Acton Institute Powerblog

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize in Literature

When Bob Dylan wrote, “The Times They Are A Changin’,” I doubt he had the Swedish Academy in mind. Nevertheless, by awarding him the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature the Academy has made a bold statement for a change in the way songwriting is viewed as literature.

Many people have already complained that there were many more worthy potential recipients. But let’s face the facts: Bob Dylan won, and they lost.

He likely didn’t even know he was competing. (Reportedly, he was in Las Vegas for a performance when the award was announced.) But he won.

Now, I suppose it could be argued, as have some, that he hasn’t really produced any literature. Whatever one thinks of him winning, however, I don’t think that’s fair. Haters gonna hate, I guess.

The official press release, cited here in full, states, “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’”

This isn’t much to go on. One would think that with such a revolutionary choice, more explanation would be in order. But, I mean, c’mon.

Having been named after the Nobel Laureate, I’ll admit I’m a little biased. The other factor affecting my opinion, however, is that Bob Dylan is the greatest living American songwriter.

And, in fact, he is a poet. And poetry is literature, last I checked. Early on — and all throughout his career — Dylan blended beat poetry with American folk music. Maybe all those other, non-Nobel-winning poets are just jealous that Dylan can play guitar and (sort of, maybe) sing.

In any case, Dylan is significant for this innovative integration, and he continued in that spirit as his career progressed, adapting his lyrical artistry to rock, blues, and gospel along the way.

Dylan is a poet-songwriter-entrepreneur. In a way, he artistically embodies the American traditions of individualism and enterprise (and faith), even while he (rightly) castigated American society for racist violence, identity politics, baptizing war at all cost, miscarrying justice, irreligion, and so on.

While number of albums sold hardly makes someone an artist, his enormous commercial success is no reason to disqualify him either. Dylan’s influence goes far beyond popular consumption. He is one of the most covered songwriters of all time. And traces of his unique style, whether lyrically or otherwise, can be heard in nearly all popular music since his time.

In 2011, UK journal the Independent published 70 reasons why Dylan is “the most important figure in pop-culture history.” Among them, they include:

  • “Because he made teenagers interested in poetry again” (#2);
  • “Because he invented folk-rock” (#4);
  • “Because he wrote ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe,’ the world’s first anti-love song” (#10);
  • “Because he invented country-rock” (#15);
  • “Because in May 1963, a fortnight prior to the release of Freewheelin’, when The Ed Sullivan Show refused to let him perform the satirical ‘Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues,’ he chose to walk out rather than submit to censorship” (#27);
  • “Because when he was trying to explain the kind of music he wanted to create during his electric period, he came up with the phrase ‘that thin wild mercury sound,’ a better five-word nugget than most songwriters’ entire output” (#29);
  • “Because he wrote ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ when barely out of his teens, a string of apocalyptic images which altered the way topical singers thought about writing protest songs” (#32);
  • “Because when he wrote Chronicles, the first part of his autobiography, it actually helped explain things about his art and the way he worked” (#44);
  • Because, back in the 1970s, just as most fans and critics were considering him washed-up and mined-out, he somehow came up with Blood on the Tracks, an indisputable classic containing some of his finest songs. He has repeated this trick many times” (#50);
  • “Because when he wrote a protest song, it made a difference. Thanks to “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, his powerful 1964 account of the death of a poor black serving-woman at the whim of a Baltimore society blade who served a derisory sentence, the killer in question, one William Zantzinger, lived the rest of his life in bitter ignominy” (#53);
  • “Because, when included in Time’s 100 Most Important People of the Century, he was called ‘master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counter-culture generation’” (#55);
  • “Because he is the only contemporary songwriter to have one of his songs prompt a homily by the Pope” (#57 – that story here);
  • “Because he created an entire industry of Dylanologist commentators and interpreters, way beyond the attention afforded any other songwriter or performer” (#61);
  • “Because he took the 2008 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for ‘profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power’” (#70).

Of course, this likely won’t assuage the haters, I’m sure. But at the end of the day, the important thing is that they didn’t win, and no amount of complaining will change that.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.