The Dim-Post

October 14, 2016

Dylan’s Nobel Laureate

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:14 am

Via the NYT:

Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of the rock era, whose body of work has influenced generations of songwriters and been densely analyzed by fans, critics and academics, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

It is the first time the honor has gone to a musician. In its citation, the Swedish Academy credited Mr. Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

There’s a great documentary about Dylan called Don’t Look Back, filmed in 1967 during Dylan’s first tour of the UK. He’s in his mid-twenties, and he’s a pretty awful person. One of the sub-plots is based on his rivalry with Donovan, a UK folk singer. The two musicians meet in a hotel room: Dylan is a rude jerk, Donovan plays a song, and it’s pretty good! (He wrote ‘Mellow Yellow’ and ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’!) And then Dylan picks up the guitar and plays ‘It’s all Over Now Baby Blue’, and you see the sickening realisation dawn on Donovan’s face that the person he’s been set up as a rival to is someone who might be bratty and rude but is also, crushingly, completely unfairly, Bob Dylan.


  1. Why would you compare Dylan to Donovan. Wouldn’t a comparison with Cat Stevens have levelled the playing field.

    Comment by artcroft — October 14, 2016 @ 8:25 am

  2. I like how this article assumes we have no idea who Donovan is

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — October 14, 2016 @ 8:35 am

  3. Your specialist topic is obscure folk-pop singers of the 1960s and you have two minutes from …. now.

    Comment by Thomas Beagle (@thomasbeagle) — October 14, 2016 @ 8:54 am

  4. Interesting to compare it with the car ride.

    Comment by NeilM — October 14, 2016 @ 9:04 am

  5. The lyrics to Highway 61 and Desolation Row are works of genius.

    Comment by Stephen — October 14, 2016 @ 9:26 am

  6. Dylan deserves the Nobel, not only for his work but for his influence on popular literature. But yes he is a fairly awful shit of a man. His treatment of women alone (no pun intended) is bloody dire, and his lyrics often reflect this.

    Comment by Jack Craw — October 14, 2016 @ 9:42 am

  7. No comparison – Dylan is the voice of a generation, Donovan was only pretty good.

    Comment by jmcveagh — October 14, 2016 @ 9:44 am

  8. Yeah, well, when Bob Dylan has been recognised with a Nobel Prize for Literature, but Margaret Atwood has not, all I can think of is the meme that has been circulating recently: “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”

    Not that Dylan is mediocre. Far from it. But a literary great? I don’t think so.

    Comment by Deborah — October 14, 2016 @ 9:52 am

  9. Not that Dylan is mediocre. Far from it. But a literary great? I don’t think so.

    People grumbled last year when the nobel went to Svetlana Alexaivich that she wasn’t a proper literary great – she wrote journalism, not important stuff like novels or poetry, but I like it that the prize is recognising that non-elite forms of writing are worthy of recognition.

    Comment by danylmc — October 14, 2016 @ 10:05 am

  10. I agree with the Nobel committee – both the award, and the rationale given. Dylan was for me an acquired taste (rather slowly) but the number of absolutely stunning songs that guy has created never ceases to amaze me.

    Most of which never get media air-time. Someone should design a participatory blog for the global fan-base, to rate his best creations. Bet it would rapidly generate a top 100. I’d prefer to see a sub-section rating only those songs that didn’t become hits, which would enable fans to share the most obscure gems they’ve discovered.

    Comment by Dennis Frank — October 14, 2016 @ 10:20 am

  11. I’ll admit never really cottoning on to Dylan but Girl from the North Country – both solo version and duet with Johnny Cash – is way up there for me.
    So I have no real opinion on whether he’s Nobel material, but given that Obama got one meh…

    Comment by Gregor W — October 14, 2016 @ 10:27 am

  12. @Deborah, sorry but that quote seems totally inapplicable to this situation, and kinda offensive as well.


    Comment by Antoine — October 14, 2016 @ 11:07 am

  13. I thought this comment on the award was interesting:

    There’s little that’s inherently controversial about praising words originally meant for vocal delivery. Playwrights have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. But in an era when songwriting and song performance and song recording are tied together, when many musicians’ literary voices are first received via their literal voices, lyrics alone should inevitably have a hard time competing with “pure” poetry or prose. They’re trying to accomplish different things. Bob Dylan is not exempt from this idea, even though he’s spawned an industry of college English-department analysis.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 14, 2016 @ 11:15 am

  14. @Deborah,

    I’m with you – but I’d probably put Joyce Carol Oates ahead of Atwood on the ladder.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 14, 2016 @ 11:18 am

  15. Everyone seems to have forgotten that Dylan wrote a novel. It is basically unreadable, which makes the irony even more grand.

    Comment by Robert Singers (@glassfugue) — October 14, 2016 @ 11:55 am

  16. A disproportionate number of the best version of Dylan’s songs are covers by other artists. I especially like Patti Smith’s ‘Changing of the Guards’. I used to sing it to my daughter to get her to go to sleep.

