Well, the times they most certainly are a-changin’. And if you thought that was the most clichéd opening of all, remember this: when Bob Dylan wrote this song back in 1964, the eponymous track of his third album, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Every teenager’s blood boiled to it.
Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, according to the Nobel Foundation.
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said Dylan was “a great poet in the English speaking tradition. For 54 years now he’s been at it, reinventing himself, constantly creating a new identity”.
For at least a week now, fans of the singer-songwriter have held their breaths in anticipation of a long-demanded honour. But “new poetic expressions” will leave them underwhelmed. Is that it? Really?
Dylan deserves the Nobel, they will tell the committee, because he is, well, Dylan, the writer of 37 studio albums who turned around everything about songwriting and performing with his twangy nasal voice and a style of harmonica playing that—though it was thought to be so bad at the time—has been copied since by every three-chord-knowing punk guitar player.
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But today the art form must step aside—even though Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, bent it to mould everything that followed in Western popular music. It is his words that have won him the 2016 Nobel.
Nothing in the pantheon of 20th century ballads, folk songs and rock can equal the diversity of Dylan’s poetry: the volcanic rage of Hard Rain; the death knell sounded for old order in The Times…; the wistful look-back of My Back Pages; the anguish of Blowin’ in the Wind, the anthem of every generation since Dylan’s; the unbearable heartache of Most of the Time (I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend/I don’t even care if I ever see her again/Most of the time…); the tenderness of Love Minus Zero/No Limit.
In The Times They Are A-Changin’, Dylan tells senators, Congressmen, mothers and fathers—anyone who’d bother to listen to his plaintive croak back in 1964:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
And he updated it in 2000, in The Essential Bob Dylan. In Things Have Changed, a song that won the Oscar for the best movie song in 2001, he sang:
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
I used to care, but things have changed
But Dylan, who has now won the Nobel, an Oscar, an honorary Pulitzer and several Grammies, does care. Every album of his stands testimony to that. And that is why this award is Dylan’s for an entirely different reason: it encompasses every living breathing fuming word ever written in the grand American tradition of song-writing. Written by every wandering minstrel, every barefoot hobo hitching a ride in a wagon train, every Woody Guthrie singing about the Dust Bowl famine, every black slave howling for their rights, every white teenager wanting to pull down the architects of war, every old-before-their-time suicidal 20-something writing and singing in the mournful exile of a bedsit.
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The Nobel committee is spot on in fixing his oeuvre within that tradition.
That is why the Nobel is Dylan’s, but not his alone.