A recent article in the New Republic, headlined ‘Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?’, carried the introduction “Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure”.
Ah well. As Dylan said, “…don’t speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin..”
The 75-year-old American singer-songwriter was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. He is the first songwriter to win the award, and the first American to win the award since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.
Van Morrison once described Dylan as ‘the greatest living poet’, and to be a Dylan fan is to believe in those words as an indisputable truth. For over five decades the legendary musician has breathed poetry of startling elegance and urgency into his songs. His prolific output once defined an American era, became the voice of social protest, and pushed the boundaries of songwriting in many directions. In his songs, many great songwriting and poetic traditions—folk, protest, jazz, blues, ballads, rock-n-roll—have met and melded and created new idioms. His lyrics have dripped with honeyed love, dazzled with metrical dexterity, burnt with scathing commentary, unspooled in epic narratives and mystified in obtuse, but always passionate wordplay.
Here is a selection of some of our favourites lines from Dylan’s vast oeuvre.
I pity the poor immigrant; From John Wesley Harding, 1967:
This could have been written for Donald Trump.
I pity the poor immigrant,
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home,
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone.
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev’ry breath,
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death.
I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain,
Whose heaven is like Ironsides,
Whose tears are like rain,
Who eats but is not satisfied,
Who hears but does not see,
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me.
Song for Woody; From Bob Dylan, 1962:
A homage to his hero, the protest singer Woody Guthrie, that announces the arrival of a major new voice in politically conscious singing.
Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that’s coming along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s dying and it’s hardly been born.
Don’t think twice, it’s alright; Freewheelin’, 1963:
Love, and heartbreak—Dylan is as proficient in exploring these as he is with social commentary.
So it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
Like you never did before
An’ it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
I can’t hear you any more
I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ walkin’ down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I’m told
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The Times They Are a-Changin’; From The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964: Along with ‘Blowing in the Wind’, perhaps Dylan’s most well known lines.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’.
‘Cause the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.
The lonesome death of Hattie Carrol; From The Times They Are a-Changing, 1964: A hard-hitting song that rages against discrimination and brutality.
Hattie Carroll was a maid in the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
And you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain’t the time for your tears
It Ain’t Me Babe; From Another side of Bob Dylan, 1964:
Another lyrical tribute to lost love.
Go ‘way from my window
Leave at your own chosen speed
I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.
Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let your down….
Subterranean Homesick Blues; From Bringing it all back home, 1965:
An irreverent, funny, rhythmic ride.
Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail
Look out kid
You’re gonna get hit
By losers, cheaters
Hangin’ ‘round the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin’ for a new fool
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parkin’ meters
Ballad of a thin man; From Highway 61 Revisited, 1965:
You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Dylan.
You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone
Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations
You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known
Visions of Johanna; From Blonde on Blonde, 1966:
When it’s good poetry, you don’t really need to know what it all means.
Inside the museums,
Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what
salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze
I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna,
they make it all seem so cruel