Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

At last, five days before the deadline, Dylan has delivered his Nobel Lecture. And what a lecture! Read it, or, even better listen to its 27 glorious, (apparently) rambling, mesmerising minutes at
There’s his encounter with Buddy Holly, two days before he died, and feeling that Buddy is passing on the baton.
There’s Dylan listening to and absorbing the vernacular of folk music.
And there are his reactions to three great books: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. His Moby-Dick piece is brilliant: ‘Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale … everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale … We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.’ And that’s just a brief extract.

He ends with, ‘So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means … I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”‘

For more on Dylan and Melville, see my Bob Dylan and “The Confidence Man” page in Music. And for Buddy Holly, my Buddy Holly’s Apartment Tapes, and Buddy Holly ‘Please Don’t Tell’ pages, also in Music. But first – listen to the man!

Buddy Holly ‘Please Don’t Tell’

I’ve been listening to Buddy Holly’s Apartment tapes. 12 songs, 6 written by him, recorded in the Greenwich village apartment where he lived with his new wife. The recordings, made between his last official recordings – ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’, and ‘Raining in my Heart’ in October 1958 – and his death in a plane crash on 3 Feb 1959, were his last. I’m writing a blog about them. In the meantime, this is a look at one of the songs, which I’ll call ‘Please Don’t Tell’.

It’s told in the breathless style of High school or shop girl tittle-tattle, beginning:
‘Please don’t tell, no, no, no, don’t say that I told you so, I just heard a rumour from a friend.’
It continues:
‘I don’t say that it’s true – I’ll just leave that up to you; if you don’t believe, I’ll understand.’
Then it goes into the middle eight:
‘You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song? This is what I heard – of course, the story could be wrong.’
Then back to the verse:
She’s the one, I’ve been told, now she’s wearing a band of gold …
And into the last line reveal.

Imagine the video, with each line, or half- or quarter-line mouthed by a different character from 50s America – the red-lipped waitress, the ponytail High School girl, the butterfly-glasses secretary, the telltale cheerleader, the freckled kid with teeth-braces, the seen-it-all lady in the café, the shocked aspirational wife, the tight-jumpered ‘easy’ girl … ‘Please Don’t Tell’ is code for ‘pass it on!’ – and it becomes a satire on, and a dig at, the small-town gossip-mill Buddy has escaped.

The mystery, revealed in the last line is, ‘Peggy Sue got married not long ago!

Ostensibly it’s about drummer Jerry Allison’s marriage. But it could just as well be about Holly’s sudden marriage to Maria Elena. He proposed to her on their first date, and she, according to Lubbock talk, has bewitched him away to New York, where she’ll control his life. He left, to much jealous rancour from the band members and friends he left behind.

It was released, after Holly’s death, with a banal backing added, and titled ‘Peggy Sue got Married’. Which of course wrecks the point of the song. It was crass post-mortem marketing, to grab the coat-tails of his number 3 hit, ‘Peggy Sue’ (a song originally credited to Allison). This is an infinitely superior song. Verbally sustained, this is Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller-quality storytelling. And excellent musically, its tune echoing the original, but with clever modulations that build the tension. It even has a proper middle eight! – ‘Peggy Sue’ had to make do with a stuttering repetition of five ‘prettys’. ‘Peggy Sue’ is boring and repetitive, given life and kept going by paradiddle drumming and artful performance. In it, Holly has to sing ‘Peggy’ 30 times; he even has to mock his own singing style on one repetition to sustain interest. Call this later song ‘Please don’t Tell’, add paradiddle drumming, and you have a masterpiece.

And the wedding? Oops, maybe the secret is that Peggy Sue had to get married! Not the grand white wedding, but they ‘went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest. / No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle,/ no flowers, no wedding dress’, as Bruce Springsteen puts it so poignantly a generation later. It’s Holly’s message that’s he’s left town, and all that tittle-tattle, having demonstrated how much he’s progressed as a writer and artist in 18 months, and is on his way to being a player in the big city.

Please Don’t Tell

Please don’t tell, no-no-no,
Don’t say that I told you so,
I just heard a rumour from a friend.
I don’t say that it’s true –
I’ll just leave that up to you;
If you don’t believe, I’ll understand.

You recall a girl that’s been in nearly every song?
This is what I heard – of course, the story could be wrong.

She’s the one, I’ve been told,
Now, she’s wearing a band of gold …
Peggy Sue got married not long ago!