Like so many of us in the 1980s, I was raised by former hippies. That meant wearing hand-sewn gypsy dresses, playing barefoot outside, and listening to the soulful sounds of folk music on my parents’ old record player.
If the lyrics of John Denver, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell were the fabric that made up the colorful tapestry of my youth, then Bob Dylan was the thread that bound them all together.
His music was the kind that you felt in your bones, the kind that both lulled you to sleep and woke you up in a way that you’d never been awakened before. When my peers were head banging to Metallica and Guns N Roses, I was in my room, curled up in a blanket, listening to Dylan’s scratchy voice crooning about how a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
Perhaps his music spoke to me because I was, at heart, more of a lover of words than music. I spent most of my youth deeply entrenched in the layered prose of Dostoyevsky, Herman Hesse, and Edgar Allen Poe. In Dylan’s lyrics I found those same deep meanings, inventive word choices, and rich storytelling. He was the musician of my bookworm dreams.
That’s why I was so pleased to see Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was announced yesterday. At 75 years old, he is the first singer/songwriter to ever be given Nobel recognition for lyrics. Born as Robert Zimmerman, the son of Eastern European Jews, Dylan constantly sought to reinvent himself. Beginning his career as a rock singer, the political climate and influence of Woodie Guthrie soon turned him towards folk.
Dylan went on to win 12 Grammy Awards, one Academy Award, and one Golden Globe Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame. He released 37 studio albums, including 2016’s “Fallen Angels.”
Despite a lifetime of achievements, his Nobel award is not without criticism. Many feel that there are other, more worthy potential recipients. Several prominent authors took to Twitter to debate his win. “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars,” the novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted. “This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.”
Jodi Picoult, a best-selling novelist, quipped, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan, #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”
Some even went so far as to criticize the authenticity of his lyrics. Novelist Hari Kunzru tweeted “Upside: does this mean we get to have a serious conversation about Dylan as appropriator and boundaries btw that and plagiarism?”
However, The Academy’s own permanent secretary Sara Danius disagrees. She, like me, believes that Dylan’s songs were “poetry for the ears.” While acknowledging that some might find Dylan a “strange” choice, she reminds us that storytelling and music have long been intertwined. “… if you think back to Homer and Sappho, you realize that was also aural poetry. It was meant to be performed, together with instruments,” she said.
Dylan’s win is one more reminder that the time’s they are a changin’. Just as the boundaries between religions, cultures, and genders are becoming more fluid, so too are the walls that have traditionally separated the arts. Perhaps no artist better represents that change than Bob Dylan.
I have my own quiet, withdrawn lover of the arts in my own home now. My-10 year-old son spends hours alone, drawing and listening to music. Sometimes I feel sad that he hasn’t developed the voracious love of books that I had at his age. But then, I’ll walk by his room and hear the familiar strains of Dylan’s poetic lyrics and remember that words don’t always have to come from books—sometimes they’re delivered through the scratchy voice of a musical poet.