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Bob Dylan – Protest singer, Pop star, Poet or Prophet?
Announcement that the influential musician would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature resurrected a decades-old debate
Critics argue Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature signals a decline in culture. It’s a slap in the face to those some consider more deserving writers, such as Don Delillo, Philip Roth or A.S. Byatt. The decision by the Swedish Academy was “b---s---” (according to a tweet from writer/critic Reza Aslan).
And these are only some of the multitude of gripes that have been expressed since Dylan was announced winner of the coveted prize.
But people are less inclined to dispute Dylan’s phenomenal impact on music around the world. A scan through Alexander Street’s Music Online: American Music database showcases the diversity of artists who have covered Dylan’s songs, from rock star Jimi Hendrix and jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln to his folk contemporaries like Joan Baez and Maria Maldaur.
Just a couple of years into his half-century-and-counting long career, Dylan’s legend was already firmly established. Entertainingly captured in P.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking 1967 documentary, Don’t Look Twice, Dylan is the epitome of cool, wearing dark shades as he playfully evades questions put to him by journalists or engaging in intense conversations about who “gets it,” as the likes of Allen Ginsberg casually hang out and hip chicks with groovy hair smoke cigarettes in the background.
But even back then, there was controversy about how to classify the artist.
Protest singer? Pop star? Poet? Prophet?
Browsing through ProQuest Historical Newspapers, readers discover an array of divisive opinions going back to the 1960s.
- Even Dylan himself expressed some conflict about his identity. The article “Dylan Is a Writer but Not a Folk Singer,” from The Globe and Mail (February 1, 1964) quotes him as saying that folk music was “a stage of learning about people and things.”
“Folk music,” he said, “gave me a sense of language.” Dylan considered himself a writer, “misunderstood by the masses.”
- A New York Times article “Public Writer No. 1?” (December 12, 1965) included a disparaging reaction from poet W.H. Auden, spawning a series of letters to the editor from Dylan fans and detractors.
One letter from a trio of college students from Bard College (December 26, 1965) said, “Mr. Auden’s comments sadly reflect the cleavage between his generation and ours…We do not necessarily think of Dylan as a literary figure, but we do consider him one of the few voices expressing our ideas and sentiments.”
In the same issue, a letter writer shares results of a poll conducted in a literary newsletter which asked the question, “Is Bob Dylan the greatest poet in the United States today?”
One respondent declared, “My nephew (a drummer and an engaging kid who is only as mad as he needs to be) would agree that Bob Dylan is a poet, but like all Bob Dylan fans I have met, he knows nothing about poetry. And neither does Bob Dylan.”
Another respondent answered, “He has the authentic mark of the bard on him, and I think it’s safe to say that no one, years hence, will be able to understand just what it was like to live in this time without attending to what this astonishingly gifted young man has already achieved.”
An English professor from the University of Vermont responded: “Anyone who calls Dylan ‘the greatest poet in the United States today’ has rocks in his head. That is such an irresponsible statement as to deserve no attention. Since his appeal (apparently) is to irresponsible teenagers, I can’t take him seriously. Dylan is for the birds – and the bird-brained.”
- The New York Times re-examined the topic in a 1968 piece, “Lyrics of Pop Songs are Getting New Emphasis” with the subhead, “Trend Raises the Question: Are the Words Poetry? – Most Critics Say No.”
Exploring the departure of songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen from “the amplified blare of psychedelic rock” with the rise of “so-called pop poets,” this article showcased consultations with various literary academics who conclude “the new stage poetry is doggerel, simplistically banal.”
“The very word ‘poet’ continues to be a burden to many of the young writers,” the journalist claimed. “Bob Dylan jokingly would be rather be called a ‘trapeze artist’ or ‘song and dance man’ than a poet.”
And yet this Times writer didn’t seem entirely convinced that the “pop-poet” trend was without merit. “For all the inadequacies of the poetry-in-song move,” the story concluded, “it must be deemed an important cultural movement.”
There’s a Dissertation for That
In light of these reactions, it would be tempting to think all academics were naysayers when it came to Dylan’s literary contributions, but that’s not the case. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global database abounds with the work of scholars who have been inspired by the protest-singer/pop-star/poet/prophet’s achievements in literature.
Callahan, E. C. (2014). I am America singing: Bob Dylan's identity unified through linguistic performance (Order No. 3617953). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1528550884).
Hetzel, W. M. (2002). Romanticism in sixties rock: Literary traditions in Anglo-American folk and rock lyrics (1963–1977) (Order No. 3055575). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (251683232). nbsp;
Long, T. L. (2002). Take what you need: Musical, cultural, and literary influences on Bob Dylan (Order No. 3042217). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (276606408).
Snow, C. R. (1987). Folksinger and beat poet: The prophetic vision of Bob Dylan (Order No. 8807676). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (303487629).
Williams, L. A. (1996). Songs from the tower: Voice of poetry in popular culture (Order No. MQ65804). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304335042).