The times they are still a changin’. Today, the Nobel prize for literature has been awarded to American singer – songwriter Bob Dylan. The 75 year-old music icon becomes the first songwriter ever awarded the prize, and the $905,000 that attends it.
Reports say there was both applause and laughter in the hall when the Swedish Academy panel made its announcement, Evidently, some still look at popular songwriting as a hybrid art form that shouldn’t be eligible for a purely literary prize. As Dylan himself said years ago, his words are no more important than his music. They are meant to be taken as one.
But according to the Swedish Academy Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
One of the betting favorites for the prize this year was American author Don DeLillo, he of ‘Underworld’, ‘White Noise’ and ‘Libra’ fame. For anyone who cares about the written word, the first 60 pages of Underworld are among the most crystalline.
But Dylan did more than just spin word-webs that danced on the page – ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ – he spun them in song.
Though he came to fame for such Sixties’ consciousness-raising classics as ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’, ‘The Times They are a-Changin’, and ‘Masters of War’, songs which utilized those poetic expressions the Nobel
Panel spoke of, the Minnesota-born Bobby Zimmerman also penned lacerating laments to soured relationships, songs like ‘Positively 4th Street’, ‘Don’t Think Twice Its All Right’, and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’.
This was at a time when the Beatles were still singing “Love Love Me Do”, “All You Need Is Love and “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”.
This Nobel prize, then, is a validation for generations of songwriters spanning many different genres.
Born during the height of the Big Band era in 1941, Dylan came of age as Rock ‘n’ Roll swept up from the south to engulf the youth of America, even as far north as hidebound Hibbing, Minnesota.
Though it was rooted in the Delta blues, a musical form in which pain and loss were the animating emotions, early rock was utterly simplistic, speaking to teenagers’ longing for unrequited love.
Beginning in the early Sixties Dylan matured the form in both word and social meaning, and in doing so influenced all who followed. The Beatles most important work, which itself brought about a revolution in musical expression, was largely built atop Dylan’s lyrical examples.
In “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Dylan wrote “it ain’t me you’re looking for, babe.” Today, as the race for the White House hits its final furlongs, me (meaning you) is exactly what we’re looking for. And if not you, then who?
Today, we find ourselves as polarized as any time since the 1960s when Bob Dylan emerged as the voice of a generation that was splitting from its ancestral sensibilities. As the Sixties took form, the America of We, the People was morphing into Americans of the Me Generation.
But today’s polarization spans a much wider spectrum than the young versus old divide of Dylan’s youth. Now we look across at such distinctions as educated and non-educated, have and have-not, pro-life and pro-choice.
Whereas previous generations of immigrants could see a ladder to climb in America that was unavailable back home, a future to embrace, in today’s technology-based, more globalized economy, assimilation is much more difficult to achieve as jobs are more highly pitched, and the ladders seem to have been taken down from the walls of promise and opportunity.
People once lived for the future, for their children and their grandchildren. Today the pressure is on the unforgiving moment as people are no longer offered lives of opportunity and privilege. As our newest Nobel laureate once wrote:
“Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
Congrats, Mr Tambourine Man. There are many who are still a-followin’ you.