Bob Dylan, the folk music icon who first rose to fame amid the struggle for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for his transformative impact on culture and "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
Though long on the list of possible winners, Dylan's receipt of the prestigious award came as a shock to many. One reporter called it a "radical" choice that might "stir up a sensation" within the global literary community. Asked if he truly deserved the prize, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, responded by saying, "Of course he does. He just got it."
"Homer and Sappho—they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments . . . it's the same with Bob Dylan."
—Dr. Sara Danius, Nobel committee
Dylan, Danius explained, "is a great in the English-speaking tradition and he is a wonderful sampler—a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it and reinventing himself and creating a new identity."
With dozens of original albums and thousands of songs written over more than five decades, Dylan is not only known as one of the most accomplished lyricists in the history of modern music, but his early career was notable for coinciding with the rise of both the folk revival in the United States and the rise of the counterculture movement. Seen by many as bridge between the Beat poets and writers of the 1950s and the socially-conscious music and culture of the 1960s, Dylan—though he often begrudged, and ultimately fled, the role—was often revered as the voice of a generation that questioned the American status quo in an era of upheaval.
Within his many albums, wrote the Nobel committee in biographical notes (pdf) released alongside the announcement, are songs whose themes revolve "around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love."
Following his first self-titled album in 1962, Dylan's second album was his first dominated by original compositions. Many of those songs—including "Blowin' In The Wind", "Masters of War", "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall", "Oxford Town", and "I Shall Be Free"—blended his folk sensibilities with political messages that captured the radical shift of the American public at that time.
And in 1964, with the release of The Times They Are A-Changin'—which included such as songs as "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", "Only a Pawn in Their Game", "With God On Our Side", and the era-defining title track—Dylan expanded his musical stylings while deepening his reproach against social ills and injustice. In Hattie Carroll, which retells the real-life story of a black house maid in Maryland murdered by her wealthy employer's son, Dylan makes poetic narrative out of the injustice when the offender goes lightly punished while also turning the mirror of that horror on the reader (or listener) of the song:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
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On Bringing It All Back Home, released in 1965, Dylan once again expanded his approach—pushing the lyrical needle while still responding to the social upheaval he saw around him. In the spirited "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", Dylan wrote:
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
Though Dylan ultimately ditched much of his politically-rebellious character and later albums (specifically after 1976's Desire) moved away from overt tackling of social injustices, he never gave up his spirit of invention and refused to conform to expectations. As Giles Harvey wrote of Dylan's career in the New York Review of Books in 2010:
As the Sixties wore on, however, Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu. (Such politicized folk music, Dylan said in one of the notorious semicoherent interviews he gave mid-decade, “is a bunch of fat people.”) As a result, his songs became stranger, more complex, less overtly concerned with the political happenings of the day. They no longer partitioned the country into moral factions, with arms dealers, corrupt politicians, Southern racists, and conventional bourgeois society on one side and the young, the poor, the downtrodden, and the guitar-and- harmonica-wielding troubadours on the other. They no longer asked—as Florence Reece’s pro-union protest song of the 1930s had done—“Which Side Are You On?” Instead, Dylan began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.
Dylan’s achievement is vast and hard to distill, but part of it surely consists of the way in which he expanded the scope of his chosen form to the point that, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a four-minute song might contain anything he felt like throwing into it. No songwriter before him would have thought to include Paul Revere’s horse, the ghost of Belle Starr, Jack the Ripper, the Chamber of Commerce, John the Baptist, Galileo’s math book, Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille, Ma Rainey, Beethoven, and the National Bank in a single song, as Dylan does in the rollicking phantasmagoria of “Tombstone Blues” (1965), a fairly typical example of his output at the time.
Though he famously kicked fellow folk singer and committed leftist Phil Ochs out of his limousine for being "a journalist" and "not a folksinger" and was widely admonished for appearing in glitzy adverstisement for a major car company that aired during the Super Bowl in 2014, few question that Dylan was among the great American songwriters of all time and a master poet whose songs—like the very earliest Greek lyricists—cannot be read (or heard) without a sense of awe.
As Danius of the Nobel Committee explained, "Homer and Sappho—they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments . . . it's the same with Bob Dylan."