[The following was a talk given at the Center for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship/Center for Advancement of STEM Education Nobel Panel, Bridgewater State University, November 14, 2016.]
The announcement that the Nobel Prize Committee had awarded Bob Dylan the prize for Literature…
for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition
…set off a flurry of accolades and a firestorm of criticisms. Many American writers reacted the way poet Amy King did when she wrote, “Great literature is not easily consumed like pop songs that rhyme.”
Others bemoaned the loss of well-deserved attention that the prize often bestows on young or lesser-known writers, and still others were simply snarky, such as Jodi Picoult, a New York Times-bestselling fiction writer, who tweeted that if Dylan could win the Nobel for literature, maybe she should get a Grammy.
Dylan, not surprisingly, had nothing to say about the award in the immediate weeks after the announcement, leaving the world and the committee wondering if he would even accept it. And so, once again, Bob Dylan shook up the establishment and challenged several entrenched ideas. While there is much that can be said about his challenge to the notion of what literature is, I am going to focus on the musical and performance ideals that Dylan destabilized.
When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, he was mining the rich American traditional material that circulated among practitioners. He admired the songs of Woody Guthrie, followed the cultural restorative work of Pete Seeger, and consumed record collections such as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Dylan’s eponymous first album recycled and reimagined this older material, but his next album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, contained mostly original material that seemed traditional yet challenged the boundaries of that tradition. His songs tapped into a part of the American psyche that critic Greil Marcus has called the “old weird America,” and at the same time explored alternate ways to construct the songs and expanded the thematic material. He borrowed from the older tradition, weaving a lyrical allusion from here with the echo of a melody from there, using his own material to hold these ideas together.
Though he became a regular fixture on the folk scene in the mid-60s, he publicly rejected that label. He claimed that his songs were not folk songs, but simply contemporary songs. The public was left to wonder what constituted folk music. Can it be new or must it be old? If you borrow and bend, is it an original work?
Following in the footsteps of folk music activists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Dylan moved towards socially-conscious themes during the mid-1960s, protesting the treatment of minorities and warning of the dangers of war, nuclear weapons, and governmental authorities. Dylan stood out among his peers for his use of language and imagery to underscore his message. One of his most notable examples was “Masters of War,” a diatribe against the arms buildup of the Cold War.
And just as he was crowned king of the protest songwriters, he rebelled against his own rebelliousness by contradicting himself in interviews and being coy and obtuse concerning the meaning of his songs. He later cynically admitted that writing protest songs was a way to remain relevant and sell records. Dylan thus challenged the effectiveness of social activism through music, especially considering artists were making money off the stories of mistreatment and inequities of others.
Still, for many, Dylan was the embodiment of the folk revival movement. Performing in a simple fashion with only his acoustic guitar and harmonica, he brought to mind the older generation of folk, traditional, and blues players, and thus conveyed the authenticity central to the folk music revival’s perception of itself. Many were therefore shocked, dismayed, perplexed, or outright angered over Dylan’s decision to go electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. In doing so, he was questioning the definition, ideals, and sound of “folk,” as well as asking who gets to be the gatekeeper along that watchtower. After that performance, the “enforced conformism” of folk, as writer Bob Stanley called it, crumbled under the pressure and the movement fractured into a number of different styles and approaches.
So if Dylan’s work was not strictly folk music, was it really “pop songs that rhyme” that are “easily consumed,” as Amy King asserted?
First of all, pop songs are assumed to be formulaic with repeated elements and simple chord progressions. While Dylan was capable of producing songs that adhered to this, he was just as apt to create variable length verses and lyrical lines, as he did in the apocalyptic anthem, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” in which the verse lengths vary from 9 to 16.
Second, pop songs tend to have themes that resonate with, but do not particularly challenge, young listeners, usually focusing in an uncomplicated way on the possibility and pitfalls of idealized romantic love. Though Dylan wrote of love and its loss, the words often painted complex and confusing pictures. For instance, in “Love Minus Zero,” he vividly describes his lover as faithful, mysterious, and wise then he digresses to scenes from a Renaissance tapestry.
Compare this to other pop love songs from the same year: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops, “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes, or “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. Quite the contrast, right?
As long as you have those songs in your head, compare the smooth vocals of these singers to Dylan’s signature nasally, high-pitched voice. His was clearly not a pop voice, and he was aware of that. His voice was one of the characteristics that most challenged people’s ideas of song performance, and the reason that a number of record labels rejected him at first. Furthermore, he tended to accent unaccented syllables and seemingly mispronounce words, defying the pop music conventions of Tin Pan Alley. And yet he still managed to land a record deal with Columbia and sell records.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could label Dylan’s work as “easily consumed.” When I teach Dylan in a pop, rock, or folk music class, student reactions drift between ambivalence and distaste. Since I can only spend a day on his music, contextualizing it within the historical framework of the 1960s, it may not be surprising that they do not immediately enjoy his songs. Colleagues in my field who teach longer courses on Dylan’s work find that their students learn to appreciate his music because they have been given time to find the value and meaning in the opaque, metaphor-driven, didactic imagery that constitutes his language. Lyrics filled with lines such as these…
…seem impenetrable and require sustained thought. Fans and scholars have spent years trying to decode the lyrics, and Dylan himself hasn’t helped, often saying that they don’t mean anything, leaving us to wonder if song must have a meaning or if it can simply exist with no further purpose.
While fans and managers shoehorned early rock ‘n’ rollers like Elvis into a particular public persona, Dylan refashioned himself as each new wind blew through his life. He was variously the Woody Guthrie-style hobo-like songster, the black shade wearing hipster who smoked weed and hung with the Beatles, a strident protest singer, a soft-voiced balladeer, a born-again Christian, a painter, and a recluse, among others. He answered the public’s questions about who he was by offering a different view of himself every time, thus calling into question the public’s right to know and the role of personality in the construction of a pop star. With each new interview, nothing was revealed, as he might say.
Dylan challenged every aspect of what it meant to be a folk and pop singer, a performer, a songwriter, and even a public figure. With the awarding of the Nobel and his initial spurning of the attention, a national conversation has begun over what is a poem and what is a song, what is art and what is pabulum for the masses. One might even wonder what a prize is, what it is really worth, and why one institution has the cultural leverage to award it over another. The Committee’s decision to select Dylan for a literature prize also highlights the difficulties and subjectivity of categorizing categories, and this ambiguity somehow seems fitting for him.