Bob Dylan Showcases Radical Innovation in Art

CJ Blair, Columnist

It has long been rumored that Bob Dylan could win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but when the Nobel Committee announced his win two weeks ago, literature enthusiasts and laypeople alike were shocked. New York Times columnist Anna Smith wrote, “When the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer” (Oct. 13, 2016). In response to Dylan’s win, the poet Alex Dimitrov said, “Rock stars want to be poets. But sorry, not everyone is a poet.” Dylan’s victory renewed discussion about what constitutes literature, and has led many to question whether Dylan deserves a spot in the winners’ circle with literary giants like William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

When I heard the news two weeks ago, I was ecstatic. My mom was a huge Bob Dylan fan in college, and when I got to Oberlin, I became just as eager to burn through his albums while I studied. I spent a Winter Term in Washington, D.C., studying invasive plants, and the only CD in my car was Blonde on Blonde. From getting lost trying to find a bookstore to shoveling three feet of snow from the driveway, every memory of that month is intertwined with Dylan’s lyrics. Now, ten months later, one of us is still studying plants, but the other is a Nobel Laureate.

To understand why Dylan deserves the prize, we must explore his emergence as a folk artist during the Civil Rights movement. While he idolized the folk singer Woody Guthrie, it was not until his girlfriend Suze Rotolo introduced him to the Congress of Racial Equality — a group of students fighting for integration — that he became the bard of American protest songs. With social critiques including “Masters of War” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan secured his reputation as a mouthpiece for a generation deeply critical of authority, helping these sentiments reach far beyond the people involved in the movement.

Of course, he wasn’t the only musician doing this. Pete Seeger was just as famous a singer and activist in the 1960s, as was Joan Baez, who dated Dylan for two years. Yet Dylan’s career was only just beginning when he wrote his most famous protest anthems. Between 1963 and ’64, his work became more ambitious, but also more ambivalent. “My Back Pages” condemned his previous self-assurance about social issues, and “Like a Rollin’ Stone” presented a scathing critique of glamorized drug culture. Then with the wistful and abstract love songs “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Dylan’s music developed the distinctive quality it’s known for today, with bizarre, complex images exploring a variety of themes.

Bob Dylan’s transformation from an archetypal folk singer to an entirely unique artist happened less than four years after his first album, and it’s key to understanding why his work constitutes literature. Though he abandoned his strong ties with the Civil Rights movement, he continued writing about social justice in songs like “Hurricane” and explored topics laced with hard moral questions. Just as Dylan was not the first folk singer, past Nobel laureates typically aren’t the first to discuss their chosen themes, but they’ve often been the most innovative. Faulkner’s use of the Modernist “stream-of-consciousness” technique, for example, allowed for newfound understanding of racism and poverty in the South. Similarly, Toni Morrison used aspects of occult ghost stories in order to explore the traumatic effects of slavery.

Neither Faulkner nor Morrison were the first to write in their respective genres, but because they told familiar stories in new ways, they are lauded as literary giants. When Dylan won the Nobel Prize, the committee’s explanation read, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This rationale captures the trademark innovation of Dylan’s career and assures that this is an essential quality of literature.

If global literature suddenly stagnated and stopped exploring the boundaries of expression, it would run the risk of failing to adequately represent the times in which it’s produced. This may explain why last year’s winner, Svetlana Alexievich, was the first journalist to win the award, and why this year, Dylan was the first songwriter. There’s no way to tell how future generations will express themselves through art, but if people assume that only certain mediums will fit the bill, they’ll immediately shut off the potential for new discovery and revelation. So gather ‘round, people, wherever you roam, and behold our newest Nobel laureate, none other than Bob Dylan.