There is no one more deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature than Bob Dylan. He is our greatest living poetic voice, the Bard of the Age, our rock and roll Shakespeare. There may be those in certain circles that would sneer at the very notion of a popular songwriter being equated with the elevated realms of literature but no individual has had a greater impact on lyrical language in our times than Dylan.
Just as Shakespeare worked his magic in the low culture, working man’s crucible of Elizabethan theatre, creating eternal art from the most populist entertainment form of the day, Dylan’s chosen forum of expression has been arguably the most ubiquitous, dynamic, world shaking, inescapable popular entertainment form of our own turbulent Elizabethan age.
We may be divided on the differing merits of the greatest films, TV shows, books plays and poems of our times, but just about everyone on the planet can sing Blowin’ In The Wind and nobody would call it anything less than a work of genius.
Dylan was 20 years old when he wrote that song. He’s 75 now and still producing work than can send fans into ecstasy, critics into raptures and his peers back to the drawing board.
The Nobel committee say they are honouring Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" but he did way more than that. Dylan utterly exploded the form, enabling the simple song to become a vehicle for every shade and nuance of human thought and expression, unleashing incredible forces of creativity on this ancient, sturdy folk medium - and did it with a flowing, electrifying wordsmithery and innate, almost mystical wisdom that has created a body of mindblowing work that will resonate for centuries to come.
As a supernaturally gifted youngster, he brought into folk music a poetic license that married the romantic flourish of Shelley and Yeats, the cryptic intelligence of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, the beatnik exuberance of Ginsberg and Kerouac and the Old Testament weight of the St James Bible crossed with the hardboiled, deadpan American wit of pulp fiction. Then he took that all into rock and roll, the most brash and exciting electric sound of the post-War generation, and no part of popular culture was left untouched by his influence.
That old saw about whether or not Dylan can be considered a poet is moot and ridiculous. He is the greatest individual lyrical songsmith the world has ever seen (there is no question of that. If you really have any doubt, just ask any other great lyrical songwriter). And in his collision of rhyming phrases with melody and rhythm, he elevated the pop song as high as any other form of human expression. He made it art, and, in Dylan’s case, it has been a very literary form of art.
Dylan doesn’t have one style of writing. Classic songs such as Blowin' In The Wind, Hard Rain, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Every Grain of Sand sound like they have existed forever, passed down the folk tradition from hand to hand over generations, not knocked out in explosions of creativity by a lone musician tuned into the ether.
There are songs of narrative and reportage that paint epic cinematic pictures, like Hurricane and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and songs so intensely personal it is like peering into someone’s soul, Visions of Johanna, Most of the Time, all of Blood On The Tracks.
There are abstract, joyous explosions of language like Subterranean Homesick Blues and simple songs of bottomless depth, like Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right. There are protest songs that burn with enduring rage (Masters of War, With God on His Side) and great mystical screeds (The Gates of Eden, Desolation Row, Jokerman) that you can pore over forever, puzzling out their cryptic secrets.
There are gospel songs, country songs, blues songs, comedy songs, and songs that simply have no other parallel in popular music, the epic Like A Rolling Stone, the sinisterly discombobulating Ballad of a Thin Man.
It is a lifetime’s work you could spend a lifetime exploring. Dylan’s last album of original songs, 2012’s Tempest, is a quite extraordinary, mythmaking fire-and-brimstone rumination on apocalyptic times that stands with his best work.
His gift is, frankly, mysterious and magical. I have spoken with many songwriters and musicians who have worked with or around Dylan, and all report an incredible facility for just summoning up verses from mid-air, opening his mouth and singing poetry. Comparing notes, Leonard Cohen famously told Dylan about how his classic Hallelujah took him 15 years to write, then asked how long it took Dylan to write the philosophically complex, self-questioning I & I? “Oh, about fifteen minutes,” said Dylan.
Given such casual working methods, it is no surprise that not every Dylan song is a classic. And now we can surely expect snide objectors to commence quoting the Nobel prize winner’s most throwaway ditties (“If dogs run free then why not we?”), notwithstanding that the joy of pop simplicity often pulls a sneaky veil over interior profundity.
But the complete canon of Dylan’s work is unmatched in popular song and his influence on other great and influential writers is unparalleled. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones heard Bob Dylan and it changed them forever; all-time great singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon all looked up to him; so do such new generation stars as Marcus Mumford, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift andAdele. You can even hear his cadences in hip hop, where he is the most venerated veteran white songwriter, name-checked by everyone from Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar.
There isn’t a leading songwriter alive who wouldn’t kneel at the feet of the master. Novelists, poets and film-makers regularly exalt him, because his work has such a vast reach in such an insidiously inescapable form that it has touched the whole world.
The best of his work will resonate long after he himself has faded from memory. Surely it is right to honour its creator while he is still around to appreciate it?