Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature back in December “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” For anyone who follows Dylan anywhere near as devotedly as I do, it comes as no surprise that he did not attend the ceremonies in Stockholm, citing “prior commitments” that commentators have tried to divine, as he wasn’t on tour.
Regular readers of this column will know that I find him as deserving as anyone of the honor, that to me there’s no question about it. But in this era of voracious digital media where most anyone can publicly voice what’s a wide range of opinions, informed or otherwise, there are those who found this objectionable.
I don’t get why any rational, educated and informed person might criticize the Nobel committee’s choice even if I’m not at all surprised by the hue and cry about it. My answer to any doubters is simple: Go to his website, where the lyrics of every song he’s ever written can be found, and dig in. There’s lines as well as entire compositions where his gift for the language is stunningly eloquent, inventive and resonant. It’s a catalog that draws inspiration from so much great writing, read literature and poetry, over the ages, all the way back to the Bible.
Some of the opposition cite the fact that he’s a songwriter as the reason why Dylan is undeserving. To me the case for him winning the prize is bolstered when his melodies are added to his words, giving them an even greater potency that helped carry his work to a wide audience. One has to also wonder why there isn’t a Nobel Prize for music.
Quick: Name anyone else using the language whose legacy is anywhere near as potent and profound. Well before the recent fin de siécle, a totally natural if still artificial occasion for summation, I asserted that he was the greatest poet – and one could also say writer – of the last half of the 20th Century.
Even before Dylan won the award, my friend Bill Wyman (the writer not the former Rolling Stones bassist) ably contested the objections in a 2013 article in the New York Times (Google it to see how prescient Wyman was). And even among those who agree he merited the honor, the matters of his taking his sweet time to respond to the Nobel organization’s overtures and not showing up to accept his award in person was a snub to the prize, some contend.
But doing so is so typically Dylan, part of a pattern of confounding expectations that has been a consistent characteristic since soon after he emerged into the public eye. It’s one of the things I most admire in him: The courage to go his own way and the integrity of being his own man.
Much as I may wish to know and could even, from my rather deep knowledge of his life and career, speculate on why he didn’t choose to participate in the Nobel process and presentation, I’d lay good odds on the core reason why: His ultimate loyalty is to one thing – the music and the creative process of writing, recording and performing it. That’s what any artistic soul should have as the bottom line.
It’s especially gratifying that at 75 he won the prize, and that such deserved recognition didn’t come posthumously. He is in the latter years of his life, and thankfully as vital as ever. But even after the sad day when he departs this earthly realm, his creations shall continue to live for as long as there is human history – the ultimate test and proof.
Here’s some Dylan albums beyond the acknowledged early classics that you may not have heard but should:
Infidels – Some were ready to write Dylan off as a contemporary force in music when he released this set in 1983. He brought in Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) as his co-producer and the reggae rhythm section of Sly Dunbar (drums) and Robbie Shakespeare (bass) for a set capped by two glittering gems: “Jokerman” and “License to Kill” (both of which still hit bullseyes in the Trump era).
Oh Mercy – Producer Daniel Lanois gets due credit for this 1989 masterpiece, recorded in New Orleans. Key tracks include “Political World” and “Everything Is Broken” – again, so right not just then but for our times right now – as well as two haunting songs about lost love, “Most of the Time” and “What Was It You Wanted.”
Time Out of Mind – Again Lanois assists Dylan in making another landmark, this one in 1997. If there are songs any better than such highlights as “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and “Make You Feel My Love,” I have yet to hear them.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017
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