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Nobel Prize for Bob Dylan

October 14, 2016

So Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Oh my goodness me! I don’t think anyone saw that coming, did they?

What do I think about it? Dylan won the prize not for his almost-forgotten novel Tarantula (which, I must confess, I have never read), but for his song lyrics. And I do appreciate that Dylan is a fantastic lyricist. There are dozens of phrases from his songs that stick in one’s head. How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. The pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handle. Senor, senor, can you tell me where we’re headin’/Lincoln County Road or Armageddon. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. In the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come following you. Vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme. I saw a black branch with blood that kept dripping. Et etc etc.

Even the titles alone have a kind of poetry. Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Only a Pawn in their Game. All Along the Watchtower. Desolation Row. Shelter from the Storm. Ballad of a Thin Man.

Dylan has also written lyrics in a whole range of idioms: blues lyrics, country lyrics, protest lyrics, surreal lyrics, simple love ballad lyrics. And he has a great ear: his rhymes are clever and always fall just right, and the rhythms are so strong that some of his songs would work as rap music (eg Subterranean Homesick Blues).

Still. I do love hearing Bob Dylan sing these lyrics (I actually like his voice, which some people can’t take); but would I want to actually read a book of Dylan lyrics? No, I don’t think I would. There’d be some great phrases, some pleasing rhymes, some good little stories, some sharp perceptions, but there’d also be padding, repetitions and gobbledegook. Overall it would be a bit hit-and-miss as poetry. I think he should be credited as a great song lyricist rather than a maker of literature.

In any case, even though he is a great lyricist of popular music, is he actually the best lyricist of popular music? Personally, I think Leonard Cohen’s lyrics are more poetic (though admittedly Cohen has a much smaller oeuvre – thirteen albums to Dylan’s thirty-seven). As it happens they’ve both written lyrics about the same story – Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis – so we have a neat opportunity for comparison. Here is how Dylan tells it, in Highway 61 Revisited:

“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’

Abe said ‘Man you must be puttin’ me on’

God said ‘No,’, Abe said ‘What?’

God said ‘You can do what you want Abe but

Next time you see me comin’ you better run.’

Well Abe says ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’

God says ‘Out on Highway 61.’’

     Now, that’s good. But here’s Leonard Cohen in The Story of Isaac:

“The door it opened slowly. My father he came in.

I was nine years old.

And he stood so tall above me, and his blue eyes they were shining

And his voice was very cold.

He said ‘I’ve had a vision, and you know I’m strong and holy

I must do what I’ve been told.’

So we started up the mountain. I was running, he was walking.

And his axe was made of gold.”

     I know which I prefer.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Dylan changed the perception of what a songwriter could represent but his importance has diminished over the years. What was his last song anyone remembers? Apart from his ’60s work his legacy may be the influence he had on other songwriters; the great John Prine being one of dozens. His autobiography Chronicles has some good lines too.

  2. Thanks for this, Simon. I don’t know John Prine – will explore!

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Please do. His eponymous first album is a good place to start. And yes, I know that sounds like a Homer Simpson D’Oh statement! The search for the “New Dylan” was like that for the new George Best but Prine is as good a candidate as any.

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