By Warwick McFadyen
Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize for literature. What critics seem to miss is a fairly basic point. Bob Dylan writes words. He has for more than 50 years. That he then puts those words into song is, really neither here nor there.
Harold Pinter won the Nobel in 2005, and his words go into the mouths of actors who then perform them on stage. They are meant to be performed. Similarly with Dylan, only there is only one actor, the creator himself.
The award was given “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. No one in this universe or any parallel one could argue with that.
He forged a new language, out of a love of language. To do this he had to break the mould of what a song was, and is. If he had not continued creating and performing for more than half a century than surely his canon of the sixties and into the seventies would have been enough.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)
Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964)
Bringing It All Back Hone (1965)
Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Blonde on Blonde (1966)
John Wesley Harding (1968)
Blood on the Tracks (1975)
And just a few songs from those albums would make any poet envious: Girl from the North Country, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, With God on Our Side, Ballad of Hollis Brown, Only a Pawn in Their Game, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Chimes of Freedom, My Back Pages, It’s alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding) Like A Rolling Stone, Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna, Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, All Along the Watchtower, Tangled Up in Blue, (the whole of Blood on the Tracks, actually) Isis, One More Cup of Coffee, Sara.
And there’s still another three decades to go . . . Let’s throw in the album Time Out Of Mind to seal the justification. Or perhaps, the Pulitzer or the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the Polar Music Prize or the National Medal of Arts or the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.
How anyone could be so blind as Anna North in The New York Times could be to write “by awarding the prize to him, the Nobel committee is choosing not to award it to a writer, and that is a disappointing choice”.
What was Dylan doing then, making hubcaps? North goes on to say, yes, he is a “brilliant lyricist . . . he is great because he is a great musician”. But a writer? Tut tut no. There are none so blind who will not see, Ms North.
Others have also criticised the award, such as Irvine Welsh who thought it was given by ageing hippies as an “ill-conceived nostalgia award”. Others thought it a “gimmick” and an insult to the thousands of other very fine writers in the world. Who should award it then of not the committee. Should we have a referendum, a postal vote, worldwide?
As to the thousands of other fine writers, when they’ve been on the creative wheel for half a century and produced, and reinvented an artform, perhaps it will be their turn, all 10,000 of them.
Bruce Springsteen has written of Dylan that he is the “father of my country”. Shane Howard says of Dylan’s work that “he gave jobs to us all” meaning he opened the doors to the possibilities of chiselling away at the rock of ages for aspiring songwriters.
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really sacred.
Dylan takes words from the earth, the streams, the rough shadows of humanity and makes them glisten. It’s the poetic edge. Before him, there was nothing. Now, there is a world of words and music boundless. That is his genius. That is his gift. That is why he has the Nobel.
Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor
CODA: This a link to a piece I wrote on Bob Dylan’s literary influences and ambitions in 2004 for The Age newspaper:
4 thoughts on “Dylan’s Nobel calling”
Stunning, compelling, insightful, restores ones faith in human beings,hopefully this will get picked up & seen Nationally…
Thanks for making clear what should be obvious: words written is writing and sometimes writing amounts to literature. Rather than being craven or hippie lickspittle, I think the committee has been bold in recognising music as a form that can accommodate literature. But that’s alright, ma, I’m only reading.
Well said, Warwick. Have been a Dylan admirer since the very early days, through his amazing output in the sixties and seventies. Remained loyal when he went electric, and think he has aged like fine wine. Some of his more recent albums include some stunning songs and lyrics. When the Nobel announcement was made, I was surprised, pleasantly: a brilliant decision … by a committee!
Thanks Peter. We just won’t mention a little album called under a red sky, or some such thing…