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The Wall Street Journal


Yes, Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize

The songwriter is a master of an American colloquial style, who discovered new ways of setting words and narrative to music.

Oct. 13, 2016 2:35 p.m. ET

For those who endorse awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature, the question might be:  Why did the Swedish Academy wait so long?  For those who oppose:  A songwriter?

But there is never an expiration date on the acknowledgment of excellence, and Mr. Dylan is much more than a songwriter.  One may quarrel that the award delays what appears to be the inevitable recognition by the academy of novelists Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth, among others, or that a composer for musical theater like Stephen Sondheim is the place to begin if songs are considered literature.  But no one who knows Mr. Dylan’s work and its impact on his and subsequent generations of authors and composers can dispute its high quality.

To the point of whether the words to songs comprise literature:  It is the rare lyric that can stand on its own without the rhythm the music provides.  The irony of assessing Mr. Dylan’s words absent the accompaniment is that he changed popular music by discovering and then exploring, repeatedly and often magnificently, new ways to set distinctive narratives to melody and rhythm as in “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Like a Rolling Stone.”  There is no comparable body of work, regardless of standard of measurement, by any other artist of the rock era.

The academy is acknowledging Mr. Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  This is a precise definition:  It doesn’t claim that Mr. Dylan’s lyrics are poetry and thus comparable to the work of Nobel Prize-winning poets T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Neruda, W.B. Yeats and others.  It suggests that his contribution to literature exists in a separate category, one in which he is a dominant figure.  This is fact and it remains so.  Those who think Mr. Dylan’s great writing can be found only in his most familiar early folk works—such as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’”—should know that he is still writing well, even if his albums are no longer in the vanguard of rock and pop.  His late-1990s and early 21st-century narrative songs like “Cold Irons Bound,” “High Water (for Charley Patton),” “Love Sick” and “Pay in Blood” are comparable in their storytelling prowess to one of his rock masterpieces like “All Along the Watchtower” or “Hurricane.”  In recognizing that he is extending an American tradition, the academy is careful not to limit Mr. Dylan to a specific style of composition. He has written great songs in the form of the blues, country, folk, gospel and various styles of rock.

Mr. Dylan’s words can resonate independently because he is a master of an American colloquial style—a writer who sets words and narrative to music.  All but inevitably his lyrics include an insight or turn of phrase that is distinctly his own.  Born in Hibbing, Minn., Mr. Dylan is an American writer who emerged from the same upper Midwest soil as did F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elmore Leonard, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder.  As revealed in “Chronicles, Volume One,” his delightful autobiography—and also amply evident in his lyrics—Mr. Dylan is a voracious reader who appreciates story as well as wordplay and the flow of language.

The Nobel Prize in Literature confirms his status as something more than a songwriter of a kind with those who preceded him.  For those who follow him closely, savoring his witticisms, poignant observations and the unexpected word at precisely the right time, the acknowledgment is long overdue, with all respect to Messrs. Murakami, Roth, Sondheim and others.  Sentence by sentence and verse by verse, Mr. Dylan’s body of work is worthy of maximum celebration.