First and foremost, critics of the Swedish Academy’s literary pick of the year have been particularly vocal about the validity of the award going to a songwriter. There is a traditionalist mentality that “literature” in its finest, purest form, equates to books. The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to multiple playwrights in the past, and their work, much like a songwriter’s, is designed to be consumed in a performance of some kind. You can read finely penned plays on their own, but their primary function has always been performance.
The lyricism of Bob Dylan can, however, be read on its own as poetry, which is one of the most “traditional” forms of literature. (Very much like a very good play.) There are a select few musical artists that can get away with publishing thirteen pound books of their catalog’s extended lyricism and written musings, something Dylan did last year. Songs like ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna’ Fall’ and ‘Every Grain of Sand’ translate to the page with stunning tact and insightfulness. The finest of Dylan’s songwriting elevates itself to a plane that supersedes any musical intent.
Many with passing knowledge of Bob Dylan remember him as the folk hero of the early 1960s. Songs like ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are A’Changing’ are etched into the American cultural and societal conscious as anthems of the civil rights movement. Dylan’s songwriting between 1962 and 1964 encapsulated a generation’s outcry for change in the social order.
Those with that passing knowledge, though, are likely unaware of the immense longevity of Bob Dylan’s career. When Dylan stepped away from being the ‘voice of a generation,’ he introduced the poetic nature of folk music to the rawness of rock and roll. When inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen remarked that in the same way “Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.”
The historical significance of that pivot is sometimes not fully realized by the artistic community. It’s been said by some that rock and roll reached its height when Bob Dylan wanted to be John Lennon and John Lennon wanted to be Bob Dylan. After Dylan delved into rock and roll, The Beatles shed the days of ‘Please Please Me’ and traded them in for ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver.’ History followed.
Following his legendary three album foray into poetic rock and roll, Dylan elevated himself into an entirely different persona once more. He combined his American folk roots with country, Johnny Cash, and Nashville. Albums like ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ are acute, razor sharp insights into American storytelling at its finest.
When the academy announced Dylan’s win last week, they cited him for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is something he would continue to do beyond those days in Nashville with the Man in Black. In the 1970s, he explored blues themes and gospel. In the 1980s, he furthered his explorations into the latter, and eventually returned to penning politically-aware anthems for the disenfranchised.
Throughout those years, Bob Dylan’s songwriting remained as poignant as it ever was. ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ ‘Hurricane,’ ‘Pressing On,’ ‘Union Showdown,’ and ‘Dark Eyes,’ to name but a few, were tracks that exhibited a prowess on par, if not exceeding that of Dylan’s early Greenwich Village days that many are familiar with. In the 1990s, he revisited American folk music even more dramatically, and at the end of the decade, he won Album of the Year for one of the most intricate, emotional albums of all time: ‘Time Out Of Mind.’
In his 60s and 70s, Dylan persevered into the twenty first century with unmatched vigor. Tracks like ‘Mississippi,’ ‘High Water For Charley Patton,’ ‘Thunder On The Mountain,’ and ‘Pay In Blood,’ amongst countless others, are a gorgeous snapshot of an aging artist contemplating his qualms and reservations with both the world around him and the life he has lived.
It’s very hard to remain prolific for over fifty years. It’s even harder to remain prolific and produce an unusually high amount of quality material. To listen to ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and then to listen to ‘Pay In Blood’ is to jump through fifty years of compelling insight and self-exploration. Like any good poet, however, Dylan’s self-analysis is often so intensely deep that it echoes sentiments many of us have about ourselves. That is the mark of a truly timeless songwriting and poetic effort.
It’s easy for scholars and the literary hierarchy to become unwittingly pretentious. It’s absolutely vital, however, that this honor be acknowledged as well-deserved. One could argue that Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature has little to do with Bob Dylan. It is a contemporary restructuring of how we define artistic expression and literature in our world. Dylan’s win confirms what should already be historically factual: songwriting is as high of a form of literary exploration as novel writing or anything else.
In 1981, long after his “prime,” Dylan wrote the following lyrics for the closing track of ‘Shot Of Love.’ These lyrics, along with countless others, will stand the test of time as powerfully as T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, or any other literary legend that Dylan is now in the good company of. Regardless of whether or not Dylan shows up in December to receive the reward, or even acknowledges it at this point, it’s most surely an honor that he has earned through and through.
“In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need. When the pools of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed. There’s a dying voice within me, reaching out somewhere. Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake. Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break. In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand. In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”
Why Bob Dylan Won The Nobel Prize In Literature
Written by Brett Stewart
Be sure to check out our 5 part Best Bob Dylan Songs series.