Yes, he has won the Nobel Prize for literature, and opinions will conflict. In any case, what American folk legend Bob Dylan’s latest achievement does is open the door for an analysis of the wordsmith in him. It is worth assessing, through the yardsticks of both skill and impact. And, courage. Title and honours aside, Dylan’s stormy relationship with words for over 50 years breached artistic no man’s-land, breathed life into global activism and lent a part-lucid, part-rambling expression to love and cynicism in the 20th century.
Essentially, Bob Dylan was serious. Perhaps much more so than now. It was this seriousness which largely dictated his interest and choice of subject matter. Honed early on by then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo’s passionate support for de-segregation and anti-nuclear campaigns, Dylan’s latent empathy for the shorter end of the stick emerged through the pen in the 1960s.
On “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, his sophomore effort, he tore open the horizons for what protest music could be. With songs like “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, an entire new subculture was inadvertently formed. Greenwich Village, New York, bore witness to the early stirrings of an unabashed political bent to folk music. More than even the songs, there was a consciousness at play. From the Village to later all over the world, Dylan was using lyricism for change in a way which threatened to succeed. He was infusing a transcendental relevance into sung, spoken and written things. The ideally welcome but practically rare was being realised: he was making words matter.
From spitfire critiques of the Cold War-era arms race and the military-industrial complex, to painful, almost reluctant portrayals of moral corruption in society, Dylan addressed a world gone wrong. Although racism, poverty, war, privilege and suppression were all themes sung about before, there was a difference here. It was in the writing. Dylan’s writing almost always managed to catalyse issues and arguments into the morally obvious, the irrefutable. It came with a certain sincerity; iron conviction making possible a complete lack of fear. To this day, what Dylan wrote can transport the reader to old sights and smells, to a Vietnam-war disillusionment, to a brave new students’ movement which was shaking windows and rattling walls.
Sometimes bordering on op-ed journalism, his lyrics actually stoked in young people the desire to be aware. They broke the inferiority complex civil society can have towards the high corridors of power. “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,” he wrote in the searing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, being as bold as his outrage necessitated him to be.
The unwilling preacher, the miserable anti-hero, the born-again Christian, the country star – Bob Dylan has swum in multicoloured waters in his life. His words were accordingly varied. Although some his songs have become universal anthems for activism, he is far more than that.
Both before and after he ditched a good chunk of what made him famous and ‘went electric’, Dylan wrote and sang extensively about the apolitical and the personal. In fact, perhaps more than his activism, his discography (and, consequently, literary body of work) speaks to his own interpersonal struggles and grappling with the ebb and flow of the world. Songs like “Sara”, “All I Really Want to Do” and “Visions of Johanna” are just some popular examples of what may be termed ‘Dylan on love’. “My Back Pages” and “Mr Tambourine Man” can be called ‘Dylan on spiritual ambition’. “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively 4th Street” are documents on fakery and people. The list goes on.
The point is that it actually helped people, the writing. “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind, you could’ve done better, but I don’t mind” (from “Don’t Think Twice”) gave perspective on break-ups to people in their real lives. “Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse!” and other bludgeoning lines from “Like a Rolling Stone” aided listeners and readers see, in bitter vividity, the backlash of taking everyone and everything for granted.
Bob Dylan is that versatile. He would even, at least back in the day, change the entire sound for whole songs on any given gig; he would literally decide to play straight blues songs as waltzes moments before the show, leaving supporting musicians nonplussed. Because of the sheer length and journeyman nature of his career, his lyricism cannot be pigeonholed into any one trope. He was there, singing at the Great March on Washington, part of the history that culminated in the expression of Martin Luther’s dream. He was also there in the room, alone presumably, when he experienced ‘a presence in the room which could only be Jesus’. Such was the variation which informed his writing.
Dylan also displayed his mastery of the lengthy tour-de-force; songs replete with such rich and generous imagery of the human condition that they escape all brackets. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row” are good examples of this further multifaceted artistry, to say nothing of Dylan’s fun-loving, joyously deranged avatar a la “Rainy Day Woman”. Still, all this doesn’t cover much of his prolific career. It is a vast world, continuously crafted for over half a century.
On waves of acoustic jangle and swelling harmonicas, Dylan’s penmanship gave voice to protest. Aboard shrill organs, synthesisers and electric guitars, his words exposed modern hypocrisy and inflated heads. Interspersed were (and are) the pleasures, tangles and vulnerabilities of love. All this, of course, filtered through the artist’s typical manner of being frighteningly deep beneath an informality of language. His seriousness about what it means to write made him extraordinarily sincere, and perhaps that is why, in his case, the written word did always respond to being written.
If you never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, Dylan’s pen forced your neck. If you seemed to need more ears to hear the weeping, his typewriter would scream. His lifelong affair with words has resulted in a unique body of literary work capable of inducing love, laughter, tears, rage and resolve. In that light, the conferring of honours doesn’t really add or subtract anything. Bob Dylan shaped and wielded words in a way which shifted tectonic plates in the world of art and the lives of people – for the better.
And that is a remarkable thing, with or without the Nobel prize.