On the 13th October, Bob Dylan became the first songwriter in history to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
This announcement created great controversy within both the realm of academia and the media itself. Since the statutes of the Nobel Foundation restrict disclosure of information about the actual nominations, no one knows who the other runner-ups for the prize actually were, however, popular belief favoured surrealist Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, and the Syrian poet Adonis. It was, however, American songwriter and singer Bob Dylan who took the cake, which apart from being a total surprise, sparked quite a strong reaction.
Music journalist Everett True writes in The Guardian that “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature pays lip service to populism”, meaning that said prize is conforming to mass-popular demand instead of actually focusing on the merit of the writing itself. On the other hand, Rob Salkowitz writes in Forbes Magazine that Bob Dylan is an important part of literature, in that his songs, when read as poems, have channelled the voices of the marginalised and the unheard for more than five decades. Dylan’s ongoing achievement in American song is a literary feat in that for example, his earliest works can be seen to have chronicled American journeys towards personal freedom via the hopes, marches and protests of the civil rights movement.
Most songs are not poems, and yet we must not forget that poetry and writing itself come from the historical bardic tradition carried out from time immemorial, before the onset of books or newspapers.
Born in 1941 with the name of Robert Allen Zimmerman, Bob Dylan’s style of rock and roll blended with American folk music and blues started to get public recognition in his early twenties. One of his most well-known songs, Blowing in the Wind, appeared in Dylan’s second album and was partly derived from the traditional slave song, No More Auction Block. Its lyrics questioned the social and political status quo. With his focus on such issues, Dylan started to be considered as more than just a songwriter. He became the voice of a generation, agonising over bomb disarmament, civil rights, the breakdown of farming and mining communities, freedom and individuality. The political spokesman within Dylan vied with the passionate lover, his emotional ballads colour his career, and yet, many consider them to be merely metaphors of his ever evolving political themes.
Dylan has won many awards throughout his career, including twelve Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and one Golden Globe Award. He has been described as one of the most influential figures of the 20th century, both musically and culturally. Although he’s written and published several books of prose-poetry, lyrics and art, as well as a memoir, it is with his 37 studio albums and 58 singles, that he’s really made his mark.
Did he deserve the Nobel Prize? Is Bob Dylan’s work literature? I guess his own words can make sense of this too:
“A song will lift
as the mainsail shifts
and the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
every face on the deck
the hour that the ship comes in
Then the sands will roll
out a carpet of gold
for your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
will remind you once again
that the whole wide world is watchin'”
When the Ship comes In – The Times are a Changin’ (1964)