Bob Dylan, a 75-year-old folk and rock musician from Minnesota, won the Nobel Prize in Literature this week. How does it feel?
If you’re a baby boomer who came of age on Dylan’s words and music, you’ve waited for this moment. It is validation of his talent, yes, but also of your taste and the cultural and political revolution you embraced: Bob Dylan the rock star wins the Nobel in literature, and by proxy the soundtrack of your generation gets acknowledged for its enduring value. That means an honorary Nobel Peace Prize for John Lennon, and how about a Nobel in, um, chemistry, for the Grateful Dead?
OK, enough about the boomers. This prize isn’t about your generation, which, sorry to say, soon will be knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door. This prize is more valuable for everyone who didn’t see Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65 or wasn’t old enough to buy “Blood on the Tracks” when it was released in 1975. Think of the Nobel announcement as less an affirmation than an introduction to a dazzling artist whose prowess as a lyricist is both urgent and timeless.
The Nobel committee has a tricky task searching the planet for great literature and parceling out recognition fairly. Given the world’s language and cultural differences, most writers chosen are going to be unfamiliar and possibly impenetrable to readers in many other countries. Each Nobel is an invitation to explore the works of an artist, often not widely known. Safe to say most Americans hadn’t heard of Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, last year’s winner.
Dylan the songwriter is a poet, a protest singer, a sloganeer, a philosopher, a troubadour and a storyteller. His writing is trenchant yet beautifully elliptic. His doleful, droning voice drives some listeners away, yes, but the weary, gravelly texture of his singing is emotionally true to the serious, biting tone of his work. While his words stand on their own as poetry (one reason he deserves the Nobel), they accrue even more power through the phrasing of his melodies. It’s worth the effort to study him – that’s what the Nobel committee is saying. Or, as Dylan sang, don’t criticize what you can’t understand.
The most intriguing prospective audience for Dylan is young people, who know him more as artifact than artist. Bringing him to their attention is an interesting exercise, because all of the issues he has taken on throughout his career (war, love, loss, hypocrisy, civil rights) are still here, still unresolved. Who else among today’s songwriters is capable of bringing clarity and grace to the era of the political circus, terrorism and inequality? Dylan stands with the best ever. While he penned “Masters of War” in the early 1960s about the Cold War, it speaks to Aleppo, Syria, in 2016:
You fasten all the triggers / For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch / When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion / As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud
For a young generation weaned on rap and pop, an old-fashioned folk rocker like Dylan is a stretch to appreciate. But his selection by the Nobel committee is a signal that all forms of writing, from novels to songs, have lasting artistic merit. The aging boomers understand why Dylan deserves his honor. If you don’t know his music, give it a listen.