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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, October 30, 2008


Somehow I missed reading of the death of Wilfrid Mellers. He died on May 16, aged 94. He was a composer and the author of 20 books, including, of course, A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan. This is the entry on him in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (with his death added in):

Mellers, Wilfrid [1914 - 2008]
Wilfrid Howard Mellers was born in Leamington (pronounced Lemming-ton) Spa, in the English Midlands, on April 26, 1914. Educated at Cambridge, he fell under the rigorous influence of the pre-eminent and now deeply unfashionable literary critic F.R. Leavis, becoming a literary critic himself and writing for Leavis’ defiant journal Scrutiny before turning towards music, publishing his book Music and Society: England and the European Tradition in 1946 and becoming, by the mid-1960s, the new University of York’s first Professor of Music and a composer of distinction. He continued to straddle the rôles of critic and creative artist, and the genres of popular and classical music. His book Music in a New Found Land, written in the early 1960s and published in 1964, has held up creditably, and is remarkable for, among other things, its early (as it were) critical appraisal of ROBERT JOHNSON.

If it seemed an oblique comment when in 1967, in a news magazine survey titled ‘Sixties’, Mellers wrote that Blonde On Blonde was ‘concerned more with incantation than communication’, this may have been because at that point, like so many other musically sophisticated people, his interest in ‘pop’ was almost entirely taken up with an entrancement by THE BEATLES. He was among those who found the blandishments of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band more beguiling than Dylan’s work, and his book Twilight of the Gods was an early professorial rush into print with a Beatles study.

However, he never stopped paying attention to Dylan’s output, and he was extremely well informed as to many of its antecedents - and while in 1980 he could produce the detailed, part-Freudian, part-musicological study Bach and the Dance of God, and three years later Beethoven and the Voice of God (1983), a year after that he could offer A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan.

Awkardly titled, and more backdrop than Dylan, it has proved more and more interesting and relevant since its publication in 1984. When it was new, it was received without enthusiasm by many of us who still, as the 1980s dawned, preferred to insist upon the blazingly unerring individuality of Dylan’s art rather than concede that he stood in a tradition occupied by wrinkly old people with fiddles and banjos and obdurately conservative faces. In retrospect we can be grateful for, and a little impressed by, the sharp but serious attention it pays to the CARTER FAMILY, Nimrod Stoneman, Aunt Mollie Jackson, Roscoe Holcomb, JIMMIE RODGERS and others from among the souls who have haunted Dylan’s imagination and suffused his own art.
In 2004 the York Late Music Festival opened with a weekend’s tribute to Mellers, and that October (not April) a tribute concert was held at Downing College, Cambridge to mark Mellers’ 90th birthday.

[Wilfrid Mellers, Music and Society: England and the European Tradition, London: Dennis Dobson, 1946; Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music, London: Stonehill, 1964 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965); ‘Sixties’, New Statesman, London, 24 Feb 1967; Bach and the Dance of God, London: Faber & Faber, 1980; Beethoven and the Voice of God, London, Faber & Faber, 1983; A Darker Shade of Pale: A Backdrop to Bob Dylan, London: Faber & Faber, 1984.]


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