10/25/2016 11:24 EDT | Updated 10/25/2016 11:37 EDT

Literature Has Long Been Radicalized By Music

Ki Price / Reuters
U.S. musician Bob Dylan performs during on day 2 of The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent on June 30th 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price/File photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Bob Dylan's recent win of the Nobel Prize in Literature has raised eyebrows and has come with mixed feelings within the literati community. There are persons who see the academy's decision to award Dylan this coveted prize as "misguided and questioned whether songwriting, however brilliant," deserves to be ranked at the same standard as literature.

In The New York Times article, "Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize, Redefining Boundaries of Literature," the writers commented that the selection of Dylan to receive such a prestigious award is perhaps the most radical choice in a history since 1901. They further note that: "In choosing a popular musician for the literary world's highest honor, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels."

Seemingly, the writers, like many others have overlooked the significance of music's influence on literature. As such, the concept of music as an aesthetic form for literature is not a new phenomenon. Therefore, the boundaries of literature have been long redefined. This idea has been documented in critical works, specifically, texts that look at classical music and its influence on literature from the eighteenth-century to the present.

Werner Wolf's book The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Intermediality, comprehensively codified a formal theory of musicoliterary aesthetics, and it gives attention to the rise of music in Anglo literature from the start of the 18th century. Wolf starts off with a comparative analysis, which discusses the similarities and differences between music and literature. The book also offers a general theory of intermediality or "the participation of more than one medium of expression in the signification of a human artefact."

Indeed, it was not uncommon for creative writers to have integrated musical aesthetic into their work in order to challenge traditional European literary structures and to establish their own native voices. For instance, Indian writer and composer Rabindranath Tagore who became the first non-European writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was known to fuse his songs into his literary work. Gitanjali, the book of poems for which Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, was essentially a collection of songs.

Similarly, the Harlem Renaissance writers relied on a jazz aesthetic to express a distinct "Negro" voice from the canonized Euro-American literature that had little or no regards for black folk culture. And in his efforts to express the folk tradition of the Afro-Cuban populace and at the encouragement of writer Langston Hughes, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén drew from the organic base of the Cuban son; a musical tradition characterised by Afro-Cuban folk sounds and percussion along with the Spanish canción.

Without a doubt, music has always served as a donor to radicalized literary expression.

Later 20th century writers such as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Ismael Reed continued to express the realities of the everyday folk via an informed jazz aesthetic. In fact, Toni Morrison has often pointed to the influence of black music in her work. In several interviews, she comments that in her own family "music was everywhere and all around" and how "they played music in the house all the time." Her maternal grandfather played the violin, her mother sang opera and jazz and was a pianist in silent-movie theatre and her oldest son is a flutist and guitar player.

Moreover, a more current music aesthetic emerging into literature is reggae. In his ground-breaking book Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic, Professor Kwame Dawes examines the influence of reggae music on Caribbean creative writers such as Kamau Brathwaite and more contemporary ones like Lorna Goodison. Dawes argues that reggae in the early 1960s was the primary source of artistic expression that successfully captured the ethos of the Jamaican people. In this way, he cites that this aesthetic value can also be identified in the works of poets and fiction writers throughout the Caribbean region.

And of course, we cannot ignore the value of literature courses that are devoted to the study of musical lyrics in some universities across the globe. For example, "Reggae Poetry" is a literature course currently being taught at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica. In this course, students are given the opportunity to recognise the correlation between literary and song-text, as well as "gaining an understanding of the socio-historical context out of which the music emerges from." Some of the songwriters and performers studied in the course are Jimmy Cliff and the legendary Bob Marley.

Without a doubt, music has always served as a donor to radicalized literary expression. And applying an interdisciplinary approach to judging what constitutes literature can only continue to break down the hierarchal structures of high versus low culture and the one-dimensional way some perceive literature to be.

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