John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate?

Yes, some naysayers object to his winning. Why they're wrong.

By - Oct 14th, 2016 01:26 pm
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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

I was down in the basement mixing up the medicine when I heard Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew then there would be no song this week, how do you choose? Instead, let’s appreciate the man on this splendid sunny day.

The Nobel Prize for Literature seems just about right to me. Others who heard him rearrange the universe of song with his first few albums and then continue to fascinate through more fallow periods and surprising comebacks probably agree. In reality, there was nothing to come back from but people’s expectations — but they were enormous.

Bob Dylan probably created the not so wonderful world of rock criticism singlehandedly. I was working on that thorny topic when the word came from Stockholm. Thanks for saving me again, Bob, it was turning into a rant! For now, let’s break out the noisemakers, preferably the Fender kind, and celebrate how how the man bent traditional musical perspective. Like Picasso, but with a harmonica rack around his neck, Dylan looked at things from every angle at once and created a terrible beauty.

I love Dylan for the usual reasons — the early protest songs, written in his early twenties were already mature works, and he sang them with one of the most identifiable American voices since Louis Armstrong. (That voice, by the way, was an acquired taste; set against a background of the smooth preppy Folk Music of the time, it was jarring.) When the pressure of saving the world and having to be some sort of guitar toting messiah became too much, he decided to duck out the back door. Then things got really interesting. The next few records laid waste to any expectations of things ever being the same. Lying at his feet was the wreckage of everything that came before him. Traditional Tin Pan Alley would survive, but just barely; and after years of rehab and finally, with Dylan in his seventies, he tipped his hat to the Great American Songbook his style once supplanted. He put an end to the era of lame teen idols and made the wonderful girl groups of the time sound frivolous.

After albums like  Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde were released, a permanent mountain was placed in the path of any young, aspiring songwriter. Mount Dylan stood there, daring you to climb it or go around it. It had to be dealt with and whatever route you chose was an acknowledgement that things had changed. Those who responded by imitating could be forgiven, considering the scope of his achievement — but the world didn’t need another Dylan. Trying to out-Dylan Dylan was futile. Some, like John Prine, came pretty damn close and then went on to find their own unique voices.

During his classic period, when Newport fans booed him, and The Beatles embraced him, Dylan started to put some serious distance between himself and the pack. With the the best band around, (The Band) and the fountain of poetry that flowed daily from his wild imagination, he was prodigious and completely unpredictable. Poignant and tender one moment, vicious and filled with stinging black humor the next. Yep, this is the stuff I’ve caught myself cribbing from time to time. I doubt that I’m alone; avoiding his influence would be like stepping outside and not breathing the air. Impossible.

So, the Nobel Prize? Some may say that’s a stretch, but it makes beautiful sense to me. Dylan has a legitimate claim on being the modern Shakespeare. He has something you can quote on just about any topic. He may not have coined as many phrases, but he speaks in a modern tongue, one that needs no translation for those not fortunate enough to have studied the Bard. Had he stopped after the first few albums, he would still been in the running. But he kept going and going. He’s still at it, touring like the ultimate road dog.

Dylan has enriched our lives with his unique gift and given permission to a whole generation of artists to aspire to something higher. Some succeed and some don’t — we won’t go into that. But when you can look back and say you changed the course of music history you’ve accomplished something rare, so a Nobel Prize is simply the cherry on top.

It might be prudent for the committee in Stockholm to prepare for a surprise. Old Bob gave a short speech at another ceremony I will always remember. It was at the Grammys in 1991, the year of the first Gulf War. He was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award and had already scorched the crowd with an absolutely nasty version of “Masters Of War.” But looking across a sea of music industry types, there was more on his mind. Remembering his father, who he called a simple man, he quoted him. These words stuck out: “Son, you may become so defiled in this world your own mother and father will abandon you…”

The speech then softened a little with a word about God always being there and picking you up, but it was the darkest, most biblical thank you speech I ever heard. Maybe the funniest, too. I’m sure there were a few members of the Academy who would have taken their votes back by then.

That was and probably still is Dylan. He’s scrawny, wiry and peckish. He has a nasally voice that repels some. But he carries a big club — the English language in all it’s mystifying power and glory. He wields it like a warlock. Congratulations Bob, may you stay forever young!

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate?”

  1. Had Dylan been of another era he would have been only the poet, not a singer/songwriter. Those that don’t quite get why he deserves the Nobel for Literature simply can’t separate the poem from the music nor the singer.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    John, thanks for defining all the reasons why Dylan definitely deserves this award. His contributions to literature have been so exceptional–to say nothing of making rich and complex poetry accessible to the masses for over five decades. Three cheers for our Bard!

    Of course, Dylan’s presence at the highly formal and well publicized ceremonies will be interesting in itself. He’s always unpredictable, although he seems more appreciative of recognition in his older years. Can’t recall the name of the ceremony a few years ago where he gushed on and on about all those who have inspired him.

    Complaints about choosing Dylan could stem from the fact that an American has not gotten the Nobel lit prize since Toni Morriso in 1993. There’s only been 4 Americans in 40 years.

    In many respects Dylan’s work is known worldwide–and by people of all ages (not just aging hippies, as one detractor claimed). It’s impossible to categorize Dylan, including whether his work is highbrow or lowbrow. There’s really no need to do so. I’m just grateful he continues to push the envelope, to keep laboring honorably “in the tower of song,” Leonard Cohen’s term for striving to perfect that craft. Interestingly, Dylan and Cohen have long mutually respected each other and are sometimes friendly.

  3. Thomas says:

    Amen to John’s essay on Bob Dylan’s worthiness for the Nobel Prize in literature. The late, great W.H. Auden succinctly defined poetry as “memorable speech.” There is enough memorable speech in the 3 mid 60’s albums John called a MOUNTAIN to last a lifetime for many listeners. BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME, HIGHWAY 61, and BLONDE ON BLONDE all still sound fresh today – 50 years or more after their pressings. A less prominent song writer said something like this on Dylan at that time: “Bob was sitting at the top of the mountain. He wrote most of the great songs of that era from that perch. The rest of us settled for good songs when they floated downstream to us.”

    I taught English at colleges for many years. I referenced Dylan frequently in poetry units in introduction to literature classes. Those references were well received by students. I had colleagues who shared my enthusiasm for Dylan’s remarkable command of the English language. I had other colleagues who dismissed his work as somehow less than literature. Those who dismissed Dylan had tin ears. They failed to recognize greatness, and they missed out on a lot of fun with our language.

  4. Virginia Small says:

    Here’s a report on Dylan’s MusiCares acceptance speech. Yes, he rambled as he thanked everyone who ever influenced him (after usually being laconic at such events). He did ref Shakespeare (noted in #10 below).

    To Thomas’s point, why are plays, most experienced as a performing art, deemed more “literary” than well-crafted songs–also most appreciated as a performing art?

  5. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I agree with Bob Dylan as Nobel Laureate for his songwriting (always loved his work best, along with Leonard Cohen), but NOT for his writing per se, e.g. Chronicles, the first installment of his autobiography, which has a few glimmers and interesting stories in it but doesn’t hold together well. But then there are songs like – All Along The Watchtower, sheer poetry! So to me, he wins for his poetry, as his song lyrics ARE poetry!

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