Although he was a prominent part of the soundtrack to my student days, I was never a huge Bob Dylan fan. I found the nasal voice, the rudimentary guitar-strumming and harmonica-playing, grating; and the apparent stream-of-consciousness of the lyrics confusing. Some of his songs have stayed with me but I generally preferred the more melodious, if perhaps less profound, singer-songwriters of the day.
Last week my Dark Angels colleague, John Simmons, emailed to say that he had been to see a new play at the Old Vic, The Girl From The North Country, by Conor McPherson with music by Bob Dylan. ‘My God, he deserved that Nobel prize,’ John wrote, adding that he had been reduced to tears by the performance. ‘The whole audience instantly sprang to their feet for a standing ovation at the end.’
In response, my other Dark Angels colleague, Stuart Delves, emailed a link to the video of Patti Smith singing A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at the Nobel Prize ceremony (which Dylan did not attend) last December. The moment when she falters in front of the gathering, which included the King and Queen of Sweden, overcome by both the occasion and by the song itself, is profoundly moving. She later wrote about the experience in The New Yorker, where you can also watch her performance.
Unbeknown to Stuart, an exhibition entitled A Hard Rain was that same day being mounted at Birnam Arts, my (very) local arts centre. An environmental project that has been touring the world for more than a decade, it’s based around images of environmental destruction taken by the photographer Mark Edwards and set, with Bob Dylan’s blessing, to a live recording of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
The images and music together deliver a solemn message about the destruction we are wreaking on the planet. They also compelled me, as if Patti Smith hadn’t already, to agree with John: Bob Dylan surely deserved that prize. I will now return to those albums whose sleeves I can still see so clearly and listen again, more carefully. I’m also prompted to wonder, more in ignorance than in prejudice, if there’s anyone writing songs today, in their twenties, who might in fifty years’ time be honoured with a Nobel Prize for literature?
It’s an old chestnut and I put it up to be roasted, but weren’t we children of the sixties growing up to a soundscape of exceptional richness and originality? As just two out of hundreds of brilliant artists and writers from those times, I think of Glen Campbell, who died yesterday, and Jimmy Webb who wrote that transcendently beautiful hit song for him, Wichita Lineman.
These people were, still are, giants of entertainment and popular culture. It doesn’t surprise me to find that alongside my love of Scottish traditional music (which I also acquired as a teenager, though it wells from a different spring, more closely related to place and history and community), I’m now returning to the enduring repertoire of the sixties and seventies.
My new musical partner, singer Dave Amos, is of the same vintage and very similar tastes to me. We have been playing here and there for about eighteen months now, and our biggest challenge so far has been to narrow down the number of songs we both love to those that we love so much we can’t not play them. It seems that we could plunder the sixties and seventies songbook for a century and still keep coming up with new material.
The pleasure in performing them is tremendous, but it’s the connections they open up when we pass round the songbooks and the audience starts to join in, that are almost overwhelming. People are transported on a collective tide of memory and emotion, in some cases to a time they have lived through, in others to a time they may only have heard about but in some strange way can inhabit in that moment; all of it amplified by the age-old practice of lifting voices together and finding a feeling of community in song.
I don’t believe there’s anything quite so uniting as the shared experience of making music. We should all do more of it. Perhaps if we did we might even put a stop to that hard rain that’s a-gonna fall.
Amos & Jauncey are playing next Friday, 18th August, at Birnam Arts. The show is almost sold out but there are still a few tickets available here. We’re also available for private bookings – more information here.