When news broke on Thursday that this year’s Nobel Prize For Literature was being given to Bob Dylan a few thoughts went through my head. My utter delight was tempered by wondering how on earth it hadn't happened before. Then I heard that people gasped when Dylan’s name was announced and I gasped that people might have gasped.
When it comes to literature in the Twentieth Century there are very few that can compete with Bob Dylan’s brilliance and more importantly his influence. The Swedish Academy announcing the award said he was “probably the greatest living poet”.
The gaspers were where most of my emotions were channeled. This was a vindication. It was a smashing of a 50 year snobbery towards rock music. This wasn’t a prejudice that was only suffered by great artists like Dylan but by those of us who were not only fans but artistic critics and commentators.
Over the past 50 years Bob Dylan has had more books written about him than perhaps any other artist. Most of the heavy hitting rock writers like Greil Marcus, Clinton Heylin and Paul Williams have had their say. Even beyond that the Professors have written their thesis. Michael Gray was the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, and published the first critical study of Dylan's work, Song & Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan as early as 1972 with updates since.
Christopher Ricks is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and has been Professor OF Poetry at the University of Oxford. His fascinating tome was Dylan's Visions of Sin.
Even with these serious academic studies of Dylan and other rock artists, rock has been treated like some shoddy art form. I have found over thirty five years of quoting rock songs own sermons a turning up of the “cultured” nose.
Personally, there have been many situations when I have used quotes without citing the reference. Should it be a poet, playwright or unknown avant grade German the name brings weight and kudos. It is an advantage to name those. Dylan, Morrison or U2 would just get dismissed. Well, all you gaspers, get with the programme. Rock music is a serious art discipline in the imagination of its practice and in its profundity of it impact.
The ignorance of Dylan’s art form was also revealed in how BBC Radio 4 started getting ‘voices” reading Dylan’s work as poetry the afternoon after the announcement. Writer Steve Turner rightfully aghast at such stupidity,. Dylan’s poetry has a musical rhythm and playfulness with rhyme that cannot be mined with a reading. It’s never on the page. Indeed it renews and refreshes with every performance; rhythms shifting, words reshaped. As my friend Barry Bynum put it on Facebook, it would be stupid of him with his Texan drawl to attempt reading Rabbie Burns!
The gaspers need to take a breath. This has been coming down the line for half a century. Many of those now handling the poetry are also handling guitars, pianos and harmonicas. Rock music is no longer about long haired youths trying to pull a girl. When Dylan’s literary wordiness crossed a bridge around 1965 to meet the melodies of the popped up Beatles heading the other way a whole new literary genre was born. It would in turn birth Cohen, Morrison, Waits, Mitchell, Browne and Springsteen among many others.
The gasps are way over due but for some of us they are a vindication of what we knew. The snobbery has been outed. I can quote a Bob Dylan on Sunday morning and cite his name!