The Nobel committee was right to place him in the company of wonderful writersby Sam Tanenhaus / November 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“It will be a good joke on us all if, in 50 years or so, Dylan is regarded as a significant figure in English poetry,” the music critic Donal Henahan wrote in 1967. “Not Mr Thomas, the late Welsh bard, but Bob, the guitar-picking American balladeer.” Well, the punchline has come and no one is laughing, except possibly Bob Dylan. After 16 days of enigmatic silence, America’s most honoured living artist at last acknowledged his latest accolade, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and even agreed to attend the award ceremony in December, “if it’s at all possible.” Possible? Why wouldn’t it be? What does he mean?
As usual with Dylan, there is no good answer, because he cares much less than we do. Even as an apprentice, yet to write his first songs, “my mind was strong like a trap and I didn’t need any guarantee of validity,” he wrote (in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One). Not “validation”—the affirming squeeze of the shoulder—but validity: official sanction, the stamped passport. Like all hero-artists, Dylan travels alone, without documents. He is “vague about his antecedents and birthplace,” the New York Times reported nine months after Dylan arrived in Manhattan, more than 50 years ago, a 19-year-old college dropout beginning his rapid conquest of the Greenwich Village folk-music hatchery. From the start the press played along. The New Yorker music writer Nat Hentoff conspired to spread the story that Dylan, in reality a coddled son of the middle class from northern Minnesota, “ran away from home seven times—at 10, at 12, at 13, at 15, at 15 and a half, at 17, and at 18. His travels included South Dakota, New Mexico, Kansas, and California.”
Myths begin in plausibility. Dylan may look like a creased gnome today, but in his youth he was even more exotic, washed ashore from a distant corner of the national consciousness, a slyly cherubic “choirboy and beatnik” with his “Huck Finn black corduroy cap,” first lulling audiences with hillbilly onstage patter and then shocking them with the violent attack of the first strummed chords and harmonica bleats. When he opened his mouth, the bruising onrush approximated what the New York Times’s first reviewer marvelled was “the rude beauty of a Southern field hand.” This description will surprise those who know only the tuneless croak of the later Dylan. But his supreme confidence began with his vocals. He had no early ambitions to write songs—it happened “by degrees,” he later said—only to perform them, which he did better than anyone else. “Oh, my God, how that boy can sing!” said Joan Baez, the folk goddess who brought grown men to tears. Baez coated the folk melodies in queenly sorrow. Dylan yanked them up by their roots, out of the darkest loam of American myth—highway outlaws, children rising up against their fathers, workers against their bosses, inmates against their jailers. His early compositions had the perfection of antiquities, handed down through the generations, but with an otherworldly, winking wit. “We just played it, just wore it out,” George Harrison said of Dylan’s second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “the content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful.” John Lennon recalled: “For three weeks we didn’t stop playing it. We went potty about Dylan.” It is still among his greatest records, and includes “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Masters of War.”