Dylan Nobel Opens The World Of The Word To Our Greatest Ignored Voices
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more.
Bob Dylan is America’s most famous poet, a global artist whose voice inspired and continues to inspire every man and woman who take of the cross of creation.
Some American poets may be more heralded. The more traditional wordsmiths, especially in “literary” circles. Names like Walt Whitman. Ginsberg. Maya Angelou. Yet the first American poet to win a Nobel of Literature, the world’s greatest competition of the word, is Bob Dylan. That’s right. The musician. The punk. The songwriter with the gravelly (ahem) voice. This is the year of the Dylan Nobel.
The World Series of Letters
The Nobel Prize of literature was founded in 1901. Rudyard Kipling — yeah the author of all those legendary stories every child grows up on — won 6 years later. The first American winner was Pearl S. Buck in 1938 and she was cited as a great writer of Chinese life. It wasn’t until Steinbeck wrote about the depression and the put-upon farm immigrants and Faulkner wrote about the American south and its racist shame that American literature came into its own. Hemingway redefined literary style and wrote about striving with passion and vigor against insurmountable odds, the most basic of all human aspirations. We went on to Saul Bellow and his exploration of the American experience in words more lyrical than the most beautiful song you could ever conjure (even if he set a horrible precedent for navel-gazing nonhero that would plague American literature for a while). Toni Morrison was the last American winner, in 1993, an evolution from Faulkner’s observational canvas of America’s great struggle to a first-person meditation on race and doubling it down with the struggle of being a woman.
And now, 23 years later, Bob Dylan won. His work took a lot of influence from America’s poets but to award it to him? This isn’t just an appreciation of an artist’s work or his beautiful writing, his “lyrical” lyrics. The Dylan Nobel is a statement, a sign from a Swedish-based consortium of arguably the greatest minds of the 21st century that the world is evolving and art must too. Just as L.A. is becoming the global ground zero for classical music because the genre’s composition is now better fitted to the widespread enjoyment found in film than to the drawing rooms of the ultra-rich (and Dudamel’s there), it makes sense that literature now looks to the people writing words that reach into and speak to the deepest parts of all of our souls, meditating not on the worries of the powerful few but the struggles and triumphs of the human many.
Right now there are countless articles published or being typed out talking about Dylan. His classic works of protest (“Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Hurricane”) to his works of critique (“Maggie’s Farm,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues”) to works of just great beauty (“Wind Cries Mary,” “Girl From The North Country,” “Tambourine Man”) are being cited and rehashed and maybe even revealed to a younger generation that knows one or two Dylan songs but mostly thinks of him as the musician that makes their parents sigh and stop and look up for a second and become people we children realize we don’t recognize because they’ve become a person young and introspective and rebellious and full of hope; not our mom or dad. And that’s weird.
But this award is bigger than the art of one man. What this means is that the classic definitions and laws of taste have been torn apart. And the definition of what is the pinnacle of storytelling is evolving.
The Evolution of The Word
Literature formerly was the luxury of the elite, the people wealthy enough not only to learn how to read but to purchase expensive books and have the free time to enjoy them. I love Tolstoy but all his masterpieces are about the high society. And for all the credit Flaubert gets for “Madame Bovary,” had I been able to dedicate all my time to writing without concern for making a living (and when shit got too real jet off through Europe and Russia for a year), I probably coulda written a damn good treatise on infidelity and compulsive consumerism myself.
“I think this is beautiful but you should probably put a tune to it because if you send it into a journal they’ll just publish it and send you 25 bucks.” — paraphrasing David Crosby from “Greenwich Village: The Music That Defined a Generation” on advice he gave to Dylan after Dylan showed him his poem that became “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
It wasn’t until the proliferation of public education and the refinement of printing to the point where even the poorest could afford books, or at least read them in libraries, that this whole firsthand exploration of the condition of the non-elite grew.
Thus began this evolution from stories about the 1% to the exploration of the wide travails and tribulations of everybody else.The 20th century has seen the greatest expansion of the art of the novel and the commutation of storytelling to the page. Because while the novel was exclusive, talk was free and all cultures had their own stories. The great bard, in whose tradition Dylan has admittedly and proudly followed, was the source of the many of the most colorful and diverse stories we now hold so dear.
In high school in Baltimore I was in a play called “Anansi and the Hat-Shaking Dance,” a Sankofa retelling of an old West African folk story featuring, among other things, a rap written and performed by the artist currently known as Spank Rock. I was mostly in the background, doing a few flips and such. But Spank mentioned the “griots,” the great storytellers in the African tradition.
Because storytelling has existed long before the Nobel association or Gutenberg or the ancient scribes or the scrolls of Japan and far outside its reach. And a good story, whether from the highest heights or the deepest dirt, is the greatest immortal thing that man can create.
