By Frederic Friedel
…Bob Dylan, would you believe it. I am not a fanatical fan of Robert Allen Zimmerman (his original name), but treasure some of his songs, like Tambourine Man, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right and (ahhh, yes, of course) Blowin’ in the Wind. I do not swoon in admiration at his strumming of the guitar (instead of plucking), and the mouth organ; but the lyrics are fine, better than the usual love ya baby, love ya baby.
But a Nobel Prize for literature? This is what it looks like: Kipling, Hauptman, Yeats, Shaw, Thomas Mann, O’Neill, Hesse, Russell, Churchill, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Böll, Pinter, Doris Lessing, Bob Dylan. Better than the Spice Girls or Justin Bieber, I suppose. Dylan’s lyrics are sometimes nice, but “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to…” is not quite in the league of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemmingway or John Steinbeck, who shaped my literary sensibilities.
So when my news page editor asked me to write about the Nobel Prize I balked, and shopped around for a willing soul. Albert from Rio, he’s the man to do it! I asked him and he agreed. For a personal reason.
That evening Albert introduced me to a fascinating lady, bridging the ten thousand kilometers from Hamburg to Rio in a Skype call. I spoke with her — now in her sixties — and learned that she had been one of Brazil’s great musical prodigies. After winning international competitions as a classical pianist in South America and then in Europe, she moved abroad as a teenager to study with the most prominent piano teachers around. This led her to establish herself in London for several years, and then, at the age of 16 (!), in 1964, she moved to New York City.
In New York Rosa Maria Martins, the young and beautiful Brazilian musician with impressive credentials, was invited to all manner of social gatherings, including one by Seymour Solomon, the founder of Vanguard Records. It had started as a classical label, but soon expanded its catalogue to include jazz and folk music.
That evening there were two other guests, a long-haired star singer at Vanguard, and a young man she had brought with her. He had an untrained, very nasal voice, with a sandpaper tinge. The long-haired girl tried to convince Solomon to sign him up. She took out her guitar and sang one of his songs, but the executive remained unconvinced. He was mainly enchanted with the sixteen-year-old Brazilian pianist — and so was the young man. He asked her for her number, and Rosa Maria, who was not fully fluent in English yet, gave it to him. A few weeks later he called and asked her out. They dated for a while. It was quite innocent — he had to negotiate conditions with her grandmother before he could go out with her. Rosa tells us that he was worried that the quality of his music was not up to her lofty standard, but said that it was all about the lyrics.
A year later that young man with the nasal voice, Bob Dylan, had struck gold with his incredible single “Like a Rolling Stone,” which has been rated by Rolling Stone magazine as number one in their list of “Greatest Songs of All Time.” Seymour Solomon must have been kicking himself for his lack of foresight. And the long-haired girl: it was Joan Baez, who had been trying to sell him Bob Dylan. Here’s a shot of the two of them from that time:
Baez, already a star in folk music, would call upon Dylan to appear on stage in her own shows, to sing his music. Dylan was a semi-nobody, and Baez was trying hard to drag him out of the shadows. She did succeed in the end.
One more point: Rosa Maria Martins, who today calls herself Rosana, is the mother of my friend Albert, who ended up writing the article in my stead.