So Bob Dylan has won the Nobel for literature in 2016. I’m not sure what I think about that.
Not that I disparage Dylan’s work over the past half-century; he’s certainly set trends and erased boundaries within the music world during that time. During the ‘sixties, he wrote and performed songs in the topical, bluesy folk style that had a profound on the American civil rights movement and the greening of youth worldwide. He later moved into movie scores and toward mainstream pop music, trifled with a new form of gospel music, and has recently recorded a CD of popular standards. The effect of all this? Beyond a demonstrated personal awareness of the sensibilities of these musical forms and genres, many of his pieces have entered the American musical canon. Much the same as Hemingway’s early work changed the way we thought about fiction, Dylan’s work has done something similar for popular music.
My concern isn’t his talent in the field of popular music (you may contest my constant use of the term popular music to describe his work, but many of his songs have gained such broad appeal that it’s hard not to place it under that heading); it’s the limitations inherent in the popular song in a literary sense. Sure, he uses poetic tools: imagery, wordplay, rhythmic patterns. But the popular song, in any of its multifold blendings of genre, places equal weight on its musicality alongside its literary worth.
This then is my concern; virtually all songwriters, with few exception, must contend with the marketability of those songs; meaning they must attract listeners in the 3-4 minutes the music industry insists on limiting them to.
That Dylan’s lyrics are now recognized for their literary worth by the Nobel judges is as daring as if his lyrics represented a step forward in poetic evolution. Dylan certainly deserves some sort of similar recognition, but the Nobel, which does generally recognize lifetime achievement, may not have been the best device to recognize his half century of work.
Still the power of his work is undeniable, as the following song attests: “I Shall Be Released,” recorded at The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz, made into a movie by Marty Scorcese.