There is little doubt that Bob Dylan, one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists, deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Still, even in celebration, I’ll confess to a few pangs of regret. In claiming this prize, after all, he parted ways with the distinguished group of writers who have been infamously passed over by the Swedish committee. This group includes James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, and Chinua Achebe, just to name a few.
That’s good company to keep, and Dylan shares with them the distinctive ability to break things brilliantly. He often works his way into something familiar in order to suddenly make it new or strange. He started his career by transforming the issue-driven folk music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger into murky, ambiguous poetry. If you don’t believe me, listen to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” again and see if you make sense of its twisting images. And just when folk music seemed to be at its peak, he broke clear of it by plugging in a Fender Stratocaster and standing in front of an electric blues band to snarl that he wasn’t “gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
That poetic sensibility he brought to the folk scene next made its way into a revitalized rock music littered with strange and deeply resonant language. Dylan once described his epic song, “Chimes of Freedom,” as a “chain of flashing images” and we hear in them the abiding mysteries that made pop music into something serious — something that you could hear differently each time, something you could debate with friends, something, in short, you could care about.
And people did care, including the hundreds of thousands who went to Woodstock in 1969 to hear this new kind of music in person. That fabled concert took place not far from Dylan’s home in upstate New York — indeed, took place because it was near his home. The man who made rock serious, however, did not appear. Instead, he was busy breaking down boundaries by excavating the music of what the great music critic Greil Marcus called “old, weird America.” At the same time that Dylan was experimenting with Appalachian ballads and primitive blues, he was also taking trips to Nashville studios. There he connected with session players to make a string of country albums, became close friends with Johnny Cash, and began to invent what we now call roots music.
Dylan has never really stopped breaking old things to make new ones. The aspiring country music artist went on to become a devout Christian who preached from the stage. That conversion, however, was followed by others, leaving those who follow his music perpetually perplexed. Is he a folk musician? A rock star? A Christian apologist? A roots musician? Or the worn-down crooner we’ve heard on the recent albums improbably inspired by Frank Sinatra?
There’s no good answer to these questions, because Dylan is as much collector as composer. That’s why we hear everything from Walt Whitman and old Scottish ballads to Hank Williams and Robert Johnson in his lyrics. The heartache of country music presses uncomfortably against the hip irony of rock and the deep conviction of gospel hymns. We hear the strangeness of French surrealism, the honesty of folk music, the deep conviction of evangelical belief, and the stark emotion of primitive blues.
We hear all this because Dylan likes to break things, because the restlessness we hear in his lyrics defines the whole of his creative life. He even returns to his own songs to break them — to scramble them up, change the words, alter the time signature, make them something new even to him. There’s never any worry of the audience singing along at a Dylan concert, because even the most dedicated fans return to be surprised by a new version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”
So I’m happy to celebrate Dylan’s Nobel win and find boring the snobbish arguments it has sparked about whether rock lyrics can be counted as literature. In fact, the best part of the win is the Nobel committee’s implicit acknowledgement that popular art forms can be every bit as dense, complex, and challenging as a modernist novel or an experimental play.
A part of me nevertheless wishes that Dylan still kept good company with Joyce, Woolf, and Achebe — with all those modern writers and artists who broke things so beautifully, so permanently, and so creatively. If he does accept the award (and recent reports suggest that he has so far ignored the committee), I hope he at least has the good sense to wear his shades to the ceremony and leave us wondering what he might break next.
Sean Latham is the Walter Endowed Chair of English at the University of Tulsa and is at work on a book about Dylan.