When I was in fifth grade, my parents dragged me into New York City one Sunday afternoon to go visit The Morgan Library Museum. They were interested in seeing an exhibit that was quite literally the most disinteresting thing a ten-year old could possibly think up. It was called Bob Dylan’s American Journey (1956-1966).
I recall walking through the museum, mindlessly staring at videos and pictures of Dylan performing live, at recovered authentic sheet music, and at descriptions of the importance of Dylan’s music. Through all of it, the only thing I took away was that someone with such an objectively horrible singing voice could somehow become one of the most famous rock and roll performers in history.
My parents, upon leaving the exhibit, ardently defended Dylan’s fame and impact by continually mentioning the deep-seeded meaning of his lyrics. The ride home, which was about ninety minutes long, consisted entirely of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits: songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and “Mr. Tambourine Man”. At the time, I thought “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a respectable song in terms of lyricism, but I just couldn’t understand how someone like Bob Dylan was considered one of the greatest rock stars, song writers, and musical influencers of all time.
Fast forward to October 13th 2016, ten years since I visited The Morgan Library Museum and tediously stared at Dylan’s manuscripts, and the legend of Bob Dylan’s lyricism has grown greater than ever. On this date, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan for his poetic lyricism throughout his musical career.
This award is a milestone in musical history- as Dylan is the first musician to ever win the prize in the discipline of literature. More impressively, perhaps, is that Dylan did nothing in recent years to make a conceded push for the award; it was simply deemed that his lifelong lyrical manuscripts deserved the distinction.
Academia, musicians, writers, and many others will argue for years over whether Dylan is deserving of this award. Winners include the absolute best authors in the history of humanity: the likes of Toni Morrison, Claude Simon, T.S. Elliot, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Albert Camus, the list goes on and on. For Bob Dylan to enter into category with these literary icons cements the idea that songwriting is equivalent to poetry, storytelling, and other forms of more traditional prose.
This is undoubtedly a dangerous distinction for the Swedish Academy to make, but in my opinion Dylan deserves this acknowledgment, and he may be the only songwriter that will ever make that leap into literary mastery.
In the ten years since I was first introduced to Bob Dylan I have become quite a fan of his work. Dylan’s work represents an authentic view inside American life of the mid-to-late twentieth century, his lyrics are timeless and relatable, and his voice has a certain folky innocence that becomes soothing after enough listening.
Dylan’s 1975 “Hurricane” is an eight and a half minute ballad that describes racial profiling and false imprisonment that ruined the boxing career and worsened the life of a man named Robin Carter (aka Hurricane) in 1966 New Jersey.
“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”
The song is remarkably descriptive, and the lyrics can be read as a story. One of Dylan’s longer songs, it still remains famous to this day due to a chorus that hardly repeats, which further emphasizes the story-like element to his music.
Some consider another Dylan song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, to be the first ever “rap” song. Released in 1965, the tune is a fast paced, quick rhyming tune that could easily be relayed over a modern beat and essentially rapped. The ABAB rhyme scheme develops early and evolves often, while the song continues with a story through it all.
“Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine,
I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government
The man in a trench coat, badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get paid off”
Dylan’s most famous songs- “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are two American classics. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was released in 1963, and “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, continue to transform and inspire modern musicians. Rolling Stone magazine ranked them respectively 14th and 1st in their 2010 “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” countdown (along with eleven (ELEVEN!!!) more Dylan songs).
I’ll end this article by posting key lyrics from the two highest ranked Bob Dylan songs, and leave it to you, the readers, to determine if they constitute literature. But for myself, and many others, the lyrics of Bob Dylan are timeless and important stories that need no music for their message to be delivered.
Keep in mind the time period (1960’s U.S.).
“Blowin’ in the Wind”:
“How many years can a mountain exist
before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind”
“Like a Rolling Stone”:
“Ah you never turned around to see the frowns
On the jugglers and the clowns when they all did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain’t no good
You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
After he took from you everything he could steal
How does it feel, how does it feel?
To have on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone”