The music and literary worlds immediately chose sides.
When news broke yesterday that Duluth native Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, debate raged. At issue was whether the award cheapened or overvalued Dylan’s contribution to the cultural landscape, whether lyrics in pop songs can even be considered literature, and whether it’s an honor or a disgrace that Dylan won the prestigious award.
The online discussion that ensued provided a welcome and all too brief reprieve from the disgusting daily news headlines. Spending the morning conversing about music and art, and their respective value to society, was far more uplifting than the crass vulgarities plaguing our political season.
Of course, Dylan has made a career out of turning social concerns and civil injustice into galvanizing works of art. His Nobel Prize is recognition of that lifelong creative pursuit, and so much more.
When you look at Dylan’s output throughout a 55-year musical career, his lyrics not only serve as an incisive cultural study of the latter half of the 20th century, but also a loose historical guide to moments and movements that have come to shape our country as well as our world.
“Masters of War” is sadly as penetrating and potent today as when Dylan released it in 1963 (three days after his 22nd birthday). The stark gallows humor that courses through Love and Theft is intensified by the fact that it was released on September 11, 2001, and those songs stand as trembling odes to a time that we will never return to, and a world that remains forever changed.
The Nobel judges praised Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” His venerable oeuvre has continuously enlightened and informed an ever-changing society and a growing legion of fans. At the same time, he holds a harsh critical mirror up to a world gone wrong, gradually stirring the tentative winds of change.
His poetry -- and yes, his song lyrics are poems of the highest order, and will live on as long as those of past Nobel winners William Butler Yeats, Pablo Neruda, and Seamus Heaney -- has empowered the disenfranchised, uplifted the weary, roused the complacent, praised the virtuous, mourned for the missing, and scorned the oppressive.
His words have a timeless quality because he has done such an exquisite job linking the mistakes of the past with the choices of the present, while getting us to dream of a better future.
And Dylan has done all of this while remaining elusive and enigmatic. Navigating the peaks and pratfalls of five decades in the music industry, he’s let critics and fans attach their own significance to his songs and stature. Dylan never appeared concerned about living up to their ideals or earning their accolades.
Much of Dylan’s public life is spent as a road-weathered troubadour on a never-ending tour, one temporary home after another. Those of us who demand more from our heroes are left clutching at fragments of his story, one which he mischievously contrived straight from the start. His life itself is a fiction of the first degree, a living embodiment of literature in both form and function.
“It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred,” Dylan sings on the epic anti-judgment screed, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)."
Those words, written in 1964, are as powerful as ever, with the advent of the filthy fringes of the internet and the ugly side of social media. But Dylan’s music, like all great art, reminds us of what we truly revere, what we aspire to, and where we come from.
His work illuminates the intangible beauty found in dreams, the shadowy portent held in nightmares, and the blissful sanctity of the mundane.
Dylan’s lyrics invite listeners to examine their own lives with a more discerning eye, while providing a musical gateway into a world entirely of Bob’s own devising. He fills it with characters who represent the best and worst of what society has to offer, leaving us to choose whether there’s any morality to be found, and what we can learn from the errors in their ways. This universe that Dylan has crafted is as vivid and distinctive as those of any novelist, playwright, or poet, all while working within the intricate confines of the modern pop song.
That a folksinger from the North Country rose from the navel-gazing New York scene and achieved this literary triumph – while repeatedly changing the direction of popular music, for good measure – should be celebrated by everyone who values the impact of the written word, as well as those who take great comfort in a song.
“Is he a poet or a songwriter?” asks novelist/critic Francine Prose. “The same answer applies: He’s Bob Dylan.” Indeed, Dylan is an artist whose singular contributions to his craft renders his work beyond categorization, leaving us only to marvel and be inspired.
Bob Dylan deserves every accolade we deem to bestow on him, for these laurels pale in comparison to what he’s given all of us.
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