There is no medium that cuts across all boundaries like modern music. Like the fact that instrumental music and the finest human depictions of our very struggle have been opened to all people thanks to modern film, once the record allowed everybody to hear music, suddenly a forum of word was created for the masses.
Still, for the first few decades of recordings most of the popular music was buttoned-down white people singing harmony with catchy optimistic choruses wearing ties with the occasional black blues singer whose talent was so undeniably superior to that of those buttoned-down singers that they actually got deals and tours (and a shit-ton of songwriter’s credits and payments).
Dylan blew the doors off this system, singing in a t-shirt and jeans and following the Woody Guthrie tradition of pointing out the fact that things are fucked up for some people, especially the outsider, outlaws and outcasts out there. Now he’s blown the door off the most hallowed halls of humanity (I mean really, the Nobel fucking Prize) and opened it to America’s many great wordmen and women in the same way that Shepard Fairey and Banksy made the formerly-disdained blight of graffiti into art.
So what could this mean for the future?
What the Dylan Nobel Could Mean For Ignored Geniuses
Many people who had the sentiment of poets but the need to earn a paycheck of non-nobles turned their souls into commercial music. Jim Morrison’s poems and works are so far out there and beautiful that I often wonder, if he lived to 50 or 60, if he would have mellowed out enough to write a great novel or at least a high-acclaimed poetry collection and received that “legitimate” artistic appreciation he yearned for.
Could Bill Withers have told us about his struggles in a generation-defining novel had he been found by teachers early and sent to the Iowa Workshop instead of a factory (followed by a brief career as a brilliant musician before he became disenchanted by the music industry)? Did Robert Johnson really sell his soul to the devil? Would Townes Van Zandt’s story collection have won the Pulitzer? And what about Nina Simone?
Most recently, the evolution of American life and the fight against social injustice has been elucidated most strongly through song. Yes there was Toni Morrison but many of the American Pulitzer winners of the last few decades have been centered on the well-drawn rural navel-gazing self-doubting adventures of white men. Yes, there have been some amazing explorations of homosexuality. But a huge part of America, the minority’s struggles, have been mostly overlooked because many of the ones most experienced in those struggles didn’t have the freedom to write a book while living in an extra room in their parents’ nice big suburban home. So they gotta set those poems to music to build that mass appeal into more populist distribution systems (radiowaves). Hell, even “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was released set to music.
I think about what the Dylan Nobel means for the future of such amazing voices as Kendrick Lamar:
Obviously the coroner between the sheets like the Isleys
When you hop on that trolley
Make sure your colors correct
Make sure you’re corporate, or they’ll be calling your mother collect
They say the governor collect, all of our taxes except
When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat
You movin backwards if you suggest that you sleep with a Tec
Go buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess.
Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid M.A.A.D. City” was an amazing story the likes of which the greatest novelist would envy being able to write. An album reading more like a longform poem that a traditional rap LP. He used visceral images and words to paint a picture of his experience growing up in South Central but in a way that would confuse all but the most committed listener. In “Pimp A Butterfly” he takes on complex themes with simple phrases like “We need 40 acres and a mule/not 40 ounces and a pitbull.” It’s like Picasso of the word, finding a new way to represent the sentiments and stories of traditional art in a way that challenges preconceived notions and doesn’t make sense in the eyes of many of the old generation.
In fact the natural progression would be to see one of the brilliant lyricists of American hip hop someday follow in Dylan’s literary footsteps.
Look at NAS’ NY State of mind
Full of black rats trapped plus the Island is packed
From what I hear in all the stories
When my peoples come back, black
I’m living where the nights is jet-black
The fiends fight to get crack
I just max, I dream I can sit back
Look at Eminem’s meditations on eking through life in a trailer park or Ice Cube’s revelation of life as one of L.A.’s forgotten sons in South Central; look at almost anything from Biggie or Tupac. Phife and Tribe. The wordplay in rap is unmatched by all but the greatest poets of yore. The themes hit and the stories told are the modern reflection of Steinbeck’s poor hard-scrabble countryside, echo Nobel writers from Singer to Toni Morrison to Derek Walcott (a favorite poet of mine, also black, also from an ignored place (St. Lucia), and also brilliant) to Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa.
Many of America’s greatest storytellers had more stories to tell than they had time to sit around telling them. So they had to adapt to a commercial industry that at the least built them cachet in their local communities and at best made them millionaires. Many great writers from hardscrabble country towns and ignored urban childhoods, men and women, black and white and every color in between, found music the best outlet for the poetry they wished to expose to the world.
Bob Dylan may be another white male voice given accolades, as many have complained. Murakami should have one, many said.
But looked at another way, this is about the opening up of minds as to what defines this art form; breaking down barriers and dashing definitions. And this hopefully opens the doors for many of America’s greatest storytellers who, due to the necessity to earn a living, turned to the more easily-marketed form of expression of music.
At the least, to quote the winner himself (as the Nobel people did), “the times they are a-changin’.”