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Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

Posted October 13th, 2016 at 9:59 pm (UTC-4)
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It’s hard to believe that the Nobel committee would bestow it’s literature prize to Bob Dylan. But it’s as hard to believe that he hadn’t won it already.

The prize’s citation reads Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Not everybody agrees.


Anna North, writing in The New York Times, says take the word “literature” literally:

Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.

But that’s not the unanimous sentiment from the literary world:



For more than 50 years, Bob Dylan’s words have been etched in the minds of millions, whether by intent or by accident. If you couldn’t stand listening to his raspy voice, you probably heard him through the dozens of singers and groups who covered his songs, some like The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”, “My Back Pages”), Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”) and Jimi Hendrix (“All Along the Watchtower”) popularized his songs more than Dylan ever could.

WATCH: Announcement of Bob Dylan as the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

“Blowin’ in the Wind” was the first Dylan song to make an impact on American society. Released in 1963 on his second album, “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan,” it quickly became an anthem for the civil rights and anti-war movements.

On the Slate podcast Pop, Race and the ’60s, Barry Shank, author of The Political Force of Musical Beauty said Dylan used simple messages to challenge his audience to think:

These questions that he’s asking actually are complicated questions, you know, they’re questions that by saying it’s just blowing in the wind makes it sound like, well you can, if you just pay attention you can hear it, but it also seems like, that if it’s just blowing in the wind and we haven’t heard it yet, why not? So there’s that kind of double-edge to the song.that makes it both kind of a surprisingly reassuring civil rights anthem and also a deeply challenging civil rights anthem at the same time.

Dylan performed at the famous 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, but did not perform “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That was left to the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary, who took the song to number two on the Billboard record charts.

While Dylan’s music provided the soundtrack to the turbulent ’60s, he did not want to be known as the balladeer for the protest movement. David Browne in Rolling Stone recalls a recording session for the 1964 album “Another Side of Bob Dylan”:

Yet the album would be a milestone for him – his declaration of independence from his protest-song typecasting and phase one of an exploratory period that would lead to places even he couldn’t have imagined at the time. As he left the studio that night, he told {Nat} Hentoff, “My background’s not all that important, though. It’s what I am now that counts.”

Dylan’s famous jump from folk to rock-and-roll at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival gave him new audiences to reach and be reached. He was prolific, writing hundreds of songs recorded on 37, including “Fallen Angels” released in 2016.

What’s unique about Bob Dylan, though, is how he has been able to attract new audiences throughout the decades, with his words and music. Even millennials. Catherine Nichols, writing in Jezebelis trying to figure out what attracts her to him:

The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in Seattle, 16 years old and riding in the passenger seat as my dad drove down Roosevelt on the way home…“Lay Lady Lay” came on the radio and it felt like a searchlight had been switched on shining directly into my eyes, an almost unbearable sense of significance. I think I said something like “What’s this?” to my dad—I meant “WHAT IS THIS”…

And The Daily Campus‘ Miller Schweitzer urges his fellow University of Connecticut students to listen to some Dylan:

He teleports you to a time that is so scary you can’t even breathe. But, once you start going down that road, you really can’t undo it or backtrack. All you can really do is go down that rabbit’s hole until you find what you are trying to discover….Feel the darkness and memorization behind his carefully and impeccably sought words.


Back to that Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2013, Bill Wyman (the journalist, not the Rolling Stones bassist) made the case in The New York Times for Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate:

[W]hy isn’t the most vital of the artistic catalysts of those (1960s cultural) upheavals himself a front-runner for the prize?…Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience. His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.

One could say, “The times they are a-changin.”

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