Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
As justified as the prize is, the award committee’s words are an understatement. In a career that spans 50-plus years, Dylan’s impact has long exceeded popular music, influencing every arena of creative expression, from film to writing to politics.
While it’s impossible—and perhaps ultimately pointless—to distill the essence of the figure behind songs, albums, and prose as different as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” Blood on the Tracks, Slow Train Coming, Time Out of Mind, Chronicles, and Shadows in the Night, I’ll take my chances. Among other things, Dylan incarnates the urge for endless self-discovery that is at the very heart of America’s mythic identity. We are a nation that is always in the act of becoming something different, something new, something at once influenced by the past but free (or struggling to be free) of it. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” he sings in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
More than any popular artist (including writers and filmmakers), Dylan has constantly changed his style, sound, look, and personality over time, not out of some sense of desperate need to stay current or hip but out of a deep urge to explore himself and the world around him. As he sings in “Tangled Up in Blue,” he’s always “still on the road, heading for another joint.” Almost alone among the crew of folk artists he palled around with in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, he didn’t see himself as a rigid guardian of a newly invented orthodoxy that couldn’t or shouldn’t change. Rather, he used folk forms to express himself before moving on to rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, Christianity, Judaism, the pop standards of his youth and teen years, and more.
As he writes at the close of Chronicles, his 2004 memoir that is (to me, anyway) the greatest sustained burst of Beat writing,
The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. It was just too perfect. In a few years’ time a shit storm would be unleashed. Things would begin to burn. Bras, draft cards, American flags, bridges, too—everybody would be dreaming of getting in on. The national psyche would change and in a lot of ways would resemble the Night of the Living Dead. The road out would be treacherous, and I didn’t know where it owuld lead but I followed it anyway. It was a strange world ahead that would unfold, a thunderhead of a world with jagged lightning edges. Many got it wrong and never did get it right. I went straight into it. It was wide open. One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.
That strange world is still unfolding for him and he inspires us on our own explorations.
Below is a snippet of a recent interview Reason conducted with Penn Jillette that ended with a discussion of what the magician finds so inspiring about Dylan, whom he calls the Shakespeare of our time.
If we have anybody who’s Shakespeare in our time, it’s Dylan, and he just speaks to me more and more, and he once said in an interview that the purpose of art was to inspire, and when you see a Dylan show…You would think he’s so good, you know—if you go see a jazz cat who’s so good playing bass, you can leave that show going, “Why even pick up a bass again?” But for some reason—and I’m not the only one that feels this—at the end of the Dylan show, art just seems so good. I want to go write a play, or write a novel. I’ll stay up all night and write a song. And you don’t care that it’s not as good.
The other thing that I love about Dylan is he is a freak, not a cheerleader. When you go see Springsteen, it’s all this inclusive stuff, you know? Don’t we all love girls and cars, and don’t we all have an economic downturn? And don’t we all want justice? And we’re all here, and “Yeah!” and “Whew!” and “Let’s go!” it’s this feeling of comradery. The whole show, everybody’s Bruce Springsteen, and you might want to make comparisons between Springsteen and Dylan, and I think you would be completely wrong because, even if they both have gravely voices and both come from the same traditions, he’s a cheerleader, and that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Dylan just stands there and says, “I am speaking for me. Maybe some of this is true for you to. I don’t know. But I’m digging so deep.” All of his mining, you know, is going towards his heart and deeper into his brain. He makes no attempt, that I can tell, to say, “Oh yeah, this is gonna kill ‘em. This is what they’ll like.”—Penn Jillette
For full interview and video, go here.
Selected Reason coverage of Bob Dylan over the years: