'Disillusioned Words Like Bullets Bark': Folk Great Bob Dylan Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

'Disillusioned Words Like Bullets Bark': Folk Great Bob Dylan Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature

Bob Dylan, the folk music icon who first rose to fame amid the struggle for civil rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for his transformative impact on culture and “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Though long on the list of possible winners, Dylan’s receipt of the prestigious award came as a shock to many. One reporter called it  a “radical” choice that might “stir up a sensation” within the global literary community. Asked if he truly deserved the prize, Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, responded by saying, “Of course he does. He just got it.”

“Homer and Sappho—they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments . . . it’s the same with Bob Dylan.” 
—Dr. Sara Danius, Nobel committee

Dylan, Danius explained, “is a great in the English-speaking tradition and he is a wonderful sampler—a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it and reinventing himself and creating a new identity.”

With dozens of original albums and thousands of songs written over more than five decades, Dylan is not only known as one of the most accomplished lyricists in the history of modern music, but his early career was notable for coinciding with the rise of both the folk revival in the United States and the rise of the counterculture movement. Seen by many as bridge between the Beat poets and writers of the 1950s and the socially-conscious music and culture of the 1960s, Dylan—though he often begrudged, and ultimately fled, the role—was often revered as the voice of a generation that questioned the American status quo in an era of upheaval.

Within his many albums, wrote the Nobel committee in biographical notes (pdf) released alongside the announcement, are songs whose themes revolve “around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love.”

Following his first self-titled album in 1962, Dylan’s second album was his first dominated by original compositions. Many of those songs—including “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “Masters of War”, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, “Oxford Town”, and “I Shall Be Free”—blended his folk sensibilities with political messages that captured the radical shift of the American public at that time.

And in 1964, with the release of The Times They Are A-Changin’—which included such as songs as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, “With God On Our Side”, and the era-defining title track—Dylan expanded his musical stylings while deepening his reproach against social ills and injustice. In Hattie Carroll, which retells the real-life story of a black house maid in Maryland murdered by her wealthy employer’s son, Dylan makes poetic narrative out of the injustice when the offender goes lightly punished while also turning the mirror of that horror on the reader (or listener) of the song:


On Bringing It All Back Home, released in 1965, Dylan once again expanded his approach—pushing the lyrical needle while still responding to the social upheaval he saw around him. In the spirited “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, Dylan wrote:

Though Dylan ultimately ditched much of his politically-rebellious character and later albums (specifically after 1976’s Desire) moved away from overt tackling of social injustices, he never gave up his spirit of invention and refused to conform to expectations. As Giles Harvey wrote of Dylan’s career in the New York Review of Books in 2010:

Though he famously kicked fellow folk singer and committed leftist Phil Ochs out of his limousine for being “a journalist” and “not a folksinger” and was widely admonished for appearing in glitzy adverstisement for a major car company that aired during the Super Bowl in 2014, few question that Dylan was among the great American songwriters of all time and a master poet whose songs—like the very earliest Greek lyricists—cannot be read (or heard) without a sense of awe.

As Danius of the Nobel Committee explained, “Homer and Sappho—they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments . . . it’s the same with Bob Dylan.”

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