Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

By: Sally K Sommers Smith Wells (Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Boston University) //

Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony. Smith accepted Bob Dylan’s award on his behalf.

The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan was one of the biggest news stories of 2016. Major news sources including the New York Times and The Guardian reacted to the announcement, and Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the award brought another wave of comment and criticism. Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from the music that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a “warm, humble” acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.

Although Dylan himself is dubious about his status as a poet, I’d like to address the scrutiny that the Nobel Prize has placed upon the poetic and literary significance of songwriting. The Swedish Academy has noted that Dylan’s songs “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This citation is interesting, because it clearly means to merge the genre of poetry with that of song. That poetry can be sung–or that lyrics can be poetic–is exactly what makes song a powerful means of communicating stories and expressing emotion.

This is, in fact, why some critics of the award feel that Dylan does not deserve the Nobel. Anna North, writing in the New York Times, concludes: “Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.” Ms. North’s critique assumes that a great musician cannot also be a poet worthy of Nobel recognition, an assumption countered by a number of poets. But historically speaking, she has a point. American poet A. E. Stallings, while supporting Dylan’s award, also notes that “[s]ong has been been divorced from poetry for a long time, at least in the English-speaking world.”

Though some may argue that poetry and song are drifting apart, a number of artists continue to produce work that testifies to their interconnectedness and bridges the gap between them. For instance, Irish poet Ciarán Carson professes that “[m]usic and song are fundamental to what [he] write[s].” Just as the spirit of song continues to thrive in the work of poets like Carson, poetry perseveres in Dylan’s songwriting. Whether Dylan’s lyrics qualify as poetry ipso facto is somewhat beside the point; as Anna North points out, the meaning of Dylan’s music derives not from the lyrics or music alone, but from his deft synthesis of the two. Perhaps the central question is whether the roles of songwriter and poet are two sides of the same coin.

Dylan’s songs tend to have a narrow melodic compass, with verse melodies that frequently hover around the same pitch. In contrast, his refrains tend to be more melodically adventurous. The effect of this technique is twofold; understated melodic contouring in the verse allows the lyrics to become the focal point of the song, and the hovering lines of the verse build an anticipatory tension that is released in the refrain. One early song that exemplifies this melodic pattern is “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

A live performance of “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding.” You can find the lyrics in the video’s description.

Note the use of alliteration and internal rhyme schemes to place stress on certain words. For example, in the verse that starts at 2:34, the rhymes emphasize the words “fates,” “waits,” and “United States,” while the unrhymed conclusion, “must have to stand naked…” trails off contemplatively. Dylan employs similar techniques in one of his most iconic songs, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

 “Mr. Tambourine Man”: In this famous performance of a famous song, Dylan is embraced and welcomed by the Newport Folk Festival, the same audience he would challenge just a few years later with his foray into rock-and-roll.  You can find a subtitled version of the song here.

Notice, once again, the stresses Dylan places on the rhymed syllables as he sings. For example, at 2:17, “sand,” “hand,” and “stand,” are rhymed internally, leading up to another unrhymed cadence. The melody of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is simple. Once again, Dylan employs short melodic snippets that circle closely around a single note rather than crafting more memorable melodies, emphasizing the words over the tune.

One can try to separate songs from lyrics in order to read the lyrics alone as poetry, but in this instance the Swedish Academy is quite correct. If it can be argued that there is indeed a division between song and poetry, it does not apply to Dylan.  He’s clearly a poet who is adept at merging his lyrics with his music, and we must view his songs as a whole: poetic literature as music, and music as a vehicle for poetic expression. It’s a quality of his work that listeners and singers often experience in a visceral way. When Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel ceremony in December 2016 she was moved so deeply that she could not complete the song. The deeply-felt union of song and poetry is not a new construct, to be sure. As the Nobel citation notes, Dylan’s antecedents include Homer and Sappho, as well as more contemporary bards and tunesmiths like the late Leonard Cohen.

Yet another complication of Dylan’s award, for some observers, is the fact that his poetic songs come from the realm of popular music. Dylan is considered a “folk” or a “popular” artist; labels that Dylan has chosen to either celebrate or ignore. Although students and critics of popular music have lionized Dylan’s work for decades, the Nobel Committee has only once before recognized a popular singer and songwriter, Rabindinrath Tagore, in 1913.

Bob Dylan’s music – whether considered to be folk or popular – certainly is commercial. And it is this quality of commercialism that colors the critical reaction to his Nobel recognition. In the popular imagination, a cultural gulf divides popular taste from high art. The idea is as pervasive as it is limiting. It not only draws artificial divisions between modes of artistic expression, but also imposes a set of reductive values that elevate some forms of art over others. American music, which has given rise to many types of vernacular song, nonetheless seems to suffer from the notion that what is “popular” cannot aspire to greatness. But that kind of thinking is an enormous mistake. Critic Adam Gopnik notes in The New Yorker that Dylan’s award can be viewed symbolically as a celebration of the full and varied tradition of American music, from Duke Ellington to Merle Haggard. These are the stories of America – what we tell others about ourselves, who we are, and what we believe. Dylan’s Nobel does not “elevate” these stories told in popular and folk song, no such elevation is necessary. Instead, world literature is enriched by their recognition and inclusion.  

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize challenges our conception of what poetic literature is, what folk music can be, and what values we place on commercial music making. His work defies those who would attempt to create and maintain rigid boundaries between forms of musical and literary expression. Dylan breaks and merges musical and literary genres, and by doing so, forces us to view our world in an unexpected light. Yup, he deserved it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you think our conceptions of musical genres shape our reception of new musical performers? How might programs such as American Idol or The Voice form values for popular music?
  2. Does Dylan’s Nobel Prize signal a shift in the status accorded to American popular music? How might the “American song tradition” be valued in the future?
  3. Here’s another post that features videos of some of Bob Dylan’s best-known songs. Consider the claim made about the song that completes the list, “Tangled Up In Blue,” from the 1975 album Blood On The Tracks. Identify some of the qualities of this song that might have prompted Rolling Stone to declare it the “greatest song of all time.
  4. Nominate four other songs from the American song tradition that might stand with this song as “the greatest,” and defend your choices.

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