As a person for whom music is a spiritual experience, and as a writer, and as somebody who believes that true art has no boundaries, I take great pleasure in Bob Dylan being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
It’s not that I’m a big Dylan fan, although a quick count reveals that I own a dozen or so of his albums. And it’s not that I spend a lot of time listening to the man who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, although a quick check reveals that I have 14 of his songs on my iPod at the moment.
It’s just that, possessing a healthy awe for those who brilliantly use language, I long have respected Dylan’s music even more than I have enjoyed it. When the list of artists who have covered your songs numbers in the hundreds upon hundreds and ranges from Joan Baez to Rage Against the Machine, then you know how to write a song.
Dylan’s Nobel Prize expands our definition of literature, even if a handful of writers have decried the choice. Novelist Rabih Alameddine, for example, wrote on Twitter, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” But others have been more gracious, recognizing that Dylan’s lyrics are no less poetic than more erudite writers who stylize their names by eschewing capital letters. When numerous colleges teach courses that examine your work, you qualify as a significant writer.
Dylan’s selection, while simultaneously criticized and celebrated, emphasizes something that dawned on me last week. During a long road trip, his classic “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” came up on the iPod, providing a reminder that Dylan is as relevant today as he was before he discovered electric instruments.
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/ And don’t criticize what you can’t understand/ Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’
There are other thoughtful stanzas, as well, but that one seemed particularly pertinent to the current culture in this country. Much our political chasm these days can be drawn along lines that divide those who resist change, who believe they can stem the tide of altered demographics, who long for an America that died 50 years ago — and those whose political views are grounded in reality.
This summer, for example, I mentioned to a friend that it would be foolish for conservatives to try to reopen the debate over gay marriage. He said that could never happen, and yet the next day, the Republican Party released a platform that included, “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society. …” Sigh! That old road is rapidly agin’.
Words are timeless
That is not the whole of Dylan’s relevance, of course. There is the inherent humanity of “Blowing in the Wind”: How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”
And the political commentary of “Masters of War”: You that build all the bombs/You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know/I can see through your masks.
And the cutting wit of “Positively 4th Street:” Yes, I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.
When you release 38 studio albums over 54 years, you are likely to carve out some gems. But Dylan’s shine brighter than those of just about any other writer.
And so, Dylan being honored with what is arguably the world’s most prestigious award is worth noting. As is the observation that 50 years from now, colleges still will be studying Dylan’s lyrics while likely few people will be familiar with Rabih Alameddine. As is the idea that such recognition expands our notion of art and illuminates the truth that words are timeless.
All of which leaves us with one pertinent query: How does it feel?