Songs as Literature: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
I’m a believer in stories — true stories, made-up stories, fantasy stories, science fiction stories, journalistic accounts, documentaries. Stories create and deepen empathy. They are how we understand ourselves, the world around us, the other people we encounter. A story can tell us why we love the people we love; why we hate the things we hate. Stories help us decide who to vote for, who to save, who to ignore, what to do in a crisis. They are our teachers, and in so many ways, the stories we’ve heard — and most definitely the stories we tell ourselves — make up the essence of who we are as individuals, communities, nations.
One of the greatest stories all of us alive today have inherited is the story of America. I don’t say this to be blindly patriotic, mind you. The American story is a tremendous tale of pilgrims and dissidents, criminals and cowboys, indigenous people whose bodies and culture were destroyed in so many ways, and whose spirit echoes up in every footfall across their sacred land. It’s a story of collaboration and defiance, oppression and fearmongering, hope and struggle and on and on. But the throughline in the American story is the common person — not the king or the queen, not even the one percent, but the you-and-me about whom Woody Guthrie sang. The Tom Joad of John Steinbeck and the “Invisible Man” of Ralph Ellison. It’s Celie and Alphonso of The Color Purple and Janie Crawford of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
It’s also Hurricane Rubin Carter and the girl from the north country and the people who gotta serve somebody, and their narrator, a character created by a storyteller named Robert Zimmerman.
In the wake of the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan would be receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, I read a number of pieces trumpeting his mastery of literary lyricism. His characters, his voices, his meter and tone. His songs are poetry, no doubt about it. NPR’s Ann Powers went on an epic tweetstorm of quoting his lyrics in 140 characters or less, calling upon others to do the same. Even out of context and exceptionally condensed, his lyricism is packed with literary merit.
But while I could go on and on about the stories his words tell, I’m here to talk about the stories in his music.
Bob Dylan may no longer identify as a folksinger — he may have never — but to tune into his music is to tune into the sound of the American story: blues, jazz, the repetitive rhythmic pulse of a topical song — the march of it, the heartbeat. He’s even veered into Christmas music, as we say in the South, bless his heart. It wasn’t his finest work, but when you’re spending a lifetime creating a canon that captures the American story in song, you can’t avoid Christmas, the holiday that consumes American culture for three months every year.
Dylan is an unabashed borrower of melodies — a trick he no doubt picked up from one of his earliest heroes, Woody Guthrie. American folk music is a chain, after all. Lines and melodies and guitar patterns and chord progressions have been handed down over the course of the American story the same way your neighbor might show you how to throw a curve ball, or how your grandmother might clue you in to the stout beer she pours into her prize chilli recipe, or how your middle school friend might push at you her well-worn copy of Catcher in the Rye.
We could throw away Dylan’s lyrics and not lose the stories, not that I’d necessarily encourage anyone to do that. But, just as Holden Caulfield was a composite of American ideas rolled up into one adventurous, defiant teenager, so is Dylan’s body of work a composite of American melody. In his songs live the humming melodicism of Dock Boggs, Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joan Baez, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Mavis Staples, and the list goes on. In his melodies are the trains and the chain gangs, the hollers and the moans, the smack of the hammer and the brush of the broom.
When I heard the news about Dylan’s Nobel prize, I thought, “Why not Woody Guthrie, if we want to go to the source?” But then I really thought about it. Guthrie was, indeed, an American storyteller — the first to bring American song to the stage in a certain way. But he was not a terrific guitarist. He didn’t have the ear of a record producer or the mystique of a rock star. Dylan’s ability to roll up the entirety of American music into a package that presents it as its own story, is the laudable thing. He’s a musician, and his music is truly American.
None of this is anything that hasn’t been said before. But it’s worth noting again, anyway.
This year in the news has been insane, let’s be honest. We’ve lost Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, and I would argue we’ve lost track of the entire concept of common decency. Working class middle-American people are deplorable idiots lining up behind a demogogue; coastal liberals are soulless sheep lining up behind a corrupt liar. Niether of those things are true, of course, but that’s been the tenor of our discourse: name-calling, “othering,” letting the fear and differences drive us further and further from our selves, further from each other. And then comes the reminder about Bob Dylan, American songwriter. His songs remind us that we all just arrived on the scene, that it’s chaos and confusion for all of us.
Three bodies lyin’ there does Patty see
And another man named Bello, movin’ around mysteriously
I didn’t do it, he says, and he throws up his hands
I was only robbin’ the register, I hope you understand
I saw them leavin’, he says, and he stops
One of us had better call up the cops
And so Patty calls the cops
And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashin’
In the hot New Jersey night
But the place where “Hurricane” lands us is where all of Dylan’s songs land us: empathy. In that song, he leaves us with a choice between sipping cocktails and sitting like the Buddha. In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” it’s with the faith that the answers will come, or that they are always there, all around us, blowing right by our faces. “Blowin’ in the Wind” delivers us to the three-pronged rhyme of sky/cry/die which, if we were to finish it off, as Dylan seems to be calling us to do, would lead us easily, naturally to “why.”
Indeed, the best literature always leads us to that same question, that simple word that plagues us, that we chant as toddlers and then spend our lives pursuing quietly, wandering so far from it, too often. Yes, the best literature leaves us with questions, and few American storytellers have raised questions better than Bob Dylan. His Nobel is a well-deserved prize for an American master.