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Dylan's Nobel prize settles debate: Rock lyrics are poetry

Dan DeLuca

Updated: Thursday, October 13, 2016, 2:13 PM

Next stop, Stockholm: Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday. The Swedish Academy, in making him the first American winner since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993, cited him for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan is the songwriter who opened up the doors of possibility to all who followed. He was the mysterious bard with a guitar who sent out a clarion call - first as the acoustic Voice of His Generation, then as the plugged-in rocker who remained a master of the unexpected for five decades - that the words pop singers sang were worthy of being taken seriously.

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2012 file photo, Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles. Fifty years into his career as a recording artist and a week away from release of an extraordinary new CD, Dylan spent his Tuesday evening where he seems to feel most comfortable - on a stage. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File) ASSOCIATED PRESS
Bob Dylan from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese. Photo credit: Don Hunstein
Folk singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, 22, performs on Nov. 8, 1963. The location is unknown. (AP Photo) Associated Press
File photo dated 3/7/2010 of American singer Bob Dylan, who has been hailed as "a great poet in the English-speaking tradition" following his surprise win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/Zuma Press/TNS) TNS
Bob Dylan from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese. Photo credit: Don Hunstein
Bob Dylan performs at the Spectrum on October 23, 1981. Gerald S. Williams / Philadelphia Inquirer
tvcov25z-b. PBS documentary-- "No direction home: Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan performs with the Band at a Philadlphie concert in January 1974. William F. Steinmetz / Philadelphia Inquirer
Musical guest Bob Dylan performs on the Late Show with David Letterman, Tuesday May 19, 2015 on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS Ã?Â#-62;©2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Res CBS
Bob Dylan, mid-1960s. Photo: (c) Don Hunstein
FILE - In this May 29, 2012, file photo, President Barack Obama presents rock legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in Washington. Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, announced Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Dylan1fea 5/11/01 Photography by Peter Tobia A smiling Bob Dylan performing at Toad's Place in New Haven, CT on January 12, 1990. It was Dylan's first show as a nightclub headliner in more than twenty-five years at the seven-hundred-capacity nightclub. The show started at quarter to nine in the evening with the forty-eight- year-old Dylan walking off the stage at twenty nimutes past two in the morning. He played a total of fifty songs. Peter Tobia
An early but undated publicity photo of Bob Dylan in New York City from his autobiography, "Chronicles Volume One." (AP Photo/Simon & Schuster)
The Pope greets U.S. singer Bob Dylan who performed at a concert in honour of John Paul II in Bologna Saturday September 27 1997. It was the highlight of a week-long religious congress in the Northern Italian city and a chance for the Pontiff to spend time with young people and their music. (AP Photo/Arturo Mari) Associated Press
Bob Dylan, "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, A Martin Scorsese Picture" Monday, September 26, 2005, 9:00-11:00 pm ET. Tuesday, September 27, 2005, 9:00-11:00 pm ET. Photo Credit: Jim Marshall
Bob Dylan performs at JFK Stadium during a Dylan/Grateful Dead concert in July 1987. Charles Fox / Philadelphia Inquirer
Ken Friedman Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia perform at Day on the Green. Oakland Coliseum Stadium, Oakland, CA, July 24, 1987 Chromogenic print Courtesy of Ken Friedman
Bob Dylan from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese. Photo credit: Don Hunstein
Bob Dylan performs with Joan Baez from the "No Direction Home" film by Martin Scorsese. Photo credit: Norman Vershay
Bob Dylan during a Spectrum concert in Philadelphia on October 6, 1978. Norman Y. Lono / Philadelphia Daily News
Photo Gallery: Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in literature

“Dylan was a revolutionary,” Bruce Springsteen said in his 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.” Early masterpieces such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Visions Of Johanna” and “Like A Rolling Stone” fueled a debate: Are rock lyrics poetry?

The answer must be yes, because on Thursday, Dylan was awarded the highest honor for a writer: the Nobel Prize in literature. The Swedish Academy, in making him the first American winner since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993, cited him for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The Swedish Academy's decision to honor Dylan set off an online debate, with Scottish Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh calling it "an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies." Salman Rushdie, a Nobel candidate himself, called Dylan "the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice." President Obama settled the argument by tweeting: "Congratulations to one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well deserved Nobel."

Dylan’s name has been whispered as a possible winner for many years, but he was a surprise choice. Ladbroke’s, the English betting house, had the favorite as Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at 4-1. American gray eminence Philip Roth, the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral, was 7-1. Dylan came in at 60-1, with a slightly better chance than Princeton-based Irish poet Paul Muldoon (66-1) and slightly worse than Czech novelist Milan Kundera (50-1).

Many of Dylan’s most fervently loved songs - some of which actually are love songs - date from the 1960s, and his being honored at age 75 can be seen as an ultimate affirmation for the baby boomer generation. There was a movie about the Beatles in theaters this fall, and now Dylan has won the Nobel Prize. They have lasted.


On one end of Dylan's songwriting spectrum is the vengeful, resolute, and timeless “Masters Of War,” which he sang last weekend in his slot opening for the Rolling Stones at the Desert Trip festival-otherwise known as “Oldchella” - in Indio, Calif. It’s high dudgeon at its finest: “Let me ask you one question: Is your money that good? / Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? / I think you will find when your death takes its toll / All the money you made will never buy back your soul.”

On the other end are Dylan’s love songs, some of them also vengeful, such as "Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (from 1963‘s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) or “Idiot Wind” (from 1975‘s brilliant Blood On The Tracks), or morose, like “Love Sick,” from the 1997’s late career tour de force Time Out Of Mind.

Dylan is of course enormously influential. Springsteen, who referred to him as “The Father Of My Country” in his new Born To Run memoir, is one of many who were once known as “New Dylans.” Every singer-songwriter with a personal story to tell owes him a debt, and hearing the above lines read or sung aloud, with their knack for internal rhyme, call up inevitable parallels to the dense playful language of rap.

The Nobel is given for a body of work, and comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, which translates into approximately $900,000. (A drop in the bucket for Dylan, who’s reportedly earning $7 million a piece for his gigs at Desert Trip, which happen again this weekend.)

His big win comes with slightly ironic timing, because with the recent shows on his Never Ending Tour - which played the Mann Center in Philadelphia this summer - he has been concentrating not on songs that he’s written himself, but those associated with Frank Sinatra found on his two most recent albums, Shadows In The Night (2015) and this year’s Fallen Angels.

Dylan clearly won the Nobel for his songs, but he has published non-musical writing, including a book of poetry, Tarantula, in 1971, and Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir that came out in 2004. “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature,” the Nobel committee wrote.

They added: “Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics, and love. The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title Lyrics." (At which point the snarky comment to make is: And it’s a good thing they have been published, because if you’ve gone to see the famously sneering and syllable-garbling Dylan play live in recent years, you probably couldn’t understand a word he was singing.)

Dan DeLuca

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