Arts & Entertainment

Why Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel Prize

No songwriter has reached or inspired more people by elevating music to literary heights.
IMAGE Getty + Val Wilmer
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On Friday night, BOB DYLAN closed out his set at Desert Trip with the 1963 song "Masters of War," one of the most potent songs of his "protest" era. Given the state of world affairs and the painfully frightening candidacy of the Republican Party's nominee, it was no less powerful than when he performed it at the Newport Folk Festival, more than 50 years ago.

Dylan's lyrics—which this morning earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature for, in the words of the Stockholm-based committee, "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition"—have stood the test of time, inspiring writers from Lennon and McCartney to Joyce Carol Oates and have consistently reflected upon and appraised the world we live in with an unflinching, writer's eye.

Still, immediately there was a backlash.

Fans of the writer Philip Roth, who had been a favorite to win this year, cried foul, and there was immediate disappointment on social media that the American novelist Don DeLillo, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and, especially, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, didn't make the cut. But while oddsmakers over the past few weeks had put Dylan's chances of winning at 50:1—and each of those writers is deserving in their own way—there's no doubting Dylan was the right choice.

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"Bob Dylan changed everything about songwriting," the musician Rodney Crowell told me earlier this year. "The first time I heard Bob Dylan was 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.' I easily played it 20 times—no exaggeration. It was a day or so later before I got deeper into 'Mr. Tambourine Man' and 'It's Alright Ma.' [His music was] infused with something otherworldly that portended a new paradigm."

By example, Bob Dylan gave popular music—the late-20th Century's most vibrant art form—permission to say something.

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Indeed, it was Dylan who inspired John Lennon and Paul McCartney, perhaps his only songwriting rivals of the past 50 years, to greater heights when he met The Beatles in August 1964 during the band's first American tour and challenged them on the content of their lyrics. Lennon in particular—who, along with George Harrison, had been obsessed with Dylan's Freewheelin'album—took the criticism to heart, and immediately set about writing "No Reply" and "I'm a Loser." Later, writing with McCartney, "Help!," "In My Life," "For No One," "A Day in the Life," "Penny Lane," and countless others followed. But without Dylan's template, it's hard to imagine those songs, or the entire songbooks of everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell to Beck and Strummer and Jones, would exist.

Bob Dylan gave popular music—the late-20th Century's most vibrant art form—permission to say something.

Dylan had found his own voice in the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, French symbolists like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and the rich and powerful music of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. But as his worldview grew and his restless creative mind developed, Dylan found deeper inspiration in Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, not to mention masters like his namesake Dylan Thomas.

In other words, the literary has always been there; certainly more than for any other songwriter. You can put his lyrics up against anything by any of the authors on the Nobel committee's shortlist and see immediately why Dylan received the award, which puts him in a league with previous winners like Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Gabriel García Márquez, for work as "a great poet in the English-speaking tradition" on par with Homer and Sappho.

There's something else at work here, too. The Nobel committee has always looked favorably on artists whose work both reflects and responds to the important cultural issues of the day, and there's perhaps no one alive who has consistently reflected the world around us more than Bob Dylan.

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He may not have invented the protest song, but Bob Dylan surely perfected and elevated it. And that he continues to tour—virtually non-stop since the late-1980s as a traveling troubadour, delivering his message of love and loss and a world coming apart at the seams, all the while revitalizing the art form of the traditional American song almost single-handedly—is reason enough to hold your tongue if the writer you favored to win was overlooked.

But here's the real crux of it: the future legacies of Philip Roth and Don DeLillo and all the others favored to win the literary prize are uncertain; maybe they will be read and studied, or perhaps literary footnotes at best. Bob Dylan, however, will still inspire global culture in a variety of forms—from fiction, to poetry, to film, to song. That we lived in the time that he walked amongst us, and gave us so much, is all you need to know about why the Nobel Academy made the right choice.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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