It’s not really a Montana Christmas until you have spent part of it on hands and knees in snow and mud, trying to pry something or other loose from the cold claws of winter.
I knew the holidays had arrived in full when I found myself on Tuesday kneeling on a sidewalk in downtown Livingston, trying to extract a hat that a 65 mph gust had blown from my head into a perfectly inaccessible spot under a parked car.
We weren’t even supposed to be in Livingston. Heading home from Missoula, we had spent Monday night in Butte because we were hungry and it was getting dark and icy. At around noon Tuesday, we were diverted through Livingston because high winds had closed Interstate 90 for seven miles. So there I was, clawing for my hat under a stranger’s car while my wife borrowed a broom from a nearby shop.
“Here for the holidays?” the cheery store clerk asked. When we explained the situation, she chuckled.
“We do that on purpose,” she said, a well-aimed joke even if it is probably as old as the automobile.
And it wasn’t even the first time this Christmas had brought me to my knees. The day before, the car hung up on a snow bank in my daughter’s front yard in Huson. My son-in-law and I spent a couple of hours trying to dig it out before a kindly neighbor, whom we had never met, drove over with his pickup and pulled us loose, taking only a few Christmas cookies as payment. Ah, country living.
All that crawling around, and even that extra night in Butte, were worth it, of course. We got to spend a few days with Arthur King Philips, our 2-month-old grandson, who has quickly learned to treat his loyal subjects with exactly the proper mix of affection and royal condescension.
And we spent a large chunk of two long drives listening to 82 songs by the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Most of the songs were on a four CD set released in 2012 in honor of Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary. All of the songs, with one exception, are covers; the Nobel Prize winner himself, Bob Dylan, contributed his own version of the album’s title track, “Chimes of Freedom.”
The covers, ranging from Dylan’s earliest folk days to his latest mournful ballads, put the focus where it properly belongs for a Nobel Prize winner: on the words. And all I kept thinking was: What took the Nobel committee so long?
I get the criticism of the award. Literature, by strict definition, is words meant to be read. Expanding the definition to include song lyrics makes it easy to overlook quality writing from authors who have audiences far smaller than musicians do.
On the other hand, failing to expand the definition would exclude seminal figures like Shakespeare, who has been dead for 400 years, much too old to travel to Stockholm to pick up the award, and Homer, a spoken-word artist who would be even older.
The restricted definition of literature has led me to Nobel Prize winners I would otherwise have never read, or even heard of, such as 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, whose “Atemschaukel” (English title “The Hunger Angel”) is an extraordinary fictionalized memoir about Germans in Rumania who were forced to work in Soviet labor camps after World War II.
There are great writers on that Nobel Prize list, and others who might be great, such as Australian writer Patrick White, whose “The Eye of the Storm” has languished unread on my book shelves for at least a couple of decades.
But the list of winners also includes Mikhail Sholokhov, whose “And Quiet Flows the Don” impressed me so little in college that I never intend to give it another chance. And it includes Hermann Hesse, a writer I first despised when he became a popular counterculture author in the 1960s.
Much of Christmas week, when not crawling around in snow or doting on grandsons, I spent rereading Hesse’s “Steppenwolf.” If it seemed self-indulgent and overblown when I was 19, what chance would it have to impress me when I’m 66? Zero, apparently.
But Dylan is always worth a long car ride in the snow. Most of his lyrics may not hold up well on paper but some lines do:
“She know there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all.”
“I said, ‘You know, they refused Jesus, too.’
He said, ‘You’re not him.’”
“The cops don’t need you,
And man, they expect the same.”
“While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole that he’s in.”
I could go on and on—eighty-two songs, and I could immediately think of a dozen more that could have been included. More importantly, Dylan wove together a wide strain of American music: folk, rock, pop, gospel and, in later years, even the Great American Songbook. His tastes, and his knowledge of American music, were encyclopedic. He was the sponge from which was wrung much of what we think of as American culture.
When Walter Taylor recorded “Deal Rag” in 1930, he sang, “Don’t let the deal go down.” In 2006, drawing on a tune made famous by Bing Crosby and using images from the Bible and 19th century poet Henry Timrod, Dylan was able to answer, “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
That fusion of imagination and style lifted Dylan above all of the other good songwriters into the deserved company of writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Dylan wrote some clunkers, but those guys wrote a few, too.
Creeping at 3 mph down a snow-covered detour in Livingston, I’ll take Dylan over the whole lot of them.