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Les Marcott

Dylan And The Nobel

He has gone by the names Elston Gunn, Blind Boy Grunt, Lucky Wilbury, Jack Frost, and Jack Fate.  He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota. It's hard to pick up any book or periodical dealing with popular music that doesn't mention or feature him.  Of course he's best known to the world as Bob Dylan.  His influence is immeasurable, his writing profound and provocative, his singing…well take it or leave it but his phrasing uncanny.  Popular music can be divided up into before Bob Dylan and after Bob Dylan. At Dylan's induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen noted that "Dylan was a revolutionary.  Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock 'n' roll forever".  He is an artist so complex and enigmatic that director Todd Haynes deemed it wise to portray Dylan's life as a character study in the recent film I'm Not There.  Six different actors were used to accomplish this task including actress Cate Blanchett. But to say that the man has multiple personalities would be inaccurate – he has multiple complexities.  Whenever any new artist comes down the pike that possesses Dylan-like qualities, they are immediately branded a "new Dylan".  Past "new Dylans" have included the already mentioned Mr. Springsteen, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III, and Steve Forbert. But no matter how great all of these other artists are, there's still only one Bob Dylan.  

Instead of dying young and leaving behind a beautiful corpse as many of his contemporaries did, Dylan continued and continues at the age of 67 to perform a grueling concert schedule. (It's called unofficially the Never Ending Tour).  He is constantly reinterpreting and revitalizing the many songs in his catalog on a nightly basis.  He's been known to change keys, tempos, and lyrics on the spot.  The same qualities Brando brought to acting (improvisation, spontaneity, and a mercurial temperament) are the same qualities Dylan brings to writing and performing.  And if touring is not enough, Dylan has a dj job on XM radio as host of his own program. At one time or another in his long career, he has been a folk/protest singer, angry rock poet,  reluctant voice of a generation, reclusive country gentleman, born again Christian, observer of the Jewish faith,  a just going through the motions performer, venerated icon, and elder statesman of roots music. And oh yea…one last thing.  When he's introduced in concert – it's as Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan.  Bob Dylan just a recording artist?  Just a "song and dance man" as he once famously said?  Who says the man isn't humble?   Last year the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded him a special citation "for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."

I wrote those preceding words back in a 2009 Scene4 piece declaring Dylan the greatest songwriter of the last 100 years. And now you can add Nobel Laureate in Literature to his long list of awards.  The Nobel committee cited his contributions of creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.  He is the first American to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993.  But this award has generated much controversy.  There has been a firestorm on most of the social media sites and all of the major U.S. newspapers.  Even The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper of record for the American financial sector has gotten into the act with its take on the debate with Is Dylan Literature? The article mentions several writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Irvine Welsh who are dismayed, indignant, and bewildered that the award has gone to a musician. Why Dylan indeed? His works of literature outside songwriting are confined to the experimental prose poetry Tarantula and the self-penned memoir Chronicles: Volume One.  Even hardcore fans like me will have to admit that these works do not rise to the heights of the Nobel Prize.  So that leaves the lyrical qualities of his music to consider. And professors of literature have considered it for years and have nominated Dylan for the Nobel for years.  And to make things clear, not just anyone can nominate someone for the literary prize.  Nominators must be professors of literature or linguistics, past laureates, presidents of national writers’ groups, members of the Swedish Academy or similar groups. It appears that Dylan has met the criteria of the experts.  While his lyrics have transcended musical categories, the poetry emanating from this bard has created literature as specified by Alfred Nobel in his prize criteria: “the most outstanding…of an idealistic tendency”.

But the haters will hate. Joyce Carol Oates suggested that perhaps the Beatles were more deserving of the award than Dylan.  Some other wise acre suggested that Donald Trump should be nominated for his lyrical tweeting. And so goes the venom.  But I’ll stick to more thoughtful sentiments as expressed by Leonard Cohen (one of the few who can measure up to Dylan’s artistry and a published poet long before he joined the singer/songwriter ranks), remarked in The Times of Israel that Dylan winning the Nobel is like “pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain”.

If you listen to songs like Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate you soon realize that you’ve been transported across country, back and forth in time, to a dreamscape, or maybe to hell and back. You examine the wisdom of his lyrics and maybe you examine your own soul as well.  That’s what great literature does and that’s the beauty and the breathtaking brilliance of Bob Dylan. I get it, unfortunately some don’t.

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Les Marcott is a songwriter, musician, performer and a Senior
Writer and columnist for Scene4. His latest book of monologues,
stories and short plays, Character Flaws, is published by
AviarPress. Read his Blog
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2016 Les Marcott
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




November 2016

Volume 17 Issue 6

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