The times they have a-changed: Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize

By Ewan McDonald

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 1961: Bob Dylan poses for a portraitwith his Gibson Acoustic guitar in September 1961 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 1961: Bob Dylan poses for a portraitwith his Gibson Acoustic guitar in September 1961 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Does a songwriter deserve the world’s greatest honour for Literature? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The world’s newest – and many would say most unexpected – Nobel Prize-winner had nothing to say. A spokesman for the famous recluse said the recipient of the literature award had “no immediate comment”. The man known as the “voice of a generation” prepared for tonight’s Las Vegas gig on his Never Ending Tour, which has run since 1988 and is nearing 3000 performances.

For more than six decades Bob Dylan has been a force in music, in society, and in culture. His voice – once described as “a rusted carburettor” – and poetic lyrics reflect on war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and faithlessness. He writes of beauty, he writes of tragedy, and more often than not in his universe, the two can be the same.

Today, Dylan became the first songwriter to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy that judges the honours applauded the 75-year-old “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Perhaps nervously, the academy waited a week after the year’s other awards had been announced before unveiling Dylan. Its secretary, Sara Danius, said it had “not been a difficult decision” and she hoped the academy would not be criticised.

“We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, Dylan got his first guitar at age 14 and played in high school rock’n’roll bands. He adopted the name Dylan, after Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and was drawn to the folk music of Woody Guthrie.

He moved to New York in 1961, and began performing in Greenwich Village clubs. His first album, Bob Dylan, was released in 1962, followed with a host of songs and albums now regarded as masterpieces. Bruce Springsteen: “Elvis freed your body. Bob Dylan freed your mind.”

One of the most influential figures in contemporary culture, his music has always proved divisive. Last year Dylan said: “Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one.”

And, true to form, a firestorm erupted in music, literary and academic circles over the award.

Author Salman Rushdie said Dylan’s lyrics had been “an inspiration to me all my life ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school. I intend to spend the day playing Mr Tambourine Man, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Like a Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind, Jokerman, Tangled Up in Blue and It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”

Jarvis Cocker said Dylan was a great choice and highlighted 1963’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright as a favourite. “It’s a great break-up song. He’s making light of it but one or two little digs show that he is actually a bit upset. I think Dylan’s sense of humour is often overlooked.”

Oxford University’s head of English, Professor Seamus Perry, compared Dylan to the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, calling him “representative and yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats.”
Stephen King entwined music and politics: “I am ecstatic that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel. A great and good thing in a season of sleaze and sadness.”

Not everyone was overjoyed. Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh said he was a fan but “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

British-Indian novelist Hari Kunzru complained, “this feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush.”

However Obama tweeted: “Congratulations to one of my favourite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel.”

Even Secretary Danius seemed a little, well, divided. When she was young, Danius admitted, she preferred David Bowie. “Perhaps it’s a question of generation – today I’m a lover of Bob Dylan,” she said.


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