Visionary Dylan

Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song

by Timothy Hampton

The essay begins:

In December of 1965, Bob Dylan gave a news conference in San Francisco. Following his rise to fame in the early 1960s as a writer of politically themed “folk” songs, Dylan had caused a stir several months earlier at the Newport Folk Festival by appearing on stage in a black leather jacket, accompanied by an electric blues band. Now he was beginning an extensive tour to play a new kind of music—music that he described in his press conference as neither folk, nor rock, nor folk-rock, but something called “vision music.” In this essay I want to consider what that phrase might mean.

images-2In what follows I will argue that Dylan’s famous turn to “electric music” is part of a larger stylistic shift in his approach to writing and performing—a shift that unfolds across the middle years of the 1960s. Imagery, lyric form, musical structure, and even the dynamics of performance are recalibrated through new strategies that emerge to replace the earlier interest in topical songs. This is what I will call a “visionary poetics.” It places Dylan in a tradition of visionary poetry reaching back as far as Dante. However, as I will show, Dylan’s development during this period takes shape through his dialogue with literary modernism. For mid-1960s Dylan, the visionary is the modern. My focus will be, principally, on the trio of great “electric” albums produced in the mid-’60s: Bringing It All Back Home (1964), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). What interests me is less the notion of “poetic inspiration” (often assumed to be part of some generational Zeitgeist) than the development of the specific literary techniques and musical innovations through which Dylan expands his songwriting range. I will trace the ways in which the expansion of his songwriting palette during this period generates a set of aesthetic and ethical problems that place pressure on the forms of popular song.

Certainly, Dylan’s expansion of his lyric range owes something to the work of the Beat Generation and, in particular, to Allen Ginsberg, who was seated prominently at the San Francisco news conference. It was no accident that the San Francisco visit included a pilgrimage to the beatnik mecca of City Lights Books, where Dylan was photographed in the alley behind the store with Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. This was the already aging royalty of the Beats, who had, in their own time, rejected the collective activism of the Old Left to pursue individual beatitude or “beatness.” Dylan was bringing Greenwich Village intellectualism to the epicenter of the emerging sensory-based West Coast counterculture, casting himself as the heir to an earlier visionary generation. Yet Ginsberg had been working in a visionary mode from his very first published poems. Dylan now had to make himself into a visionary; he had to develop a new poetic vocabulary and link it to the limited formal capacities of the popular song.

arthur_rimbaud_gThe touchstone for any study of visionary self-creation is neither Ginsberg, nor Ginsberg’s idol William Blake, but Arthur Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud who had given first voice to the brand of visionary modernism that Dylan would embrace. It was Rimbaud who had announced that the poet “makes himself into a visionary” (Illuminations, xxx). And it was Rimbaud who had codified, in his letters about poetry, the procedures and limitations of the visionary mode. My discussion here will set Dylan and Rimbaud in dialogue, less as a study of influence—though influence is part of the story—than one of affinity, using Rimbaud’s canonical accounts of visionary poetry as a template for tracing Dylan’s development. Continue reading …

Bob Dylan’s turn from “folk music” to “electric music” in the 1960s involves the development of a new visionary poetics. Through a consideration of his affinity with the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, this essay traces Dylan’s recasting of himself as a visionary and studies the pressures placed by this process on lyric form, on poetic diction, and on the representation of the self in popular music.

TIMOTHY HAMPTON is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of French at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2009). He is currently working on a study of the history of cheerfulness.

Children’s Opera as Political Education

Brecht for Children: Shaping the Ideal GDR Citizen Through Opera Education

by Anicia Timberlake

The essay begins:

In the spring of 1969, students from the fifth through seventh grades at the Käthe Kollwitz Secondary School of Greifswald took the stage to perform the new children’s opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The performance was well received: reviewer Gudrun Hillemann praised the music’s “simple melodic and memorable rhythmic Gestalt” and concluded that, overall, “theatrical performance with music is excellently suited for aesthetic education and for supporting the artistic [musisch] climate at a school.” Although the piece was not new to local music circles, Manfred Vetter, a professor at the Institute for Music Education in Greifswald, raised a stink a few days after the secondary-school performance. How was it possible that the librettist Hella Brock, a progressive socialist, a member of the Socialist Unity Party, and Vetter’s own colleague at the institute, had chosen a fairy tale in which an emperor, the head of a feudal society, was moved—and redeemed—by music? The opera portrayed the emperor far too sympathetically and conveyed the wrong idea about the progress of history. When other faculty members endorsed Vetter’s opinion, further performances of the opera were canceled. Several months later, after the summer vacation, the secretary of the local party organization announced that the decision had been revoked, and the opera could be performed again. But it was too late: the children were half a year older, their voices had begun to change, and they had already put the disappointment of the canceled performance behind them. Brock suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the incident and in 1972 left Greifswald to become a professor at the Karl Marx University, Leipzig.

kurt-schwaen-the-horatians-and-the-curiatiansOn one level, this was simply an example in miniature of the kind of late-stage attack common in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as well as in the Soviet Union. Performances often made it through planning and rehearsals only to be savaged after the premiere. The classic Soviet example is Dmitry Shostakovich’s immensely successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which premiered in January 1934 and was denounced by Stalin two years later. Similarly, Bertolt Brecht and Paul Dessau’s opera The Trial of Lucullus was suppressed on ideological grounds in the GDR in 1951 due to accusations of musical “formalism.” Where these famous cases demonstrate the arbitrary cruelty of official censorship, the silencing of The Nightingale shows how an individual, supposedly acting in the interests of the state, could transmute personal convictions about ideology and representation into official dictates on cultural policy. But even more, Vetter’s attack against a children’s opera—surely the most harmless and charming of performances—reveals the unsteady foundations of GDR citizen formation through music education. If we look a little more closely at the educational theories and practices that underpinned this incident, the idea of a coherent or unified GDR cultural and educational policy begins to unravel in disorienting and fascinating ways. In this article, I focus on children’s operas as a site of political education. The surviving documentation around the operas for children created and performed between 1950 and 1979, and policies and debates on children’s music education more generally, reveal considerable confusion about how best to mobilize German cultural heritage for a socialist purpose. These sources show educators drawing from diverse prewar pedagogical traditions to develop techniques they employed in addition to those that state policy had mandated for use in schools. As we shall see in the article’s final sections, Brechtian dramatic theory was an important element of these performances, and the study of the rehearsal process for a Brecht Lehrstück with which this article concludes shows how the theory of estrangement sometimes proved irreconcilable with older convictions about how children felt, moved, and behaved. What is more, the vicissitudes of pedagogy and rehearsal in the staging of Brecht’s The Horatians and the Curiatians make a revealing case study of what East German musicians, educators, and performers thought Brecht’s (vexed concept of) gestus actually was, and how it might function through music. Continue reading …

East German music educators developed new children’s operas on the model of Brechtian Lehrstücke to teach critical, “dialectical” thinking, a skill they considered essential for young socialists. This essay examines how the operas offered an alternative political education to the GDR’s official program of state-loyal patriotism and explores the conflicts that arose when Brecht’s theories of gestus and estrangement came into contact with the fairy tale tradition long thought to be the center of German children’s culture.

ANICIA TIMBERLAKE works on the politics of children’s music education in the German Democratic Republic. She is a C3: Creating Connections Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at Williams College.