Be in no doubt: Bob Dylan changed literature


There will be many who do not read books to whom Bob Dylan gave literature.

Tin Pan Alley was driven back to the drawing-board by The Times They Are A-Changin’, Blowin’ in the Wind and Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. And Mr Tambourine Man signalled a revolution in lyrics. “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind/Down the foggy ruins of time/Far past the frozen leaves/The haunted frightened trees/Out to the windy bench/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow…”

Rather than claim any poetic distinction, the young Dylan pretended to be just a “song and dance man”. In truth, he was a latter-day troubadour who had inherited the Beat Word from Allen Ginsburg. And now, as the Nobel committee has recognised, his oeuvre is genuinely literary.

Before the adoption of fellow-scribe Dylan Thomas’s name (a coincidence, he claims) the road Robert Zimmerman travelled stretched back to wilder, dustier American pathways. The boy who set out from Hibbing, Minnesota to make his way to Greenwich Village, picked up folk singer Pete Seeger’s protest movement creeds along the way.

The ethos reached back to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and, further, to Walt Whitman hymning great, full-bodied songs to the land.

A skinny boy in Beat clubs raged against “masters of war”. He ridiculed old-boy racists and crooked cops. Yet at the same time he would show himself able to bond with aspects of cowboy Americana, the Robin Hood strain behind John Wesley Hardin.

He sang duets with Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia, took on Nashville motifs associated with “White Trash” and psychedelic pyrotechnics of the hippies. Inclusiveness is in the weave of his great tapestries — the northern urban phantasmagoria of Subterranean Homesick Blues, the cultural compendium of Desolation Row, the deep southern milieu of Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.

Troubadours of eight or nine centuries ago, affected by the Moors and Jews in the great age of Spain, returnees from Crusades and the Holy Land “wild west” of those days began a western romanticism that led on to Dante and Petrarch and the sources for Shakespeare. Dylan knew this tradition in his bones before he alluded to it explicitly in Tangled Up In Blue.

He took in Christian tropes even though he was a Jew — not only overtly in the Gotta Serve Somebody phase, but more subtly in ballads such as Shelter from the Storm.

However, the older religion — his own — was never far off. You can hear it behind the mystery in songs like All Along the Watchtower or, more obviously, in Song of Solomon motifs infusing love lyrics like those of Love Minus Zero or She Belongs to Me.

The revolution in narrative that Dylan introduced in Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, with its cumulative but soothing enumerations — or later in Hurricane, with its tireless rant against injustice — marked an epoch. No longer was it possible to rest with three verses and a break. No longer was it enough to be pretty, catchy, sprightly or sweet. Dylan could do all these things. No one has written so many lyrics that are quotable. But it was the new length, the new narrative drive straining almost towards prose exposition — the distortion of song, if you will — back into poetry and more. That was his revelation.

Beyond his precursor Ginsburg, a broader Jewish antecedence also smiles down on Dylan’s receipt of the Nobel Prize, for there is a dash of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Chagallian play about him, as well as the midwestern acculturations of Saul Bellow — the laconic menace, even, of Harold Pinter.

Dylan accompanies these other laureates in a Jewish textual tradition in contrast to the style and tone of Hemingway types who have also famously won the prize.

There are Proustian tableaux in Dylan’s songs. His poetics, though not politics, hark back, like Ginsburg’s, to the lyrical innovations of T S Eliot and Ezra Pound (both of whom he mentions in one of his own lyrics) of the early decades of the 20th century.

In the music of his time, there has been nobody like him but every kind of imitator. In the poetry of his time, there have been few so vivid in imagery or vast in range. He discovered a genre that could communicate intelligently yet hugely and reformulated it for a new age. The Nobel Prize may be a curse.

Let’s hope that Bob Dylan is not finished yet.

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