Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize


Elliott Landy

Photo Courtesy of The New Yorker.

A week ago, Bob Dylan was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan has been listed among potential contenders multiple times in the past, but his victory came as a complete surprise to many. Plenty of people saw this as a fitting accolade, but there has been considerable criticism over the decision. Even in the face of this moderate uproar, make no mistake. Bob Dylan deserves this award.

Bob Dylan is not a novelist and no one has claimed otherwise. He wrote an autobiography some time ago, Chronicle. The acclaimed novel was surprising; a man known for his riddles and mysterious life wrote a straightforward account of his life. This award is not exclusive to novelists, but also poets.

There are plenty of arguments that Dylan is not a poet. He often does evoke poetry, but there is some traction to his argument. Dylan is a songwriter above all. His words stick to a basic verse-chorus structure. However, that should not make him less than a writer. Why can’t a songwriter be considered a voice in literature? Have Dylan’s words been less influential than that of a novelist or playwright. He has hundreds of songs to his name, bearing some of the most beautiful words in the English language. Lyricism has become a crucial medium for the written word.

How many songwriters, then, would be worthy of this honor? Of course, there are many acclaimed lyricists of various languages that are noteworthy. The power of a writer’s words can often only be appreciated by those fluent in its original language because much of the craft that proves a writer’s skill is lost in translation. But, in terms of the English language, Dylan is the clear choice.

Dylan is like no other songwriter in his ability to transform. He started out as the king of the folk world, writing political songs heavy with symbolism, such as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blind Willie McTell,” “It’s Alright, Ma,” and “The Chimes of Freedom.” He could then write masterpieces about a lover spurned (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) and turn around and be the lover spurning (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”). He could also be a tender romantic who is content (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit”) or in quiet reflection (“Just Like A Woman,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”). He moved into surreal lyricism that still leaves his fans searching for hidden meaning, like in “Desolation Row,” “My Back Pages,” “The Gates of Eden,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” He proved himself to be a master of Western storytelling (“John Wesley Harding”), prison hymns (“I Shall Be Released”), religious interpretation (“I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”), diss tracks (“Idiot Wind,” “Positively 4th Street”), and, yes, poetry (“Mr. Tambourine Man”).

Even at his lowest point, which is pretty much agreed to be the ‘80s, no one could top Dylan’s strength as a lyricist. Mortality and the loss of chops brought Dylan to a new height. Over the last 20 years, he’s been in the best stage since his peak in the ‘60s. He is now a weathered storyteller, writing humorous conversational tunes (“Po’ Boy”), outlaw blues (“Pay in Blood,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “Thunder on the Mountain”), political epics (“Scarlet Town,” “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Nettie Moore”), wild retellings (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” “Tempest”), and ponderings on life and death (“Not Dark Yet,” “Mississippi”). This will also set a precedent.

Dylan, the world renowned Master of Lyrics, is the logical choice for a songwriter. But, who would be next? There are not many no-brainers, at least in the English language, anyway. Leonard Cohen, who was an established novelist and poet before a songwriter, would probably be the next in line. He lacks the frequency Dylan has, but when he is in top form, he is comfortably on Dylan’s level.

Then, Paul Simon would be the big contender. A master of storytelling and vignettes, Simon is a lyricist first and songwriter second. While those are far from the only great songwriters of the English language, they are the only ones that prove music is as good a platform for writing as page. Bob Dylan has proven to have a lasting power that most novelists cannot quite claim. The backlash received for his award seems misplaced. Bob Dylan is known for his words and is held in the highest regard for them. The fact that beautiful melody accompanies them just means he’s gifted in more ways than one.