Wilfrid Mellers at 90; Downing College Cambridge  20 October 2004 (no photographer credit given)
The literary & music critic and composer and University of York music professor Wilfrid Mellers was born 100 years ago today (ie on April 26, 1914). I can’t claim to have known Mellers at York – I was an English & History student there in the mid-60s and he its founding Music Department Prof, and I doubt we ever spoke. I rarely attended music department events and really only knew of his interest in any “popular music” back then because I chatted a lot with one of his students, a whisky-drinking, fur-coat-wearing girl on whom I was more than somewhat keen, Carolyn Evans-Tipping (now dead). But I formed the strong impression that, classical composers aside, Mellers was exclusively interested in the Beatles, and especially excited by Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when it was new (while I was infinitely more engaged by Blonde On Blonde). Mellers gave no public indication of interest in Dylan’s work.

I knew from reading paperback collections of F.R. Leavis’ critical journal Scrutiny that Mellers had written literary criticism for it in the deep past (and I quoted him on Hemingway, I think, in my first book, Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan, 1972, a book he later reviewed rather pallidly in the New Statesman), but when Leavis himself was a Visiting Professor on campus I never once saw the two men walking or talking together.

Then in the early 1970s Mellers was a talking head on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope (as I was, less frequently) and I remember we were once on the same programme, though I was being interviewed down the phone. He spoke about pop/rock as if melody were the important element (so I’d guess McCartney was his favourite Beatle) whereas I was arguing that in rock music melody was peripheral: that ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ hadn’t been important for melody but for sound, impact, sexiness, mystery, difference and feeling - elements far more central to the virtues of rock’n’roll and the blues.

That said, his 1980s book on Dylan and Dylan’s roots - A Darker Shade of Pale: a Backdrop to Bob Dylan - is a wonderful work, ahead of its time for its level of interest in hillbilly music and the like: an interest not so centred around or reliant upon the white part of the Harry Smith collection as that of American critics (then and now). It was a book that deserved to do far better than it did. It was published when Dylan enthusiasts generally paid scant heed to all these old geezers from Kentucky on whom Mellers was rightly so focussed. Most Dylan enthusiasm at the time was still posited on notions of his unique genius rather than on a receptivity to his work’s unfailing dialogue with older forms, musicians and songs.

Here is the entry I wrote on Mellers for 2006's Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (updated here to include his death), which includes a pulling together of more scattered mentions of him written earlier for Song & Dance Man III (1999):

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, 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 Mellers’ book pays to the Carter Family, Nimrod Stoneman, Aunty 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. He died on 17 May 2008.

[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.]

1 comment:

  1. Elmer Gantry08 July, 2014


    Interesting piece. Had just been reading about Mellers In Gwyneth Barnes' book on Peter Sculthorpe, the excellent Australian classical composer (his work 'Earth Cry' is probably the best musical evocation of the Australian outback I have ever heard).

    If you are interested, part of the lecture which Sculthorpe gave about Mellers and the influence that he had on his own music and musical thinking
    is quoted in Barnes' book,
    'Peter Sculthorpe : an Australian composer's influence', pp. 220-27