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JACK WEATHERLY: Driving along Dylan’s endless ‘Highway 61’



It was like a Bob Dylan song:

I know there was a concert,

‘cause things got so rough,

they even took a lawyer

away in handcuffs.

That’s my  paraphrase of the sum total of the coverage I could find of Dylan’s concert last week in Thalia Mara Hall.

It was a sellout. That I know. It was probably the only sellout for a Nobel laureate in Mississippi, with the possible exception of William Faulkner.

Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature two weeks earlier, and up to that time he had made no public comment about the honor. Seems it was an opportunity to get him to go on the record.

Well, anyway, a singer/songwriter? What’s that got to do with literature?

It’s those lyrics – those dense, at times phantasmagorical, frequently haunting, touching words he’s been writing for more than 50 years.

In a word, poetic.

The 20th century turned away from the structured poetry of tradition and opened the door to a new, freer art form.

These lyrics, they are poetic. But are they poetry? That academic argument has simmered on the back burner over the decades.

Now the Swedish prize has brought it to a boil, though some will never touch that kettle.

The Nobel committee announced its decision on Oct. 13, granting the most prestigious award in lit for creating “a new poetic expression within the great American song tradition.”

More than two weeks passed without official acknowledgment from the recipient. Finally, Dylan said a couple of days after the Jackson concert that he will accept the prize, and that he would be at the ceremony in Stockholm, “if at all possible.”

He is on the road in what he calls his Never Ending Tour, which started in 1988.

His website currently only goes through Nov. 23, a concert in Fort Lauderdale. The Swedish event is Dec. 10.

So maybe there’s an opening.

His explanation for the slow response, was that he was “speechless.” Somehow, having followed him, more sometimes than at other times, for 52 years, I believe that.

But who can know him?

The first time I heard a Dylan LP was in 1964. Attuned to the Beatles, who had just awakened me and a whole generation to a bigger world, the strange and disaffected sounds of “Bringing it All Back Home,” left me cold, alienated.

And that voice, that young-old, nasal rasping. I just wasn’t ready for it.

(About that British band: I was riding in a car with a guy in Memphis in the fall of 1963 and he reached over and turned up the AM radio – that was before FM – and said excitedly, “Listen to this! That’s different!” It was “I Saw Her Standing There.”)

It was an era busy being born, as another was busy dying, as Dylan might say.

Rolling Stone, that chronicler of rock ‘n’ roll for a half-century, shows a connection.

He’d been bowled over by hearing the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on the radio. “They were doing things nobody was doing,” he recalled. ‘The chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and the harmonies made it all valid.’”

My friend Mike played for me Dylan’s next album, “Highway 61 Revisited,” an ironic allusion to the blues highway, whose south Delta terminus is close enough to Jackson for purposes of this column.

Its rebellious, mysterious songs (“God said to Abraham, kill me a son” . . . Responding, the fearful founder of Judaism said: “Where you want this killin’ done?” God: “Out on Highway 61”) weakened the restraints of my moorings.

And I eventually broke loose. And was lost. Then found.

“How does it feel, to be own your own like a rolling stone?”

On the back of one of his album covers in those days, he wrote, “Some people say I’m a poet.”

And 50 years later, the Nobel committee agreed.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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