by Joseph Sarrington Smith
I’m sure by now you’ve heard that Bob Dylan is the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I was happy to hear this, because I thought it was long overdue, and I’ve been a fan of Dylan for many years. In fact, he’s my hero. Well, one of my heroes. You can have more than one, right? He writes great songs, he does his own thing and doesn’t seem to care what other people think, and I’m pretty sure that at one point in 1965, he was the coolest man on the planet.
Inevitably, many people have questioned the decision, which has caused a few raised eyebrows. After all, why give the award to Dylan, and not Leonard Cohen (who was actually a published poet before becoming a songwriter) or Paul Simon, or Ray Davies, or Joni Mitchell? There have been times when I’ve felt that Mitchell has outshone them all with her skills as a lyricist.
Dylan though, is a legend in the music industry. He’s influenced so many people, and I’ve lost track of the number of times his songs have been covered. And still, after all these years, he remains just as fascinating, elusive and yet enduring as ever. I guess it helps that parts of his life seem to have been shrouded in myth. Did he really have a motorbike accident?
During his career Dylan has explored Woody Guthrie inspired folk on his early records, electric rock n’ roll on “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”, and country/gospel music on “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline”. And he keeps reinventing himself. Then there’s the sheer ambition of some of his songs. The mysterious 7 minute “Visions Of Johanna”, and the epic 11 minute ballad “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”.
Personally, I wouldn’t refer to him as a poet. Sure, he might’ve been inspired by Arthur Rimbaud, and he might’ve hung out with Allen Ginsberg, but I think Dylan does something similar to what Randy Newman does; which is to make observations and then talk to the listener about the things that are happening around him. And I think it’s that approach to songwriting which makes him deserve the prize. Songs regarding social commentary never go out of style, and fifty years after his most political songs were released, the lyrics are just as relevant now as they were then.