    Comment by danylmc — October 14, 2016 @ 12:26 pm

  17. > A disproportionate number of the best version of Dylan’s songs are covers by other artists

    I don’t know much about Dylan but is that just saying that he was a better songwriter than a singer?

    I like Sophie B. Hawkins’ cover of I Want You.


    Comment by Antoine — October 14, 2016 @ 12:38 pm

  18. Yeah, Danyl, that trend of Dylan covers being best versions is an oldie, starting with the Byrds #1 hit in ’65 with Mr Tambourine Man. The Flying Burrito Brothers cover of To Ramona is right up there too, Emmylou Harris’s Every Grain of Sand, Manfred Mann’s With God on Our Side…

    Rollingstone a few months ago produced its Top 100 Dylan songs list to mark his 75th birthday: and it’s worth a scan due to the snappy capsule reviews of each having sufficient literary flair.

    Comment by Dennis Frank — October 14, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

  19. Well, Bob is clearly not Margaret Atwood but I’m not sure why we should hold it against him. He deserves some sort of prize not only for giving up being a folk singer but for then having the best band – The Band – in all of rock and roll. And for giving Jim Hendrix the opportunity to cover All Along the Watchtower.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 14, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

  20. Hadn’t heard the Patti Smith version of Changing of the Guard…you’re right, it’s damn good, but it’s not my idea of a lullaby…

    Comment by Rob Hosking — October 14, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

  21. My first reaction was that the committee’s decision was either inspired, or flawed – I love Dylan, but setting him up in lights in these terms, I was not immediately decided. I didn’t have any issue with the committee pushing the boundaries, and in fact really appreciate them posing the question, if you like. After a bit of reading, and googling, and listening this morning, I’ve settled on inspired. There are many literatures. His lyrics don’t have to be poetry for example – whether they are is the wrong question – I’m in no doubt lyrics are a legitimate genre of literature, are a literature, and his body of work, is that genre at its greatest.

    Comment by Joe-90 — October 14, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

  22. “I don’t think of myself as Bob Dylan,” he said in an interview. Reminiscent of what Karl Marx wrote in a letter – “I am not a Marxist – but reminding us to differentiate between the stage persona & the muse. Bowie sang about them:
    “hear this Robert Zimmerman
    I wrote a song for you
    About a strange young man called Dylan
    With a voice like sand and glue
    His words of truthful vengeance
    They could pin us to the floor
    Brought a few more people on
    And put the fear in a whole lot more”

    Comment by Dennis Frank — October 14, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

  23. Sorry tinakori, if you want to give Dylan a lifetime award then a lifetime Grammy or special Ivor Novello. They are music prizes (and highly deserved) but this is just a “let’s get relevant with the 60 yo kids and media opinion writers” award. I’m with Irvine Welsh on this.

    And as for the Band being the best band in rock n roll you’ve bought the hype. if you are talking about backing bands they rank way behind the Funk Brothers, muscle shoals, the Wrecking Crew or Booker T and the MGs in terms of musicianship, hits and influence.

    Comment by insider — October 14, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

  24. his is just a “let’s get relevant with the 60 yo kids and media opinion writers” award.

    It does sort of feel like the last gasp of the baby-boomers trying to sustain their cultural relevance.

    Comment by Gregor W — October 14, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

  25. That Patti Smith cover is awesome. But I’m joining the trainspotters about the award itself though.

    Comment by Conrad — October 14, 2016 @ 3:48 pm

  26. Not surprising. Each generation of the Intellectual Establishment determines what forms of culture are officially important and worthy of critical acclaim and analysis. For the last 30 years, the Establishment has been largely composed of affluent ageing Baby Boomers, people who grew up just as the divide between High and Popular Culture was collapsing in spectacular fashion.

    Dylan would’ve been a formative influence for many of them. Hence, post-grad courses devoted to him, prestigious prizes awarded to him (and, of course, to various other Boomer pop icons).

    Comment by swordfish — October 14, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

  27. I would have awarded Dylan the ‘prize’ on the strength of ‘”it’s Alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding’)” alone.

    Years ago.

    Comment by leeharmanclark — October 14, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

  28. And as for the Band being the best band in rock n roll you’ve bought the hype”

    “And as for the Band being the best band in rock n roll you’ve (clearly) bought the music”

    There, fixed it.

    The Funk Brothers et al are great musicians but, with the brief exception of Booker T and the MGs, they weren’t also headliners who wrote their own songs. Great film festival documentaries on them all – with the exception of Booker T.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 14, 2016 @ 9:40 pm

  29. It’s ridiculous that Bob would win a Nobel, in that if you put all his lyrics onto pages it would go nowhere. But if anyone is going to win it for writing songs, “crushingly, completely unfairly, Bob Dylan” was/is an aberrational genius. I mean, maybe Leonard Cohen? The fact that Cohen intentionally wrote books of poetry might count. But could you argue for anyone else? Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell etc. over Bob? However many hot takes against Dylan you can find, in the end Donovan vs. it’s all over now baby blue is exactly what is special about Bob Dylan.

