The Internet has been ablaze with celebration and criticism as the news broke that musician Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan’s win against traditional novelists and poets is both surprising and significant, but the importance of the Nobel prize has little to do with Dylan the musician and more to do with the American literary tradition that he represents. Some commentators, especially, are bemoaning that Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature has cheated other forms of literature, or indicates a decline in appreciation for the classic literary form. These reactions reveal an understanding of the story-telling and writing process that is as narrow as it is elitist. These critics fail to appreciate that awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan is awarding the prize to the American folk music tradition and its contentious message.
In his long and illustrious career, Dylan represents the complexity and fluidity of the American folk music tradition at its finest. The Nobel committee has recognized him not simply as a brilliant lyricist, poet and chronicler of American life, but as the most complete example of a master of a folk art form as worthy of recognition and parity with that of the more elite form of storytelling, particularly the modern novel. Giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to a songwriter does not take away from classic literature as a form of art, nor does it indicate a move by the Nobel committee to appeal to a younger, less traditional audience. The recognition of Dylan challenges our prevailing conceptions of the literary form as synonymous with only long-form novels or poetry. It is also a recognition of the power of contestation and praise for hope.
We often forget that before the relatively new ‘modern’ novel, storytelling was defined by a rich oral tradition. Poems and ballads set to music had a lyrical quality and were passed down through generations and across regions. This oral tradition is older, more diverse and more accessible than modern literature. And Dylan is its modern master.
As a musician, Dylan has experimented with a variety of styles and types of instrumentations, but through his long career has he remained firmly within the American folk music tradition. His work has chronicled the experiences and struggles of working-class Americans. He has told the story of an American landscape defined by violence, inequality, hardship and strangeness, a story that rises above the question of whether he does so with an acoustic or an electric guitar. American folk music is the people’s music.
The American folk music tradition that Dylan represents is a tradition intimately tied to these earlier forms of storytelling. As an art form, folk songs combine melody and narrative into a structure that can be changed, adapted, borrowed or repackaged by folk musicians to become aligned with a time, a place and a singer. It has evolved out of song-poems and into folk ballads. It has historically been sung in rural areas with a heavy regional flavor, combining styles that range from the European to the African and Caribbean. Folk is a form of music that is accessible; it requires little formal training and doesn’t demand the singer to have a classically trained voice. If that were the case, Dylan would have never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, much less any of his many Grammys.
Folk songs give us the narrative of working class life: the poverty, the loss and the daily oppression, taking those experiences and turning them into something greater — stories in the forms of songs that can be shared with audiences and across generations. The American folk music tradition is a literary form that is accessible to people, both as audience participants and performers, who have historically lacked the training, resources and abilities to write in the classic novel form. American folk music allows people to write their own stories and share those stories outside of elitist cultural institutions.
Awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan is an award to generations of American folk singers who have developed a rich, cultural tradition in American history that has hitherto been relegated to simply a genre of music. Giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan does not detract from the significance of the novel, but rather suggests that literature can be found not only in books but in all facets of our lives. Like other art forms, there is poetry in Dylan’s songs, there is form and structure, history and innovation, perspective and power.
Dylan’s Nobel Prize rightly blurs the boundaries between high art and popular art. The American folk music tradition, and especially Dylan’s body of work, shows that a folk ballad can be both. Folk music allows us all to become writers in our own way, whether we win a Nobel Prize or not.
In one of his best-known songs, “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” early in his career, he cautioned:
Come writers and critics who prophesy 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’
This time, the Nobel Committee named Dylan.