I’m not really sure how I feel about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature. Firstly there is nothing sacred about Nobel whose fortune was made by inventing, manufacturing and selling military explosives. We can go past that one as it’s an old story and even war profits may theoretically be used for peace. Were they? Here again we get into uncomfortable territory. Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize when a less deserving candidate must have been hard to find. More recently, Barack Obama did. Charming as he may be, his peace record is abysmal.
Wait. We are not talking of the Nobel Peace Prize here. That, the Bob Dylan of the 1960’s may well have deserved for songs like “Blowing in the wind”, “Masters of war”, “With God on our side”, “Times they are a changing” or civil rights songs like “Oxford Town” and “Only a pawn in their game”. I grew up with these songs. We sang them at protest rallies when I was a student in America fighting against the Viet Nam war. Best of all, you didn’t need to be a great guitarist to learn the few chords that most early Dylan songs required.
To be truthful, at the very beginning of my introduction to his work, almost anybody sounded better than Dylan when they sang his songs. There were so very many who did, from Joan Baez to the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary. At least when they sang, you could understand the words. Not so at first for me with Dylan. But soon, the Dylan delivery, the nasal twang and the long, free verse mouthed without breaking for breath, interspersed with short bursts of a harmonica that seemed to care nothing for it’s audience’s pre-conceived ideas of music, grew on me. And obviously I wasn’t the only one. Millions around the globe were hooked. The poetry and the music were a package, inseparable. When you got a better voice, or a more technically accomplished musician, you didn’t feel the words in the same way.
So much for Dylan the musician and poet. What of the man? The politically charged Dylan gave way to the lover who either perennially walked out of relationships or made a brave face as others walked out on him. “Don’t think twice, it’s all right” and “Love is just a four letter word are classics of that genre. His fierce independence politically and personally meant that no one could take him for granted, including fans like me. So we suffered as he went from being the Lefty pacifist, to becoming a “born again” Christian, to asserting his Jewish roots as Robert Zimmerman. Frankly I never enjoyed these later avatars though recognizing his right to explore himself in every way that he wanted to.
Musically of course he was able to reinvent himself from acoustic folk to electric rock and for a long while that created a delicious amalgam best exemplified by the album “Blonde on Blonde”. Politically I do not know where he stands today. Is he a critic of the American war machine that created Bin Laden to fight communists, that first armed Saddam Hussain and then invaded Iraq to capture natural resources, that allies with Israel and Saudi Arabia to create Islamic jihad and re-colonize the world? There is no evidence of this in his music today. This is not the Dylan of the 60’s and 70’s.
Luckily he has not won a Nobel Peace Prize. That I would gladly have seen on musicians like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger or even Joan Baez.
This is a prize for literature. For his unique blend of poetry and music and his precocious ability to capture the pulse of his times. That I can celebrate. 40 saal der, par durust. (40 years late, but nevertheless right).
To say it in Dylan’s words:
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young.