Knockin’ on history’s door: Bob Dylan wins a Nobel prize | The Economist

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/10/knockin-history-s-door

BOB DYLAN might not seem to have much in common with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Butler Yeats. But as of October 13th, they are bound together by the Nobel prize in literature. The Swedish Academy has awarded the medal annually since 1901 “to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as requested by the will of Alfred Nobel. Mr Dylan won this year’s accolade “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Few people would challenge that description of his impact on popular music. Many have questioned the decision to recognise it with the same honour that was once bestowed upon George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre and Rudyard Kipling.

Giving a prize that is usually reserved for writers of literature to a world-renowned musician might seem as daft and gimmicky as awarding Barack Obama the Nobel Peace prize less than a year into his presidency. But not all past recipients of the literary award have been famed for writing novels, plays or poems. Winston Churchill collected it in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”. Philosophers Bertrand Russell and Henri Bergson are both on the list of laureates. Indeed, Mr Dylan isn’t even the first songwriter to win. Rabindranath Tagore, whose creative output included thousands of Bengali songs, was chosen in 1913 for his “sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”.

Sara Danius, a professor of literature at Stockholm University and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, justified this year’s choice by comparing him to Homer and Sappho: ancient Greek poets whose verses were “meant to be performed, often together with instruments”. Though the link might seem tenuous, literary history is well stocked with works that were penned with listeners in mind. Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Robert Burns all wrote for live audiences and produced plenty of song lyrics, too. The idea that contemporary singers belong in that lineage is gaining support in bookish circles. Sir Christopher Ricks, a former professor of poetry at Oxford University and one of the most famous living literary critics, wrote a book about Mr Dylan’s verse with a particular focus on his allusions to T. S. Eliot and John Keats. Sir Salman Rushdie described Mr Dylan today as the “brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition”. Yet it is hard to imagine either man rating the singer above Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce or Anton Chekhov. None of those names appear on the roll of honour.

Regardless of what you think about Mr Dylan’s fitness to join the ranks of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner as American Nobel laureates, you cannot deny his influence on modern song-writing. Popular tunes tend to have bland, clichéd lyrics. As Mr Dylan was recording his first singles, radios across the land blared “round, round, get around, I get around” and “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”. His protest songs brought him to fame—he performed during the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—but he was not the first popular musician to dabble with more weighty topics. Woody Guthrie sang in defence of labour unions in the 1940s, around the same time that Billie Holiday was lamenting lynchings in “Strange Fruit”. What made Mr Dylan exceptional was the way that he phrased his thoughts.

Words in his songs rarely go together conventionally. At times the result is gibberish. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” might sound anarchic, but it is hard to make sense of “jump down a manhole / Light yourself a candle / Don’t wear sandals”. “Tarantula”, his book of stream-of-consciousness poetry, contains such oddities as “the chief of police holding a bazooka with his name engraved on it coming in drunk and putting the barrel into the face of a lawyer’s pig”. Occasionally, when recording a time-honoured ballad or a tale of injustice, his lyrics are straightforward and bare. But at his best, every word has been chosen deliberately to produce a complex, unusual effect. “Blowin’ in the Wind” might have the simple language of a parable; it is hard to imagine somebody before Mr Dylan, however, describing a white dove sailing many seas before she sleeps in the sand. Most of his compositions are made up of such images, viewed one after another.

His contribution to music has been the understanding that lyrics don’t have to follow the rules of everyday speech. He has inspired generations of song-writers to combine words in unusual and interesting ways. When Paul Simon wrote that he had “squandered [his] resistance for a pocket full of mumbles”, or when Bruce Springsteen recalled “soul engines running through a night so tender in a bedroom locked in whispers”, they were mimicking Mr Dylan’s eccentricities. He once described the experience, with characteristic obscurity, as like disappearing through the smoke rings of his own mind. It is a journey that many others have repeated.

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