Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize
It's 1962 and you're sitting at a small table at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village of New York City. Bob Dylan is on stage, a mere twenty-one years old, singing mostly standards such as Cocaine and The Cuckoo. After a small pause, he begins strumming again, unfolding a tale you have never heard before about a man named John Brown. By the time four and a half minutes have elapsed, you've been in the boots of a soldier, in the moment of a mother's grief, and felt the utter lack of excuses for war. But before the totality of the story has set in, Dylan begins picking Barbara Allen and you're transported to the flowers of Scotland in a time long before automobiles, the printing press, and the Nobel Prize. You have no way of reading Brown's tale, no way of taking it into the solitude of your mind because it must be accompanied by his voice, by the drone of the dropped D string. And when the show is over, if you are not afforded the chance to speak to him, all you have is your memory of the song. It is not until 1985 that a book is published with most of Dylan's lyrics, and not until the internet that you can sort freely through his hundreds of songs. How is it, then, that a man who produced very little literature was awarded a most prestigious prize?
The answer is both simple and complex. The simple facts are that he's a man, a white man, and a white man playing what is now very popular music. To be sure, the statistics are in regarding the Nobel Prize and it's patriarchal history. It ought come as no surprise that less than 6% of the prizes have been awarded to women. Few eyebrows are raised to learn that 83% of winners come from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, we know that a large portion of the roots of the American folk cannon come from black suffering, from the blues such that Big Mama Thorton can sing in 1961 "tomorrow never happens" and we are still waiting today (Thorton never received royalties from Janis Joplin's success with the tune Ball and Chain). This history is right before our eyes, as though we white people are looking at a blank sign on a post, while everyone else is looking at the other side that reads: private property. Woody Guthrie was righter than he knew once we pry idealism away from reality.
Woody Guthrie knew about this history. He rode it upon the trains and through the dust bowl. He is also the link between Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize because he loses this history through Bob Dylan. By this I mean that, unlike Guthrie, Dylan has no history. And since Dylan was, and largely is still, seen as the successor to Guthrie, this history dies in the transition. Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in a small Minnesota town, only to become Bob Dylan through adopting mannerisms, dress, and most importantly musical styles from others. He has no past, no literary trace from then until now. In fact, on many occasions he went out of his way to reject history. Most notably, he rejected his role as a protest singer in the sixties, which is to say he rejected being a singer tied to the socio-political struggles historically leading back to slavery. To reject history, whether it be one's own or that of one's surrounding, is to occupy a position best described by Czech-born media theorist Vilém Flusser. In 1973 Flusser published an essay entitled Line and Surface and summarizes the idea quite well in one passage:
Indeed, the 1960s mark the introduction of color television as a staple of the household, yet fans are unable to access Dylan's lyrics other than limited print songbooks, and these are aimed towards fellow musicians. The songs themselves, despite being written line by line, occupy the space of surface images and are consumed thusly. Dylan himself is a product of the age of the written word, but as a rock musician breaks from this previous age and thus from history as a whole. Marshall McLuhan, who in 1970 delivered a public lecture at the University of Florida entitled Living in an Acoustic World, put it best in addressing the audience directly:
Homer and Dylan are storytellers but they are not literary. Or, to use Flusser's terminology, Dylan fundamentally lacks a being-in-the-world historicity. To quote him directly, again from Line and Surface, Dylan seems to stand "in the midst of images that order concepts (in “structures”)." Dylan's songs are these surface images: themselves ordering larger concepts like war, racism, romance, and existential loneliness. We consume them not like books, reading from line to line as one does a poem, but in an acoustic and surface manner. They come at once and permeate our being, and in doing so relate to other fragmented structures of our personhood. As a result, we can remove them from one another and impose them upon any given situation. Without history, as Dylan knows so well, one can be whatever one wishes.
This phenomenon is important in regards to the Nobel Prize because it is emblematic of a larger shift in our culture. Whether we define the shift in Flusserian or McLuhan terms, the change resonates through all aspects of society. McLuhan notes this well in the same lecture, stating that politics is "in the same position. The old politics had parties, policies, planks, opposition. The new politics is concerned only with images. The problem in the new politics is to find the right image." This claim is so poignant today that one could hold it up as a banner to describe the current electoral spectacle. And on the job market, McLuhan notes that "specializing, which used to be taken for granted in modern industry, has now become very shaky, and role-playing has taken over from job-holding in big business. Role-playing means having several jobs simultaneously, or being able to move rapidly from one job to another." Aside from part-time employment and adjunct faculty, we can think of Uber, AirBnB, and so forth; each laborer is cut up into many smaller components to be called upon at any given time for a different task. Some have tried to brand this situation in older terms, calling the working class the 'precariat' instead of the proletariat. Regardless of terminology, the aim is clear. Flusser describes the human being in the surface world as "unhistorical," that is, detached from the concrete movement of history. McLuhan called this "the electric world of simultaneity," and indeed, there can be no history in the simultaneous.
Giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature is not an affront to literature, nor is it a celebration of Dylan's literary feats. This act sits outside of these terms; it is a clear demonstration that society as a whole is moving away from literature and historicity. It shows us that the dominant paradigm has changed, that historical struggles will be more and more marginalized; without a strong voice they will dissipate in the din. Bob Dylan is held up as a literary hero, when perhaps he is the man who left literacy behind. The award, then, is really bestowed upon a new form of literacy that is but a shell of the old. This said, none of this critique is intended to take away from Bob Dylan's music, songwriting, or legacy. Plenty has been said regarding his abilities, questioning the prize, and celebrating his skill. We could analyze Visions of Johanna for hours, days even. We could compare and contrast the abstract Chimes of Freedom with the visceral Seven Curses. Bob Dylan is a phenomenal songwriter and lyricist, almost assuredly one of the best of all time. And this fact is most telling in the diversity and amazing range of artists interpreting his music.
Beyond Jimi Hendrix and All Along The Watchtower, or The Byrds and Mr. Tambourine Man, Dylan's songwriting abilities shine brightest through less appreciated covers such as Madeline Peroux's You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go. With her jazzy take on this short track, the song gains a soft sound of sensibility to accompany the simple and sorrowful lyrics. Peroux's cover is a terrific feat, but we see the beauty of Dylan's writing most clearly in The Staples Singers take on A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall. The song itself is well known, with the lyrics a dialogue upon troubled times. Written in 1963, Dylan's early versions are sparse and husky, like wind on a dusty road. His voice meanders upon the steady strumming as his mind toys with the social and political settings that surround the sixties. Enter 1973 and the Staples Singers who completely envelop the song, marching it forward with a heavy drum rhythm and echoing harmonies. Mavis opens each verse asking questions of her wandering son, ironically her father Pops, who calls back "I heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning" and his voice skillfully wavers on "roared" like ripples upon water. Later, he sings "and I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breath it" and we must wonder if anyone has really breathed it until this moment. Perhaps it is in this very moment that history is breathed back into the song. Thanks to Bob Dylan and The Staples Singers the people are many but our hands are not empty, though few of us have Nobel Prizes. What we do have is this, at the very least, to walk us through the darkness of these times: