Examining prize criteria, I learned that Alfred Nobel’s 1895 will specified that in literature the work must be “the most outstanding . . . of an idealistic tendency,” and that “during the preceding year” the honoree must “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Could as much be said about Dylan’s lyrics? Can an icon of popular culture, a “song and dance man,” stand shoulder-to-shoulder with literary giants? Bobby Zimmerman alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Gunter Grass?
Idealism and benefiting humanity often, of course, move hand in hand, and Dylan’s idealistic, activist songs have indeed helped change our world. His 1963 Tom Paine Award (an earlier recipient, Bertrand Russell, was one of three philosophers — not counting Sartre — to win the Nobel in literature) came after “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Oxford Town,” and other works, as well as his going South to help with voter registration drives. An attitude aired in his 1965 “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”—“ . . . even the President of the United States / sometimes must have / to stand naked” — may have helped revise our view of presidential authority, encouraging inquiry into what became Watergate.
For a generation raised in conformity, Dylan validated imagination and independence of thought; his work is emblematic of the creativity of the 1960s in the U.S., and has affected others across the globe. Asked in a Der Spiegel interview if growing up in Germany he had an “American Dream,” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer replied, “Not an American Dream, but my very own dream of freedom. That was for me the music of Bob Dylan.”
Nor has Dylan’s idealism been wholly confined to one period, as later songs have shown: The sentimental fatherly idealism of “Forever Young”; the extraordinary songs of religious idealism such as “Every Grain of Sand”; the expression of an aesthetic ideal — against a torched historical landscape — in the brilliant but fated blues singer Blind Willie McTell, who would recognize that “ . . . power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is”; the search for a classical character trait, “Dignity.” And if I may offer a personal example: While teaching at the Virginia Military Institute, trudging along in uniform past fortresslike barracks, returning salutes from cadets, I sometimes all of a sudden heard a haunting familiar voice from far away and behind the wall, calling for a new world of human possibility, reaching the ears of the next generation.
And Dylan’s idealism certainly stacks up favorably in comparison with that of other Nobel winners. In examining the human condition Dylan can be as grim and unappeasing as William Faulkner; indeed, much of his work (“Visions of Johanna,” “Most of the Time”) shows “the human heart in conflict with itself” that Faulkner, receiving his Nobel, thought required for “good writing.” His experimentalism and variety are also as rich as Faulkner’s: love songs of bittersweet poignancy (“Most of the Time”) and shocking realism (“Ballad in Plain D”); stark indictments of human nature (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”); adaptations of earlier songs, including “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” that inspired revision of “Lord Randall.” There are works that seem foremost aesthetic, or about the power of art, such as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” there are songs of wisdom (“My Back Pages”) and, as we’ve noted, from the beginning, songs of social protest, songs of prophecy.
Having sketched some of the idealism and benefits to humanity in the works of Dylan and having brought his lyrics shoulder-to-shoulder with literary masters and examined his most recent publication in light of an earlier prize, we might note one other concern associated with the awarding of a Nobel: that the work so honored meet the test of experience or examination of experts. Dylan, of course, has satisfied both criteria.
As for the former, it is apparent today that Dylan’s work has not merely survived the course of 48 years, but has prevailed. Just a few of the countless indications: the 1996 adaptation of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by a Scottish anti-gun campaign; Dylan’s performance for the pope and 300,000 others in 1997, with Pope John Paul II quoting from a Dylan song then already a quarter-century old; Dylan’s appearance on a major American news program in 2004, with interviewer Ed Bradley insisting, despite his guest’s disclaimer, that in the minds of many he’s been gifted with special insight on the level of a prophet. In 2012, Dylan also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama — and never shed his quiet skepticism of power throughout the ceremony.
As for meeting the examination of the experts: Various academic textbooks, including the Norton “Introduction to Literature” (2005) and the “Portable Beat Reader” (1992), have reproduced his lyrics. The enlarged edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics’ included an entry on the “Rock Lyric,” where specific songs by Dylan are given as examples of the incorporation of “elements of modern poetry.”
Cultural critics, too, have documented Dylan’s enormous impact. Forty-four years ago, critic Ralph Gleason declared Dylan “the first American poet to touch everyone, to hit all walks of life in this great sprawling society.” More recently, Danny Goldberg’s “Dispatches From the Culture Wars” concluded with a warning to the American Left that demonstrates the timelessness of a Dylan theme. “Bob Dylan’s message of four decades ago still works: ‘You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changin’.”
Equally important — and a more direct sign of how Dylan has enriched our collective experience — are the many phrases from his lyrics that have become part of our everyday lexicon: “The times they are a-changin’ ”; “ . . . I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now”; “Nobody feels any pain.” According to professor Daniel Karlin, Dylan “‘has given more memorable phrases to our language than any comparable figure since Kipling.” Most recently, editor David Lehman, explaining the presence of the lyrics to “Desolation Row” in his “Oxford Book of American Poetry,” wrote that unlike with “Some Enchanted Evening” and other standards, “ . . . the lyrics have an existence apart from the music.” Dylan’s lyrics are not just accompaniments to music; they are their own poetry, and great accomplishments in literature at that.
Categorize Dylan’s work as you will, but to me these facts seem unarguable: Its literary qualities are exceptional; its artful idealism has contributed to major social change, altering and enriching the lives of millions culturally, politically, and aesthetically; the voices acclaiming it are many and distinguished. The Nobel Prize for Literature, which in over a century of being awarded has covered a territory broad and diverse, is a deserved form of recognition for such extraordinary accomplishment.
This essay is adapted from a chapter in “The Poetics of American Song Lyrics,” edited by Charlotte Pence.