    Comment by giles — October 15, 2016 @ 12:31 am

  30. It would be awesome if someone would publish all Dylan’s lyrics as a hardcover book, preferably suitably illustrated.

    Comment by Antoine — October 15, 2016 @ 3:57 am

  31. speaking of an awful jerk, my only biography of dylan has him ruthlessly using joan baez to achieve his dream of reaching stardom. let m with the impression that he’s a gifted arsehole.

    but if they can give a peace prize to obama for doing sfa…

    Comment by Che Tibby — October 15, 2016 @ 9:27 am

  32. “ruthlessly using joan baez to achieve his dream of reaching stardom”

    But then Baez is quoted saying that she was stealing his songs as fast as he could write them.. a fair bit of symbiosis there.

    For me Dylan was a past master of pissing off his fan base because he didn’t like being owned (and limited) by any faction. So he pissed off the folk lovers and antiwar when he went electric and rock, changed to Christianity and borrowed from the Gospel element and bounced around another half dozen modes, changed his voice between and even during songs and generally used whatever delivery mechanism to get his words/poetry out.

    He’s been a bit like a medieval troubadour traipsing around the great halls using his voice and imagery to praise and condemn, philosophize and predict and even brave enough to risk pissing off the host.. which may make him part jester as well.


    Comment by JC — October 15, 2016 @ 10:53 am

  33. Best just to listen to the song,

    Comment by Antoine — October 15, 2016 @ 11:04 am

  34. “And as for the Band being the best band in rock n roll you’ve bought the hype”

    “And as for the Band being the best band in rock n roll you’ve (clearly) bought the music”

    Fixed it.

    The Funk brothers et al are collections of great musicians and the subject of some very good documentaries but none were also headlining bands. Booker T and the MGs had a couple of great songs but never made it to the Band’s level.

    Comment by Tinakori — October 15, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

  35. Dumb trivial side note, re: being a jerk. I remember reading some (not ancient) interviews with Donovan about that scene in the film, and he says things were much more friendly and remained friendly for years afterwards… the filmmaker deliberately edited that bit to make things seem tense and shitty. Donovan says he /asked/ Dylan to play It’s All Over Now Baby Blue… if you watch again, you can re-read his reaction as mesmerised fan, not jealous rival.
    (that’s not to say Dylan wasn’t be a jerk to lots of people, especially women, in his life, of course)

    Dumb trivial side note, re: what I like best. When I was a kid, the old old albums and finger-pointy songs. Now, Blood on the Tracks.

    Comment by k — October 15, 2016 @ 1:43 pm

  36. Ambivalent about the Nobel, personally… and writted about it here:

    But as for Donovan – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at his attempts to inflated a sullenly tv sagging audience here:

    Comment by Rob Hosking — October 15, 2016 @ 2:27 pm

  37. @34 Rob,

    I’m a year or two prior to the BBs but close enough I guess. I remember Dylan then with Blowin in the Wind and Times They Are a Changin and along with my mates liked them but quickly forgot them when the peaceniks and hippies made a religion out of them.

    It wasn’t till the 90s that I really liked him and could look at a greater volume of work.. the passing of time helped a lot as I could take the politics out of it.

    I think he more than deserves the Nobel and the fact so many others sang his songs better gives him a greater claim to the Nobel’s ““having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
    Even so, maybe it’s an acquired taste but that scratchy voice is part of his charm and character for me.


    Comment by JC — October 15, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

  38. I have come to the conclusion that the world is made up of two kinds of people. Dylanites, and non-Dylanites and this includes musicians, imo.

    But the ultimate non-Dylanite, is probably Robert Zimmerman.

    Comment by leeharmanclark — October 16, 2016 @ 7:48 am

  39. JC @31. nah, this book made it pretty clear dylan was taking her for a ride. i guess 50 years is a lot of water under the bridge for her.

    otherwise, it occurred to me this morning. how much of an overlap is there between baby boomer intellectuals and dylan fans? i’m thinking *a lot*. might explain the prize…

    Comment by Che Tibby — October 16, 2016 @ 4:30 pm

  40. Dylan is crap and always has been. Cannot sing (musical notes are what?). Sentiments expressed are banal.
    OBTW I am just too old to be a baby boomer to all those halfwits that think that “baby boomer” has any thing but a perjorative significance.

    Comment by peterlepaysan — October 18, 2016 @ 11:38 pm

  41. Dylan deserves every bit of the Nobel prize ! I’ve been following him since I was 15 years old and I will be celebrating my 70th birthday soon and Dylan has never failed to put something new and exciting out there……he deserves all the aclaim that has been thrusted his way…..I hope the next President, whoever she’ll be will appoint Dylan the next Poet Laureate !!!

    Comment by Paul seiler — October 24, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

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