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Bob Dylan’s Lyrics Celebrated in New Exhibition 'Mondo Scripto'

Bob Dylan onstage in Modena, Italy in 2000 © Jill Furmanovsky

Bob Dylan’s lyrics are the focus of a new exhibition called Mondo Scripto at the Halcyon Gallery in London. For the exhibition Dylan has handwritten out the lyrics from 60 of his greatest songs, from 1961 to 2001.

Accompanying the lyrics are various illustrations drawn in pencil which reflect and embody the songs. Dylan, somewhat controversially, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 with the Swedish Academy awarding it to him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

So it’s quite fitting to see those Nobel Prize-winning lyrics written down by the man himself. And he’s still creating too. Because while the chosen songs are classics from Dylan’s back catalogue, “Masters of War”, “Tangled Up in Blue”, “Hurricane”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, “Forever Young” and many more, in a lot of the songs new lyrics have been added in.

Dylan's handwritten lyrics to "Tangled Up in Blue". Image courtesy of Halcyon Gallery / Bob Dylan

In “Tangled Up in Blue” the lyric ‘I had a job in the great north woods / Working as a cook for a spell / But I never did like it all that much / And one day the axe just fell’ is now ‘I was working in the great North Woods / where the treetops touched the sky / the days were short the nights were long / And the morning’s passed me by.’ In fact many of the lyrics in this track, considered a modern masterpiece of songwriting, have been rewritten. Other songs, like “Gotta Serve Somebody” feature entirely new verses.

As for the drawings that go with each track, they’re very literal representations of the songs. So, for instance, sticking with “Tangled Up in Blue”, the pencil drawing is an abandoned car alone in a field, illustrating the lyric, ‘We drove that car as far as we could / Abandoned it out west.’

Dylan's illustration for 'Tangled Up in Blue'. Image courtesy of Halcyon Gallery / Bob Dylan

The drawings offer not just visuals to the songs, but reflect another part of Dylan too. Because while Dylan is famous and celebrated for his music, any fan knows that he’s not just a musical artist, but he also paints and sculpts (and draws) too. His paintings were exhibited at the Halcyon Gallery back in 2016, paintings of the American landscape and Americana that he soaked up on his Never Ending Tour.

But there’s something extra special about seeing his most famous songs hand-scrawled by His Bobness in pen on paper. Written, Dylan says, “Mostly after hours. Summer evenings, winter evenings. Usually one a week, sometimes three or four.”

That quote comes from an interview with Dylan about the exhibition, undertaken by the gallery’s president Paul Green. In it Dylan also notes why he made the pictures so literal. “In Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, there are corresponding drawings by Henrik Drescher and they are very realistic and literal, and I took that as a guide." Dylan explains. "There’s others as well. The Reginald Marsh drawings for John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy were a big influence.”

Dylan also notes artists whose drawings he admires, like "Rembrandt, especially his drawings of St Alban’s Cathedral. Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil, Rubens, Charles Le Brun. I like van Gogh’s drawings as well."

Dylan's illustration for 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall'. Image courtesy of Halcyon Gallery / Bob Dylan

Dylan also ponders on songwriting itself as an art form, noting when asked why he didn’t do paintings instead of drawings for the songs, A song is really a form of storytelling that changes from minute to minute, and adapts itself to different circumstances. A painting is a fixed scene, where something is nailed down and made permanent. You can’t leave holes in the centre. With songs you can do that. I wouldn’t mix the two or try to force them together, because they have nothing in common.”

Paul Green also spoke with music producer and co-founder of Interscope Records and Beats Music Jimmy Lovine for the show. You can see some of the interview in the video below. But Lovine probably sums up Dylan’s lyrics best with the line, “Creatively there was nothing better than those Bob Dylan songs...as far as music was concerned that was as close to perfection as you get.”

Mondo Scripto will run from 9 October until 30 November at the Halcyon Gallery 144-146 New Bond Street. See their website here.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer many iconic Bob Dylan images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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