“Novel Sounds is a brilliantly literary account of rock and roll and American culture. From Lead Belly at the MLA to Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, Dore demonstrates how profoundly and unexpectedly entwined our literary histories are with their sonic media. She ensures we’ll never listen to a ballad or read a novel from the era in the same way again.”
~ Kate Marshall, University of Notre Dame
This week, our featured book is Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll. Today we are happy to bring you a excerpt from a Q&A with author Florence Dore that originally appeared on The University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies blog.
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Q: What was the first Dylan album you purchased? What’s your favorite? Your least favorite?
FD: Well, the first Dylan album I “got” was Nashville Skyline, which I stole from my mom, along with Rubber Soul, The Band, The Silver Tongued Devil and I, Harvest, and other records I hope one day my daughter will want to steal from me. Like a lot of people born in the mid-1960s, I came to Dylan via the obsession generated in my parents’ generation, so by the time I started buying Dylan albums he was in his Christian phase and I didn’t really want to get involved. I was way more obsessed with female artists, had been buying Joan Baez records as they came out starting when I was about 10 (I actually wrote Joan a fan letter when I was 8, and her mom wrote me back, including a picture of Joan with the letter). I don’t really know if I have a favorite Dylan album, I guess because his music has just seemed so pervasive—just kind of everywhere, like air. I can say that Nashville Skylineholds a special place in my heart, I think just because of the associations of hearing it in my house as a kid growing up in Nashville. I remember being really drawn in by the sound of the pedal steel on “Lay Lady Lay,” way before I understood what that song was about. But do I think that’s the best Dylan record? No. I definitely don’t have a least favorite, though I admit that I am not a big fan of the Sinatra covers. But even there I can appreciate the gesture.
Q: Your new book, Novel Sounds begins and ends with chapters on Dylan. Can you tell us something about the book as a whole and about why Dylan, in particular, helps us think more clearly about the intersection of music and literature?
FD: We tend to think of rock and roll as anti-institutional and irreverent, but as rock ages along with its most influential guardians—as our immortal rude boys appear before us as so many graying grandfathers—we experience the form as legitimate. Surely Dylan is the paradigmatic example of this apparent sea change. But Novel Sounds uncovers a deeper history of overlap between rock and literature, one to which Dylan’s earliest recordings in fact contribute. So, for example, “The House Carpenter,” recorded by Dylan in 1961, turns out to have been included as an example of literature in one of the most influential literature textbooks ever published in the the US. I mean Understanding Poetry, published in 1938 and then again in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1970s, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. My book shows that the conferral on Dylan of the Nobel Prize in Literature didn’t actually break down a barrier between literature and rock, but that it culminated a deep interchange between popular music and literature that had been evolving for centuries. In England, Richard Thompson and other members of Fairport Convention brought what were understood as literary ballads into rock. But in the US it was Dylan who clarified that ballads—those, like “The House Carpenter” coming from England and Scotland, but music by African American artists like Lead Belly and Odetta as well—belonged in both literary and rock domains.
Q: In no more than 100 words, describe why Dylan matters.
FD: Greil Marcus has made this point more eloquently than I ever could, and from literary corners writers like Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta are elaborating Dylan’s influence in wonderfully novelistic terms as well. To these accounts (and so many others) I would add that Dylan matters precisely because of the literary sensibilities he brings to rock and roll. Nothing new here: Steve Earle recently told me that Dylan was the first artist to move rock out of the realm of “cars and girls.” Another way to put that would be to say that Dylan brought into rock’s domain the very same ballads that guardians of the high literary like Brooks and Warren considered to be the origins of literature itself.