There have been times when the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature has prompted even those in the book trade to ask: "Who?" We can be sure that no frantic Googling was required to discover the contribution to literature of this year’s winner. Bob Dylan is honoured "for having created new poetic expressions with the great American song tradition".
Some will carp (why not Philip Roth or Alice Walker?) but it can be argued that Dylan’s laurels are long overdue. Then again, perhaps it’s fitting than the man born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, is honoured in his 75th year, more than half a century since his first album introduced us to a tousle-haired, chubby-cheeked young wannabe who New York Times' critic Robert Shelton had already branded "one of the most distinctive stylists to play a Manhattan cabaret in months", his work bearing "the mark of originality and inspiration [that is] all the more noteworthy for his youth".
Between 1962 and 1966 and the motorcycle accident that rescued him from rock’s vortex, allowing him to retreat to Woodstock and (for neither the first or last time) to reinvent himself, Dylan recorded a mighty handful of albums that changed the course of popular music. With that no one can credibly argue. But there’s still no shortage of critics who would argue about his place in the literary pantheon. In a celebrated "Late Show" debate in 1991, playwright David Hare cautioned against ranking Dylan alongside Keats, launching a too-long debate about cultural relativism. Yet Keats scholar Christopher Ricks long ago proclaimed him to be "only as good as Shakespeare" and Philip Larkin and Andrew Motion are among the many who have written approvingly of his work. A 1965 survey by the Washington Post cast him as America’s Yevtushenko.
Shelton, a friend from Dylan’s earliest days in Greenwich Village and the only biographer to have enjoyed his cooperation, fought a battle with various editors to publish a book that treated him as serious cultural figure who history would judge alongside such giants as Shaw, Picasso and Chaplin. He was the first to make the case that Homer and Orpheus too were buskers: Dylan was part of a long tradition.
The naysayers will point to Dylan’s later work which is patchy to say the least - the last truly great album was "Blood on the Tracks" (1975) but there have been flashes of brilliance since: "Oh Mercy" (1989) and "Time Out of Mind" (1997) for example. But the point is that had Dylan died when he came off his Triumph in July 1966 he would still be regarded as a genius.
Many of the songs he wrote in those few brief years long ago became part of our cultural DNA, lines from them part of our lingua franca. Think how often headline writers paraphrase songs such as "Blowin’ in the Wind" or "The Times They Are a-Changin", "Masters of War" or "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall", in which Dylan has said he compressed innumerable song ideas, writing in five-cent notebooks as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded: "I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one." The images it conjures up suggest the poetry of Eliot, Lorca, Ginsberg, Rexroth and Ferlinghetti and the tortured lines of Picasso’s Guernica. It was "A Hard Rain" that inspired a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen to write songs.
"With God on Our Side", a song written in a folk matrix and which declared that "if God is on our side/He’ll stop the next war" remains as topical today as at its first outing in 1963. During Watergate, a line from "It’s Alright Ma" ("Even the President of the United States/Sometimes must have to stand naked") drew wide applause, a decade after the song was written in 1965.
And is there anywhere a better summing up of the spoiled brat’s predicament than this: "I’m helpless, like a rich man’s child" ("Temporary Like Achilles", 1966).
Dylan has written the tenderest of love songs ("To Ramona"), the most vitriolic of revenge songs ("Like a Rolling Stone") and protest songs which are all the more powerful for their economy and controlled fury ("William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled round his diamond-ring finger", the chilling opening lines of "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll").
And no song speaks more compassionately for the dispossessed than "Chimes of Freedom" (1964), at once Dylan’s most political song and his greatest love song:
"Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
Dylan’s songs have already transcended generations and he will be listened to and discussed for hundreds of years to come. That’s assuming that old hard rain never falls."
"Yippee! I’m a poet and I know it/Hope I don’t blow it" he wrote in "I Shall Be Free No 10" in 1964. You didn’t Bob, you didn’t.
Liz Thomson is the editor of Conclusions on the Wall: New Essays on Bob Dylan (1980), co-editor of The Dylan Companion (Da Capo, revised edition 2000) and the revising editor of Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan (2011).
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