OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI heard tell of two researchers, perhaps American, who had questioned whether or not Bob Dylan was a true poet. They’d looked at his lyrics stripped of their music. The conclusion they drew, rightly or wrongly, or indeed pointlessly, was that he was not.

I remembered this snippet recently as I was listening to Lily, Rosemary, Big Jim and The Jack of Hearts, from the Blood on the Tracks album. That’s my favourite Dylan Album, and one of my favourite songs on it. I wasn’t thinking of it as poetry, but rather as short story. I wondered if Bob Dylan might be a short story writer as much as a poet?

So, I stripped away the music, or put another way, looked at the words in my Bob Dylan Song Book. In the back of mind somewhere there was a dim recollection of an Alias Smith & Jones episode in which at least ‘the drilling in the wall’ featured, so a short story adapted for TV too perhaps?

The song is a narrative one without doubt, but could we view it as a short story proper, if there is such a thing? Perhaps I should get out more, but I stayed in, and counted syllables in the lines, to see if they were regular as poetry, and they were not. Could this be prose shoehorned into the musical line? Original research like this doesn’t come easy. I delved deeper. There are 16 verses in the book version of the song, one more than on my cd copy. I counted the words in each, and came to a total of 958. SO, a thousand word story, pretty spot-on for a contemporary short, but not, to my mind, in flash fiction territory.

Reading the text version it’s hard to keep the remembered music at bay. The sentences correlate too often with the musical lines. Maybe, I thought, if I copied it out in paragraphs, with page width line breaks, rather than musical line line breaks it would work differently. Are you kidding? I get out too often for that, but if you’d like to try…..

In the past I’ve inflicted Robert Frost poems written out a la prose on unsuspecting students… and Joycean paragraphs line-broke as poems. They were convincing. Poetic prose. Narrative poetry. The boundaries are fluid, or porous, to use a more modern metaphor, and the labels do the prejudicing.

As far as story structure was concerned, Lily, Rosemary, Big Jim and The Jack of Hearts, has it all. The opening sets the scene. There are little clues that tell us we’re in cowboy country… the ‘mirrored room,’ and ‘set it up for everyone’ do it for me. And everyone turning to watch the stranger enter is a classic bat-wing door moment. There’s a full cast too, with ‘thje girls’ and the ‘Hangin’ Judge’. If you want Judge Jeffries and a West Country revolt, rather than a Western, you’d have to give him back his ‘g’.

I’m stuck on the endings of short stories. I think they, for me, might define the form. L,R,B.J. & TheJofH has an ending that does the job. The last thought it puts in to your head is the one the story is ‘about.’ But there is lot more going on in this story than that which is going on in Lily#s head. It’s a story about The Jack of Hearts too, and about Rosemary, and, to a lesser extent, about Big Jim. And even the other cast members have cameo roles – the Back Stage Manager, and the Hangin’ Judge for example – that make me wonder – not to forget ‘the boys, who are doing the ‘drilling’, and then ‘wait’ by the river – if what we’re dealing with here is more like a novel….

Coppard advises in one of his introductions, to plot your short story through one only of the characters, and I’m not sure Dylan has done that. The title itself alerts us to four, and we explore to some extent, the minds and motivations of all those four. This is a multy-plotted story, with comparisons and contrasts, the hallmark of the novel, not the short story. The plot emerges from the sub plots bit by bit, as the four charactes are introduced, developed, and ‘tied’ off.

Several of the tracks on this album are narratives. There’s a first person one I particularly like, but here in L,R,BJ and the J of H, there’s a traditional third person, omniscient narrator story, which stands up, to my way of thinking, in words alone. The events, and the hopes and fears, memories and aspirations that drive them are every bit as interesting, and enjoyable, as the music that accompanies their telling. Of course, storytelling in song is perhaps the original form of the art, certainly it is a venerable old one, and the distinction is spurious.

Perhaps what we need is a fully funded research project to look at the issue properly…. then again, perhaps I should just keep on listening to the cd…