A passenger, seeing the library book in my car, asked, "So why do you have a collection of Bob Dylan lyrics?" I thought for a moment how best to reply, and said, "Because John Corigliano had one."
John Corigliano is a distinguished American composer, known for his opera The Ghosts of Versailles. Commissioned to write a song cycle on an American text of his choice, at first he felt uncertain, but then remembered he'd been told that this Bob Dylan fellow was pretty good, so he got a book collection of Dylan lyrics, read them, and decided, once he got Dylan's permission, to go ahead. This is the work that I was engaged to review in concert last weekend, for which I wouldst prepare.
That Corigliano had never previously heard any Dylan songs - he says "I was [too] engaged in developing my orchestral technique during the years when Dylan was heard by the rest of the world" - has been widely disbelieved, but I don't find it incredible at all. I doubt I could pass any sort of test on pop singers three years younger than myself, as Dylan is of Corigliano, either. And of the seven Dylan songs that Corigliano set, I only knew two, and those in cover versions: "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter Paul & Mary, and "Mr. Tambourine Man" by the Byrds.
Corigliano carefully avoided listening to the original songs until he'd written his own settings, and I likewise avoided listening to them until I'd heard his. I got a recording of a rather overwrought performance of the Corigliano cycle, and only then sought out cover versions of the other songs. Cover versions, because like most of the world with good taste, I like Dylan's songs but can't stand him singing them. I did go so far as to hunt down his performance of "Blowin' in the Wind" and was immediately sorry that I had.
I found to my surprise that the Roches had covered "Clothes Line Saga", but if I'd heard it before, I couldn't remember it. I can't remember it now, either. "All Along the Watchtower" belies any generalizations I could make about Dylan's folk-influenced style. Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, the two cover performers I heard, use it as an occasion for an extended instrumental jam with a few words thrown in. Fortunately, Corigliano didn't know that. The one original new to me that I really liked was Ed Sheeran singing "Masters of War". The tune nagged at me until I realized that it sounded like the English folksong "Nottamun Town", which I knew from Fairport Convention. Then I looked it up, and discovered that it is "Nottamun Town". Dylan lifted the tune from a Jean Ritchie record, and had to pay royalties for her arrangement.
"Masters of War" is an extremely angry song. Sheeran even comments after his performance, "He's an intense guy, isn't he?" But compare Sheeran's version, linked to above, with Corigliano's scream of rage. (Told you it was overwrought.) This was key to my review's description of the difference between the two settings. Corigliano writes classical art song word painting. Dylan, at least in Sheeran's version, is very quiet, apparently belying the anger of the lyrics, but to my mind structuring the lines and stanzas of the verse to form a casing from which the message of the words can be heard outright, with only the quiet underlining of the bleak drone-like shape of the melody.
And that's the best answer I can come up with for a question that's nagged me for a long time, and which I went out on a reviewing limb by using it to frame my review. The question is, if your song is a "message" song, one that exists for the sake of its text, why is it a song? Why not just write poetry? The obvious answer, "Because nobody will read poetry, but they'll listen to songs," only reinforces the question. What are they getting out of the music that they wouldn't get out of poetry?
It must be something, and the best writers, including Dylan, recognize this. it's a shame if they ignore it, using the music as just something to plop the words on top of. I think of the Indigo Girls, who have said, "It's not about the music," but perhaps that's why, though their style lies right in the middle of a women's music idiom I usually like very much, I've never much taken to the Indigo Girls. There's nothing to their music; it's just there to sing the words to.
Corigliano, though he has nothing you'd normally call a tune, and is totally in contrast with Dylan's music, is dedicated to making his music say something. I found his settings stuck with me, so I count this work, however strange-sounding, a success.