When I heard that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, I could not help but smile. How many times I had listened to his songs seemed inconsequential; rather, it felt like an affirmation not only for Dylan’s way with words but how they affected generations of not just fans but other artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as well.
Anyone who has listened to Dylan’s songs has known that they are pure poetry – the liquid rush of carefully chosen words exploding through the speakers of a sound system along a sweet stream of music. There are the memorable lyrics to be sure that keep the tunes buzzing in one’s brain, but there is also the unique vocal delivery, a slightly nasal twinge and the distinctly country inflection. Add some harmonica and a liberal amount of guitar, and you have the recipe for what made Dylan a legend in his own time.
I could cite favorite songs here – and no doubt each of us has so many of them – but there is more the collective impact of his work and its effect on people especially during the 1960s. It almost seems a given to call his songs anthems of peace as some will do, and a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” will be forever seen as such. His songs were that but much more as well – they were a soundtrack for our lives.
There is such universality to his lyrics and the music that goes with them, similar to Shakespeare’s sonnets or Frost’s poems. They can be read in any setting or century and strike a chord – cutting a deep emotional chasm into the listener that reverberates and is unforgettable.
Sara Danius of the Nobel Committee said, “Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear, but it is perfectly fine to read his works as poetry.” She also noted his “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Of course, Danius is correct; if there were a Mount Rushmore of American musical artists, Dylan would be right up there with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Michael Jackson.
We fans have always known that Dylan’s words were poetry and didn’t need the music, but having the luscious sound entwined with those unforgettable words made us all like Odysseus, wanting to be tied to a mast and absorbing the magnificence that might drive us to insanity or delight.
Dylan has won numerous awards including an Oscar and a dozen Grammys, but the Nobel Prize elevates him into a pantheon of American writers so honored. Now his name will be said in the same breath as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, and yes, he rightfully takes his place as the American Bard most of his fans always knew him to be.
It is not that Dylan has not received recognition before, but this award solidifies his place in the American cultural landscape. Dylan has always been a precious resource, a font of words and music that keeps on giving and will continue to do so for generations to come.
For those who have not had the pleasure of knowing about him or hearing his songs, I am sure that Dylan would say, “Don’t think twice; it’s all right.” And it is indeed!