[UPDATED AT END] This just in: Bob Dylan has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
An inspired choice – from an organization that has not always made inspired choices. The list of great authors – as in earth-shakingly, mind-numbingly, inarguably great authors – who did NOT receive the Nobel Prize is a Who’s Who of the greatest writers of the last 100 years: Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Henrik Ibsen, Bertold Brecht, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, …
While the Winner’s Circle has included Sully Prudhomme, Sinclair Lewis, Harry Martinson, Boris Pasternak, José Echegaray, Rudolf Eucken, Verner von Heidenstam, Erik A. Karlfeldt, Frans Sillanpää, and Pearl Buck.
It is difficult to understand exactly why we pay so much attention to it; it’s just a bunch of Swedish intellectuals with no particular claim to be the arbiters of great art sitting around and picking a favorite. But we do – in large part, I think, because we think everyone else is paying attention to it, in theory at least all across the planet.
And in any event, it surely is a net plus for the world that once a year a significant portion of the world’s attention is fixed, for even a few moments, on great writers (and sometimes not-so-great writers) and on what makes them great (and not-so-great).
And Dylan is worthy of the attention. To those of us who grew up with him singing on our own personal soundtracks – “Freewheelin'” was, I believe, the first album I ever bought with my own money, and it may well have been the best three bucks I ever spent; I’ve said for many years that I think we’ve been fortunate to have been alive during the Bob Dylan era – the choice surely brings a smile to our faces. The greatest song-writer in English, certainly since George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, and possibly ever. I have a strong feeling that 100 or 200 years from now, when people may have forgotten all about Andre Gide (1947), Heinrich Boll (1972), and Eyvind Johnson (1974), they’ll still be playing and singing Dylan’s songs.
Herein my list of the five greatest Dylan albums of all time: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Freewheelin’, and Time out of Mind. I’m sure that others will have their own personal lists …
So: Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing Minnesota, we salute you!
UPDATE: As one of the commenters pointed out, Dylan has expressed, over the years, some remarkable ideas about “plagiarism,” copyright infringement, and the folk tradition. As this is (mostly) a law blog, worth quoting in full, from a Rolling Stone interview from several years ago.
QUESTION: Before we end the conversation, I want to ask about the controversy over your quotations in your songs from the works of other writers, such as Japanese author Junichi Saga’s “Confessions of a Yakuza,” and the Civil War poetry of Henry Timrod. Some critics say that you didn ‘t cite your sources clearly. Yet in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. What’s your response to those kinds of charges?
DYLAN: Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. I mean, everyone else can do it but not me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.
DYLAN: I’m working within my art form. It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.
QUESTION: When those lines make their way into a song, you’re conscious of it happening?
DYLAN: Well, not really. But even if you are, you let it go. I’m not going to limit what I can say. I have to be true to the song. It’s a particular art form that has its own rules. It’s a different type of thing. All my stuff comes out of the folk tradition – it’s not necessarily akin to the pop world.