Last week’s announcement that Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature provoked mixed feelings in American literary circles. While many fans rejoiced, some authors like Jodi Picoult wondered if a musician getting a literary prize now qualifies book authors to win Grammys.
Even my friend David Wolf, an English professor who plays Dylan songs with a rock band and taught a course on Dylan at Simpson College in Iowa, found the choice problematic. Noting that no U.S. poet has received the prestigious prize to date, he observed that great ones like Adrienne Rich and Lucille Clifton were overlooked in their lifetimes.
I get that. There is so little high recognition for a craft as creative and subjective as writing, that when the top prize goes to someone technically outside the field, it might feel like a robbery. But Dylan was selected precisely for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
And that breaking of barriers between disciplines is a big part of what has made him such a towering, seminal figure in so many lives. He’s renowned as a musician but sees himself foremost as a poet. He has also written books, made movies and been a leader in social protest, all through his use of language.
When I awoke to the news last Thursday, it was my late husband I thought first of — and the myriad others like him who embraced Dylan growing up in the ’60s, some in public housing with single parents and limited access to the arts or culture. Dylan spoke to the disaffected when they couldn’t yet name the source of their discontent. He gave it words and context.
Rob Borsellino was a newspaper editor, a Des Moines Register columnist and a one-time rock musician, who wrote in his highschool yearbook that his life’s ambition was to meet Bob Dylan. In an Oct. 5, 2005, column, he described how Dylan changed his life:
“I was the Bob Dylan fanatic in the neighborhood. Other kids liked the guy’s music, his politics, his attitude. But after I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ for the first time, I decided I had to become a different person. …
“I started writing poetry and songs — protest songs. I was 14 or 15, so there was plenty to complain about. I started paying attention to the news and to politics because I wanted to know what Dylan was singing about. It was another world, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Rob put himself through college, majoring in black literature. He played with a rock band in which he was the only white person and the only guy. It is not exaggerating to say Dylan remained the biggest influence in his life.
I met Rob in Dylan’s old haunt of Woodstock, N.Y., a town that still turns out to celebrate Dylan’s birthday every May. Rob was the editor of the local daily newspaper in neighboring Kingston, where I became a reporter. When we married and moved in together, I brought the Indian wall hangings and cushion covers and the books on feminism and leftist politics. Rob brought the original Woodstock music festival poster, the Elliott Landy black-and-white photograph of Dylan and a trove of classic black literature.
Dylan was almost always on in our house. He was a compass in times of unrest and a comfort in times of duress. He broadened our imaginations. When Rob was ailing with Lou Gehrig ‘s disease, his friend Bob Knapp hired Dylan to play a benefit concert in Des Moines to fight the disease, in Rob’s honor. Afterward, Rob got to fulfill his childhood dream of meeting his hero.
And when Rob died a month later, a Dylan song was playing on the CD player in his hospice room.
I imagine the giddy glee Rob would have felt at this milestone because he held the Nobels and their laureates in high regard. He might also have had a dozen creative ways to illustrate the irony that such a breaker of conventions would be awarded a prestige so, well, conventional.
But Dylan is an unconventional choice well suited to a time in our country that demands moral guidance. A time that is, sadly, becoming all too familiar. As Rob wrote in 2005 when Dylan’s autobiography came out, “We’re split in half, fighting an unpopular war. People’s patriotism is being questioned. It’s not all that different from the first time Dylan got attention.”
Back then, he wrote, the country was struggling to get past the McCarthy era, “a time when playing guitar and singing folk music raised questions about your commitment to America.” There were divisions over race, patriotism, communism. “We were neck-deep in a pointless war and — with our troops under fire — you weren’t supposed to mention that these kids were dying for no reason. … And here was this guy getting in your face with songs about how the government screwed things up.”
So here we are again, divided as we may ever have been, while a charismatic presidential candidate taps on genuine disaffection by sowing divisions between groups to win votes. And Dylan’s words remain as relevant as they ever were for the voters being courted:
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
— “Only a Pawn in their Game.”
The Nobel Prize, wrote founder Alfred Nobel, honors people who are of “the greatest benefit to mankind.” In so many ways, Bob Dylan is.