If Woody Guthrie was Bob Dylan’s model, Leonard Cohen’s was Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen made his entrance from the more sophisticated realm of poetry rather than the more uncomplicated world of folk music. After Woody, Bob discovered Rimbaud and began writing lyrics that owed more to the surrealists than the Carter Family. Leonard saw very quickly that Dylan had made it possible to put poetry on the jukebox and his own youthful interest in folk and rock music was rekindled when he saw the possibilities. By creating lyrics with a broader range and more exciting language than anything that had come out of Tin Pan Alley, both Dylan and Cohen helped change the face of folk and popular music, not only in North America but around the world. Some fans and critics accused Dylan of treason, of “selling out” when he plugged into electricity at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Canadian literary critics did the same when in 1967 Cohen, already a poet of some reputation had the chutzpah to write and record songs that attracted a wide audience.
After spending a brief apprenticeship essentially as a Woody Guthrie jukebox, and absorbing the older folk song tradition, Dylan learned from others. They included the poets and writers that Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend during his first few years in Greenwich Village, turned him onto. She introduced him to symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, as well as the beat poets who wanted poetry to include the language of the streets—people like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, whom he met and hung out with learning everything he could listening to them and reading what they had written. William Carlos Williams—with his gift for making ordinary language into poetry was another, more remote influence. Walt Whitman broke open the American language in a way that can be heard in “Chines of Freedom,” one of Dylan’s most Whitmanesque songs. Painters also influenced him, and not only did he begin to paint but saw that painting could be an inspiration for the use of imagery in his songs. The French surrealist poets, with their technique for exploring language into surprising new juxtapositions. I would not be surprised to find that Andre Breton and Paul Eluard were among the poets he read. The painter likely included Picasso and Matisse.
Pictured Woody and Bob
It’s not difficult to think when reading poems by Breton and Eluard of many of the songs on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. I can easily imagine a young Bob Dylan reading the same lines in the early 1960s in the Village:
My wife with shoulders of champagne
And of a fountain with dolphin-heads beneath the ice
My wife with wrists of matches
My wife with fingers of luck and ace of hearts
With fingers of mown hay
My wife with armpits of marten and of beechnut
And of Midsummer Night
Of privet and of an angelfish nest
With arms of seafoam and of riverlocks
And of a mingling of the wheat and the mill
My wife with legs of flares
With the movements of clockwork and despair
My wife with calves of eldertree pith
My wife with feet of initials
With feet of rings of keys and Java sparrows drinking
My wife with a neck of unpearled barley
My wife with a throat of the valley of gold
Of a tryst in the very bed of the torrent
Andre Breton (from “Freedom of Love”)
She is standing on my eyelids
And her hair is wound in mine,
She has the form of my hands,
She has the color of my eyes,
She is swallowed by my shadow
Like a stone against the sky.
Her eyes are always open
And will not let me sleep.
Her dreams in broad daylight
Make the suns evaporate
Make me laugh, cry and laugh,
Speak with nothing to say.
Paul Eluard (“The Beloved”)
Dylan studied painting in the 70s with Norman Raeben, the son of Shalom Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer known as the "Mark Twain" of Yiddish literature. The son of Sholem Asch, Moses Asch, was the founder of Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways) that Dylan listened to around the time he discovered traditional music.
In prose, Jack Kerouac’s words and phrases recall On the Road and Desolation Angels. William Burroughs Naked Lunch used a method of finding random words and bringing them together in new ways to create new meanings.
The examples are as never-ending as a Dylan tour. In turn, he has become a role model for younger writers from Bruce Springsteen to Salman Rushdie and dozens of others. No writer creates something from nothing. It’s a process, one our newest Nobel Laureate has mastered.