Queen Mary

Michael Neve

  • A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan by Wilfrid Mellers
    Faber, 255 pp, £6.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 571 13345 2
  • Dylan by Jonathan Cott
    Vermilion/Hutchinson, 244 pp, £20.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 158750 6

At certain moments, which, given there is less and less time to think, may be fleeting, one question surely crosses the mind of most adult readers: do we actually need to hear from professors? Do we, for example, need professors of music to tell us about the songs of the Beatles, or professors of philosophy to tell us that philosophy is dead, or professors of linguistics to tell us about children’s speech, or professors of film to tell us how the sign system is working in Psycho? Aren’t there moments when we are all liable to turn into Uncle Vanya, and start wondering where we left that revolver?

Doubts about professors (as against, say, prophets) don’t always mean doubting individuals who are ‘professors’. There are some remarkable examples, in contemporary English academic life, of professors who are hitting the streets, almost like buskers or crazed Beaverbrookian newspaper hacks, part of whose authority comes from a deliberate vulgarisation of matters of import, a de-professionaliation of the professor’s role. The danger of course is that this act may be a trick, just another extension – into the rough – of professorial hegemony. But it does seem increasingly difficult to take a certain kind of confident professor seriously. A happy professor of political science, for example, must be a very weird cat. As with (almost) everything else, Bob Dylan has something to say about this. In ‘My Back Pages’, a fine song that connects scepticism with a sense of becoming increasingly youthful as the years pass, he recalls:

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool.

Writing about Dylan, as against listening to him, is not easy and it’s useful to have Wilfrid Mellers’s ‘backdrop’ to Dylan, after his recent offerings, Twilight of the Gods, about the Beatles, Bach and the Dance of God and Beethoven and the Voice of God. For people without musical training, of whom this reviewer is one, the musicological contributions made by Mellers over the years, and over a wide range of musical forms, have often proved extremely helpful. But musicology isn’t the same thing as musical understanding, and part of the problem with Mellers on Dylan is that he is bound to step out of his ‘backdrop’ at certain points, and have palpable interpretative designs upon us. And here the difficulties are real, since he can suddenly become Professor Wilfrid Mellers giving a lecture about a perfectly accessible popular artist, and (maybe) getting it wrong. Some of his interpretations, at least for one person who has listened to Dylan almost every day of his semi-adult life, do seem painfully in error – error to do with professorial over-interpretation.

The first part of A Darker Shade of Pale (terrible title) looks at the legacy of American folk culture and the musical forms that have infused it, and which continue to do so. It’s rather like reading one of the 18th-century Scottish conjectural historians, with a Hegelian musical gloss. Mellers is well known for his interest in American music of all kinds, and here we have a tour through various Celtic importations, through the ballads of deprivation, American hymnody, the music of the Shakers, on to ‘a therapy of corporeal assent: music for scraped and plucked strings’. There follow discussions of banjo, guitar, cowboy music (especially the ‘lonesome’ feel), Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams. The link into Dylan, the subject of Part Two, is Elvis Presley. One’s doubts about how illuminating all this is, in relation to the beginnings of Dylan’s own contribution, are reinforced by this division in the text, but no doubt Mellers could reply that this is what a ‘backdrop’ is.

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