Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly: The Pop Singer as Epic Bard

Memini me fiere pavom

“I remember that I became a peacock…”

Biblical inspiration is obviously different from poetic inspiration. But there is a long tradition of the latter going back to Hesiod’s vision of the Muses at the beginning of the Theogony:

And one day [the Heliconian Muses] taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me — the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis:

`Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.

This tradition is carried on in the (now lost) work of Ennius, the Annales, which Ennius begins by relating a dream in which the ghost of Homer appeared to him to announce that his soul had transmigrated into the Roman poet in the form of a peacock. A scholiast on the satirical poet Persius gives a summary:

That is what Ennius says in the beginning of his Annales where he states that in the course of a dream he saw a vision of Homer who said that he was once a peacock and from it, according to a rule laid down by the philosopher Pythagoras, his soul had been conveyed into Ennius.

(This particular account may itself be based on a similar metempsychosis of the soul of the philosopher Euphorbus into Pythagoras.)

I suggest that Bob Dylan draws on it in his recent speech recorded as part of his obligations for receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature; indeed, I would suggest that this is nearly the entire purpose of his opening story about Buddy Holly (and after all, is a Cricket really so different from a peacock?1).

If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.

He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down.

Notice where this anecdote falls: right at the beginning of the speech, where his is giving his poetic and musical bona fides (or, really, bonae fides). As we know from the poetic tradition, the incipit is the appropriate place to relate one’s source of inspiration, and thus one’s possession of authority to speak (compare Paul’s opening salvo in Galatians 1, for example, or Homer’s invocations in the Iliad and Odyssey, this last explicitly on Dylan’s mind in the speech). And note as well the similarities to Ennius’ vision: an older, established poet-musician somehow transferring his artistic mojo into a younger up-and-comer. In Ennius the predecessor is already a ghost; in Dylan, he will be in a few days.

For anyone familiar with Dylan’s use of tradition(s)–on full display in other parts of the speech–this sort of move won’t be surprising at all: a creative appropriation of the literary tradition stretching all the way back to its beginnings.

Homer as Ennius as Buddy Holly as Bob Dylan.

If that isn’t enchanted, I don’t know what is.

  1. Don’t answer that.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.