Exhibit detail from “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Photo by Amy Laburda.
My favorite Bob Dylan song – and in a highly targeted sense, one of his most impactful – is “Hurricane.”
If you’re not familiar with it, “Hurricane” is one of Dylan’s many protest songs and appeared on the album “Desire.” The song brought the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter to national attention when I was a college sophomore. I followed the case through the court system thereafter, and I remember when U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin tossed Carter’s second murder conviction as the product of systemic official racism. From its beginnings, in which Dylan proclaims that Carter was arrested for driving while black in Paterson, New Jersey, to its end, the tale of Carter as told by Dylan resonates every bit as much today as it did on the night of that triple murder in a New Jersey tavern a half-century ago.
OK, so maybe it’s journalism. But is it literature?
The nature of Dylan’s work has become a popular subject of public discussion in the past week, after the announcement that he is the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. He is the first winner in the category known primarily for his work as a songwriter and is the first American to win in the category since Toni Morrison in 1993.
The Nobel Prize, unlike many other prestigious awards, does not announce a short list of finalists. Even so, those who follow such things always have guesses at hand ahead of the announcement; Dylan’s win surprised nearly everyone. While his name cropped up among possible recipients in the past, there was no advance indication that this would be his year. Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said in an interview following her announcement of the prize, “[Dylan] is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition, and he is a wonderful sampler – a very original sampler.”
Few, if any, would argue that Dylan is not influential, or that he is anything less than one of the greatest American songwriters, living or deceased. His home country has honored him with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as competitive Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. Dylan’s friend and fellow songwriter Leonard Cohen said the award “is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” Dylan’s talent, in other words, is self-evident.
The discussion, then, has centered on whether songwriting is literature in the sense the Swedish Academy suggested with their choice. Twitter, unsurprisingly, got there first, with major literary figures weighing in with opinions both pro, including Salman Rushdie and Joyce Carol Oates, and con, including Irvine Welsh and Jodi Picoult. Articles expanding on these positions weren’t far behind, many in support of Dylan’s work as literature and some objecting to his win on those grounds. For a few commentators, the prize rankled less because of the nature of Dylan’s work and more because not one of this year’s winners was a woman – a state of affairs that deserves scrutiny, but is not strictly the fault of Dylan’s win alone.
(There also appeared to be an informal competition for the cleverest use of a Dylan lyric in headlines about the award; “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and “Like a Rolling Stone” were all popular choices. Given how prolific Dylan has been over his decades-long career, there was no shortage of options.)
So, is Dylan’s art truly literature? There is no question in my mind. Dylan’s body of work captures his time and place just as much as that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn did his. Many of Dylan’s lyrics can stand on their own, without instruments, without melody; when you read them, they tell a story or make a statement in rhyme. That’s literature in my book. Billy Collins, the former U.S. poet laureate, made much the same argument: “Bob Dylan is in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice.”
In all honesty, I have never fully appreciated Dylan’s work, which is far more a reflection on me than on the work itself. I made some progress in the past year with the exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame – my favorite museum – that explored Dylan’s pivotal period in Nashville at the height of his 1960s rock-era fame. Nashville’s studio musicians influenced him, although he arguably influenced Nashville more. Both Dylan and Nashville’s musical community went on to reach artistic heights that they probably could not have achieved without that mutual exposure. The exhibit “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” runs through the end of this year, and if you can possibly get to Nashville to enjoy it, along with the rest of the Hall, I highly recommend you make the trip.
It remains to be seen whether the Swedish Academy will recognize other songwriters in the future. The award for literature has already stretched to include Winston Churchill’s oratory and the oral history-influenced journalism of Svetlana Alexievich. We may or may not see the award continue to expand beyond the traditional boundaries of poetry and narrative prose. But as for Dylan’s award: Don’t think twice. It’s alright.