I love PM on Radio 4. I trust Eddie Mair more, perhaps, than anyone really should. Eddie, like me, loves country music but that’s only a side issue. The editorial approach and decision making behind the programme makes it, for me, the best weekday news programme on the network and Eddie is the king of all he surveys. So why could they have got their Bob Dylan Nobel feature so horribly wrong?
In ‘celebration’ of Bob’s honour they decided to ask actors to read sections of Dylan’s lyrics aloud on air. This in itself may have worked with a little contextualisation, like why the lyric means so much – in fact the final choice by Pam Ayres almost triumphed – but in the main it was a recreation of Peter Sellers comic masterly recital of ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ I can understand why they felt they had to do it. Dylan, they are trying to say, is now a Nobel Laureate – it must be his lyrics, they must be of such literary merit they will stand alone as poetry. How wrong is that though?
What people fail to understand about pop music – because it is that folks – is there are many things going on. Firstly there is a context – Where does a song encounter its audience? Certainly in a wholly different way any other piece of literature does. We don’t sit down and read this stuff. We hear it our of our dad’s car radio, across a noisy open air swimming pool through a bad tannoy, above the generator hum and the screams of the dodgems and sometimes in the silence of a bedroom at night. We hear the song not as collection of rhymes, allusions and metaphors but as words sneaking between guitar licks and horns riffs. We hear the singer but sometimes only just. Where the music makes us feel good it is often against the entire thrust of the narrative of the lyric and vice versa. People – it’s a song! It is made to be with music, it doesn’t exist without music and if the singer sings one line ten times that’s because it works in a song. Sometimes – and get this clearly – it makes no sense at all! One of the greatest ever rock’n’roll revival groups were called, Sha Na Na, because they, probably like you, knew that’s what makes sense in rock’n’roll. Maybe, just maybe, the good people in Sweden who sat in that room understood some of this too. They understood that Bob Dylan’s songs are great literature because of how they have been received by the audience and how they are not simply words to be removed from the upward thrust of some of the most heartbreaking, uplifting, joyous, anthemic and exciting music you are ever likely to hear.
This Tuesday night we will play a couple of good reasons why Bob Dylan has been honoured and we will ask you, out of deep respect, to turn your radios up very loud.
We also want to mark the 90th birthday of the 20th Century’s other great singer songwriter. The man, without whom I suggest, none of us would be here: Chuck Berry.
We will have plenty new music for your to enjoy too. Listen out for new records by Tim Easton, Anthony D’Amato, The Black Feathers and The Way Down Wanderers. Did I mention Merle yet? Oh there’s so much. Please join me from five past nine this Tuesday evening on BBC Radio Scotland.