There will be music in the cafes at night. And revolution in the air. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016. For the very first time (since 1901) has ‘poetry, singing-songwriting’ made it to the award-winning genres. All one can say is high time, high bloody time. Poetry has figured often in the last century of Nobel winners, and Dylan will now join the ranks of Rabindranath Tagore, Herman Hesse, TS Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney. By awarding Dylan for ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,’ the Swedish Academy has embraced the oeuvre of the song itself.
After all, what is a song but verse in melody, a stanza accompanied by an orchestra and a poem brought to life itself? A song as a literary device is unique as it is both deeply private and public. It is like a book as it can be savoured in solitude, but unlike a book it is also the stuff and substance of stadiums. It is both words on a page and a performance on stage. In 2014, the publishers Simon and Schuster brought out a 980-page book of Dylan’s work titled Lyrics: Since 1962, which was testimony to his skills as a poet.
Of course, it is just a matter of time before the naysayers descend, screeching that greater singers and songwriters have lived and died. Musicians and fans will surely turn their noses up and say they have never needed the stamp of approval from foundations or organizations, presidents or men in suits. They only need to hear the thrum of musical instruments and the roar of fans. But that is another matter altogether. Today we must simply celebrate the fact that songwriting has made it to the hall of literature.
And Dylan’s lyrics are well worthy of that recognition. His career has seen the peaks of the 60s, when he was recognized for the first time and hailed for his ‘nasal’ ‘as if sandpaper could sing’ voice, which was both ‘dramatic’ and ‘electrifying’. In the early ‘70s, when he went first electric, his early mentors like Joan Baez couldn’t believe their ears and his fans jeered ‘Judas’. But over the last 50 years Dylan has remained relevant, an achievement that very few artists can lay claim to.
With this award, the Academy recognizes that the 75-year-old has so often provided the soundtrack to our lives. Not just in America, but here in India too. Dylan’s words have stirred up revolt and love in equal measure. Everyone has a favourite Dylan song and that is what makes him special. His words from Forever Young (1973) are the leitmotif of birthday greetings. Blowing in the Wind (1963) is a protest song that has leaped times and eras, countries and causes. How many women have wept into the darkness as he has gently crooned, ‘Go lightly from the ledge, babe /Go lightly on the ground / I'm not the one you want, babe / I will only let you down’? How many lovers have walked into the sunset as It Aint Me Babe (1964) has played into their headphones?
Dylan does not need the recognition of the Swedish Academy. But the Academy has reminded us what we have known all along—he sings our stories, he tells our lives.