I’m really happy about today’s announcement that Bob Dylan is the first songwriting musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dylan’s career is fascinating. I love that he has shifted his style/tone over several decades, right up to the folk-drenched, humorous fatalism of his early 2000s work like Love and Theft and Together through Life, taking the kind of risks I’d expect a Nobel laureate to have taken over a life’s work.
He also embodies something that’s quintessentially American: he’s drawn to anger, but he resists it. In his early folk-singer phase and his later born-again period, he showed a predilection for taking sides and cutting down his enemies with words. Songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Property of Jesus” come out of real frustration at humans inability to do right by each other. He took that attitude and turned it on romantic relationships in albums like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.
But his best stuff–material on Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Love and Theft--portrays a narrator with a talent for taking sides who shuns that talent. He’s wise enough to know that path only goes so far. It’s the wisdom of a person trying to escape a world that rewards them to for being constantly angry.
Another Nobel laureate, W.B. Yeats, famously said “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Dylan’s best songs are about trying to uncompromisingly live in the world between those two extremes, never giving up on honesty, searching for some kind of integrity, and finding comfort in a sense of dark humor. Some of my favorite examples:
- “My Back Pages”
- “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”
- “Every Grain of Sand”
- “I Shall Be Released”
- Modern Times