Bob Dylan rocks a Nobel Prize

Awarding the American singer-songwriter the Nobel Prize for Literature means acknowledging the “great American song tradition” ‒ its artistic importance and cultural influence. The story of American song to a certain extent resembles the history of American literature: It begins with adaptations of foreign models and the search for specifically American themes and for a unique expression. This long-time struggle led to the creation of formally and conceptually diverse works which in time overshadowed literary traditions of other cultures. There is hardly another living artist who has worked with the American song tradition so creatively as Bob Dylan. He has embraced it, has made it his own and ‒ perhaps more than anyone else ‒ has “made it new,” to quote Ezra Pound. Even the Dylan songs considered the most original ‒ such as “Desolation Row”, to mention only one ‒ abound with echoes of traditional American songs.

Dylan embodies the American song tradition mainly because he has enriched it and made it an essential part of his artistic synthesis, an oeuvre which in the 1960’s shaped American popular culture. He made the popular song more intellectual; as poems many of his lyrics are demanding, they need attention, and invite their audience to interpretation, some are charged with meaning to such an extent that any interpretation is problematic or even impossible. In the 1960’s Dylan widened the expressive range of the American lyrics with inventive use of irony, sarcasm and sardonicism. The importance of openness with which he treated sexuality in his lyrics can hardly be overstated. The combination of electric guitars, piano and Hammond organ which became characteristic of the sound of American popular music in the late 1960’s was made popular by Dylan’s records. He was there at the beginning of folk-rock and rock music…. Well, listing Dylan’s merits is like counting grains of sand in a desert. He cannot be easily pinned down. Partially because after a short romance with topical music he started to resist categorization ‒ being “always on the outside” seems to be one of the few constants of his work.

Inspired by the American song tradition, film and modernist poetry (mediated by the Beats) Dylan created an original body of work which has proved influential for (song)writers and poets much as Andy Warhol’s has been for artists. Ezra Pound ‒ the greatest of the American modernist poets ‒ wrote in his ABC of Reading that “poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. Pound and other modernists constantly stressed that the history of literature begins with song ‒ the unity of words and melody ‒ and periodically returns to the song form.

Modern society no longer needs poetry. Awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature reminds us that it still needs song.

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