Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize in Literature for Creating “New Poetic Expressions within the Great American Song Tradition”


Image cour­tesy of The Nobel Prize’s Twit­ter stream.

His apoc­a­lyp­tic poet­ry plucks images and forms from the blues, the Bible, the Beats, Sym­bol­ists, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and a bal­ladeer tra­di­tion dat­ing from medieval French and Eng­lish min­strel­sy to Appalachi­an set­tle­ment to Woody Guthrie, his first muse. His nar­ra­tive voice shifts from work to work as he has ful­ly embod­ied var­i­ous Amer­i­can char­ac­ters for over half a century—folk trou­ba­dour, rock and roll trick­ster, earnest coun­try croon­er, evan­ge­list, weary blues­man, star­ry-eyed jazz singer. “There is no sys­tem­at­ic way of ana­lyz­ing Dylan’s song lyrics or poems,” writes Julia Call­away at the Oxford Dic­tio­nar­ies blog; “they span more than five decades of his­tor­i­cal con­text and musi­cal style. But per­haps one of the most inter­est­ing sides of Dylan is how he uses lan­guage and his lyrics to project cer­tain iden­ti­ties, includ­ing folksinger and protest-musi­cian.”

Dylan began in that tra­di­tion with songs like “The Times They Are A‑Changin’” and “A Hard Rains A‑Gonna Fall”—pick­ing up Guthrie’s inflec­tions and man­ner­isms in bal­lads much more sophis­ti­cat­ed than they seemed at first lis­ten. “A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall” is a “sev­en minute epic,” writes Rolling Stone, “that warns against a com­ing apoc­a­lypse while cat­a­loging hor­rif­ic visions—gun-toting chil­dren, a tree drip­ping blood—with the wide-eyed fer­vor of John the Rev­e­la­tor.” The song “began life as a poem, which Dylan like­ly banged out on a type­writer owned by his bud­dy… Wavy Gravy.” Dylan has been ambiva­lent about whether or not we should call him a poet, but this is how so much of his work took shape—banged out on type­writ­ers in New York apartments—as poet­ry set to music. “Every line in [A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall] is actu­al­ly the start of a whole song,” said Dylan, “but when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”

After over five decades of lyrics packed with allu­sion and dense­ly woven themes and mean­ings, Dylan has had time to write those songs—several more apoc­a­lyp­tic epics set to a few chords on the acoustic gui­tar. “There are some nov­els, some trilo­gies, in fact, with less actu­al con­tent than Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watch­tow­er,’” says the Nerd­writer in the analy­sis of that cryp­tic John Wes­ley Hard­ing song above. One could say the same about cer­tain songs that appear on near­ly every Dylan record, like the 11-minute “Des­o­la­tion Row,” below. Amid only a few mis­steps, Dylan has released album after album, decade after decade, that show­case his unpar­al­leled word­craft in var­i­ous song forms. And some of his finest work has appeared only in recent years, when it seems his career might have come to a close. Despite some mixed reac­tions—and some con­cern for Philip Roth—most peo­ple have respond­ed to news this morn­ing of his win for the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture with a decid­ed, “yes, of course.”

Dylan’s recog­ni­tion by the Nobel Com­mit­tee val­i­dates not only the song­writer him­self, but the form he embraced and shaped. As per­ma­nent sec­re­tary of the Swedish Acad­e­my Sara Danius remarked in her announce­ment, Dylan “cre­at­ed new poet­ic expres­sions with­in the Amer­i­can song tra­di­tion.”  The award rep­re­sents “a recog­ni­tion of the whole tra­di­tion that Bob Dylan rep­re­sents,” says crit­ic David Had­ju, “so it’s part­ly a retroac­tive award for Robert John­son and Hank Williams and Smokey Robin­son and the Bea­t­les. It should have been tak­en seri­ous­ly as an art form a long time ago.” One could argue that Amer­i­can song has already been tak­en as seri­ous­ly as any art form, but that it isn’t lit­er­a­ture.

Sev­er­al peo­ple have done so. As New York Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi put it, “this might be a dis­ap­point­ing day for book­sellers and pub­lish­ers.” Hard­ly. Not only does Dylan have a mem­oir out, Chron­i­cles: Vol­ume One, the first of a planned tril­o­gy, but we may also find renewed appre­ci­a­tion for his first book, 1966’s Taran­tu­la. Dylan’s songs and draw­ings have been turned into pic­ture books, pub­lished in col­lec­tions, and pored over in biog­ra­phy after biog­ra­phy, com­men­tary after com­men­tary. And next month, Dylan him­self will release The Lyrics: Since 1962, a com­pre­hen­sive, defin­i­tive col­lec­tion of the song­writer’s lyrics, com­plete with expert anno­ta­tions. You can pre-order a copy here.

The lit­er­ary out­put by and about Dylan should keep book­sellers busy for many months after this announce­ment. But Dylan’s is pri­mar­i­ly a liv­ing, bardic tra­di­tion, lest we for­get that all lit­er­a­ture began as song. So con­grat­u­la­tions to Dylan and for per­haps long-over­due recog­ni­tion of Amer­i­can songcraft as a gen­uine­ly lit­er­ary art form.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Young Bob Dylan, Before Releas­ing His First Album, Tell Amaz­ing Tales About Grow­ing Up in a Car­ni­val

Hear Bob Dylan’s Unedit­ed & Bewil­der­ing Inter­view With Nat Hentoff for Play­boy Mag­a­zine (1965)

The Reli­gions of Bob Dylan: From Deliv­er­ing Evan­gel­i­cal Ser­mons to Singing Hava Nag­i­la With Har­ry Dean Stan­ton

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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