Bob Dylan – Imogen Davies

Literature, Poetry….or Pop?

Like Judas of old

You lie and deceive

A world war can be won

You want me to believe

But I see through your eyes

And I see through your brain

Like I see through the water

That runs down my drain


So sang Bob Dylan in 1963 in his protest song “Masters of War” against the then escalating Cold War between East and West.  There are 8 verses, and no chorus.  It’s worth a listen, even though Bob’s singing voice is certainly not to everybody’s taste.  The lyrics are strong and forceful.  Ingenious even.  But are the lyrics “Literature”?

On 13 October 2016 the 75 year old was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Over a career spanning six decades he has produced numerous albums and is a popular cultural icon justifiably rated as one of the most influential performers and artists since the 1960’s.

He began learning the guitar at the age of 14 and performed in rock ‘n’ roll bands at high school before becoming influenced by the music of Woody Guthrie leading to him performing and composing in the folk genre.  His second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963, was an immediate success, selling 10,000 copies a month.  The lyrics of these songs focus on political and social issues and are said to be the major reason for his popularity.  Blowin’ in the Wind is perhaps the most famous song off the album.  It has been widely regarded as a protest song, questioning why there must be war and oppression. Dylan openly showed his support for civil rights and was always anti-war. This song was probably protesting about US involvement in Korea and Vietnam; ‘how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?’.

Dylan’s songs, particularly his lyrics, have impacted people’s lives being used in protests, mainly in the 1960’s.  The lyrics of A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall, released in 1963, were at first mistakenly believed to be referring to the threat of nuclear destruction brought on by the Cuban missile crisis before Dylan revealed that the ‘hard rain’ was in fact referring to the ‘lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers’.  The Times They Are A-Changin, released a year later, showed his support for the Civil Rights Movement as he tried to make people embrace change, calling to ‘senators, congressmen (to) please heed the call’ and achieve equal rights for Black Americans.

The Nobel Prize in Literature was created by Alfred Nobel who in his Will asked for ‘prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind’. The award has been given since 1901 by the Swedish Academy and since this time 113 people have gained the award.  Past winners include Rudyard Kipling (who is the youngest person ever to gain the award at 41) for his ‘originality of imagination’, John Steinbeck (author of Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath) for his ‘realistic and imaginative writings’ and Ernest Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, for his ‘mastery of the art of narrative’.  More controversially, Winston Churchill won the award not only for his historical and biographical works but for his ‘brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’; presumably referring to his famous war speeches such as ‘We will fight on the beaches’ after the disaster at Dunkirk.

These and other winners have published lengthy works which have been the subject of academic study and whose words are classics of literature.

Should a folk/pop performers song lyrics be rated in the same way as the premier authors and writers of the last 100 years?

Announcing the award the Nobel committee said “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize.  He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way.  Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Many have praised the award.  The former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the prize was “a wonderful acknowledgement of Dylan’s genius.  For 50 and some years he has bent, coaxed, teased and persuaded words into lyric and narrative shapes that are at once extraordinary and inevitable.”

High praise indeed.  But can Dylan’s work be compared to Milton?  To Blake?

Others have been less enthusiastic.  Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting called the award “contemptuous of writers”, saying that although he was a Dylan fan “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.

One commentator in The Telegraph has noted that “This is the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not Sweden’s Got Talent”, and that, today, “A culture that gives Bob Dylan a literature prize is a culture that nominates Donald Trump for president.”

Many see such criticism as the snobbery of the “high brow” cultural establishment.

Even though Dylan’s lyrics have ‘created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ and have influenced several political and social protests, can song lyrics really be classed as literature or should the prize be reserved for the traditional novelists or poets? Dylan is the first musician to win the prize.  Will this decision stretch the boundaries of what will be classed as literature in the future?

Whatever one’s view as to the merit of Bob Dylan’s words in comparison with the acknowledged giants of literature, one thing is certain – he wrote powerful lyrics about the human condition and the moral questions of the day;

How much do I know

To talk out of turn

You might say that I’m young

You might say I’m unlearned

But there’s one thing I know

Though I’m younger than you

That even Jesus would never

Forgive what you do


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