know this better than most. It is now his turn to expose his songs to the process of appropriation, distortion, and reinvention that he applied to his predecessors. He may even find that the force of his original intent will peak through the printed word. As he sang in “Restless Farewell,” “But if the arrow is straight / and the point is slick / it can pierce through the dust no matter how thick.”
Last winter, I sat with my writing teacher by the fireplace in her home in Vermont, listening to old records. When “A Hard Rain” came on, she told me that there was no one quite like Dylan, that his music was apocalyptic. And indeed, much of his art is prophetic: “and reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it / and I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’.” But what we do with this insight — and about the catastrophe that the lyrics expose, but rarely resolve — Dylan leaves to us. He just wrote the songs, and the songs “mean what they say they mean.” Recall the line from “Gotta Serve Somebody” — “you may be living in another country under another name / but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” What impact bàobó dílún has, and what end his lyrics ultimately serve, is now in the hands of his readers.
Bo Seo is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. He is Australian and Korean.