Text by Steve Piccolo
The very recent coincidence of the death of Nobel literature laureate Dario Fo, the Italian actor/playwright, and the bestowal of said prize on the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, both on October 13, 2016, has led to much discussion regarding the definition of “literature”. The complaints voiced by self-styled defenders of “true” literature, as opposed to drama or song, after the announcement of Dylan’s Nobel brought back memories of the debate that raged when Fo was unexpectedly chosen by the Swedish Academy back in 1997. Though it might seem surprising in this day and age, evidently there is still disagreement about whether popular music is an art form, and about the need to distinguish between poetry and song lyrics. So perhaps the time is ripe to put an end to this futile dispute, once and for all.
In his indispensable ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound made the famous statement “music begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the dance” while “poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”
And he reminds us that the great French poetic innovator François Villon, for example, composed “ballads,” namely poems intended to be sung in front of an audience. The troubadours, in the High Middle Ages, often cited as veritable models for modern poets, were composer-poets who produced and performed songs, in which “melody and poem existed in a state of the closest symbiosis, obeying the same laws and striving for the same sound-ideal,” writes musicologist John Stevens.
Due to the extraordinary quality of his lyrics, Dylan has been pestered throughout his long career by interviewers struggling to understand the mysterious “symbiotic” relationship between words and music.
In a famous press conference in San Francisco in 1965, after the revolutionary appearance at the Newport Folk Festival (yet another moment of righteous protest from the “purists”), a very young and bashful Dylan shrugs off the whole issue at first with a flippant quip, as if the question were irrelevant.
Q. Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?
A. Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know…
This self-deprecating remark gets a big laugh from the audience of journalists. But they don’t give up.
Q. Would you say that the words are more important than the music?
A. The words are just as important as the music. There would be no music without the words.
Q. Which do you do first, ordinarily?
A. The words.
Though they have little in common as writers or performers, what Dylan and Fo do share is a closely similar definition of themselves, Fo as a “jester,” Dylan as a “minstrel.” In both cases, this is anything but false humility. To understand why, our best option this time is the etymological dictionary.
Minstrel: early 13c., from Old French menestrel “entertainer, poet, musician; servant, workman; good-for-nothing, rogue,” from Medieval Latin ministralis “servant, jester, singer,” from Late Latin ministerialem (nominative ministerialis) “imperial household officer, one having an official duty,” from ministerialis (adj.) “ministerial,” from Latin ministerium. The connecting notion is via the jester, etc., as a court position.
Both Fo and Dylan have demonstrated amazing poise in their way of deploying and controlling the immense power of words, music and fame, suavely juggling the various aspects of their complex role as “entertainers,” “rogues”
The term “minstrel” also brings to mind another great poet and songster, who could justifiably be included in the same ranks: Leonard Cohen.
So what is literature? Are songs literature? For all the shrill naysayers (let them remain anonymous, to make this all the more irksome), we can again turn to Ezra Pound: “Literature is news that STAYS news.”
Dario Fo self-portrait