How Bob Dylan Rewrote America’s Songbook
You’ll hear chatter about how the Nobel folks went off the rails by giving a songwriter the literature prize, but in fact they’re honoring a truly unique artistic accomplishment.
So how many stories about Bob Dylan winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature do you think will start with a line from a Dylan song and most likely, “The times they are a changin’”? Because you know a lot of people are going to see this as the ultimate example of the establishment finally acknowledging a contrary, rebellious but particularly literary musical firebrand.
The contrariness, of course, is all on the part of the Swedish Academy at this point—giving their award for literature to a songwriter. Fair play to them, though, because few authors can genuinely claim to have affected more people more profoundly with their art than Bob Dylan has, and certainly no living author has so singlehandedly redrawn and redefined the perimeter of the discipline he or she worked in the way Dylan has.
Almost overnight he taught an entire generation of people to expect more of a song—to expect a lot, in fact. More amazing, he’s kept on stretching our expectations for half a century. From him we learned that songs could be not only about broken hearts, they could break your heart, too. He made us see that pop songs could be serious, and should sometimes be taken seriously, because pop songs could be art, too, without ceasing to be fun.
If Dylan had a singular achievement, in fact, it was to utterly rearrange our ideas of songs—to change the way we defined a song—and to make us see how absurd categories are: I’m not sure he ever wrote a protest song that was also a love song, but I’m sure he tried. A single Dylan song—pick almost any one—could protest, it could mock, it could make you laugh, it could even make you think, and do that all at once.
Dylan was the first songwriter I ever knew to write a song where the person inside the song—the person Dylan is giving voice to—is angry and sneering (“You’ve got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend”). And the even greater thing, to my ear at least, was that there was a weird kind of jubilance about the lyric, not like he was happy exactly, but there was joy in the malice. Whoever he was sticking it to, he was digging it. Miraculously, the exhilaration I felt the first time I heard that song is with me every time I hear it now. It never stales. How is that possible?
Late in life, Dylan did something even more profound with his music: He pulled back the curtain a bit and let us see how songs—his kind of song anyway, homemade things, handmade and handed down from one generation to the next—are not so much composed as assimilated. Some lines are borrowed, some are original, but the end result should be something that sounds both familiar and strange all at once, and where, in the ultimate vanishing act, the songwriter vanishes, leaving only the song (and maybe a lingering grin).
This sounds like a strange thing from a man always hailed for his originality and individuality, but with Bob you learned not to assume anything about his next act. Surprise was always his faithful sidekick.
Take “High Water (for Charlie Patton),” which came out in 2001. Since the song is dedicated to the mighty Delta bluesman Charlie Patton and since there’s a Vicksburg reference in one verse and a Clarksdale reference in another, I’ve always assumed that the song is more or less about the 1927 flood that wiped out a lot of Mississippi and Louisiana. But it also mentions Kansas City and characters ranging from the singer Joe Turner to Charles Darwin to lesser lights like Fat Nancy and Bertha Mason, so you’d be safe guessing that this flood is real but also metaphorical and emotional—the kind of cloverleaf cultural intersection that Dylan has staked out as his lyrical turf all his life. But several lines stand out like bones poking through the skin: “Well, the cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies” and a little further down, “I’m getting up in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom.” Neither line is original. They each go so far back in time there’s no way to say who first coined them. The first arises in the English folk tradition, and the second is one of those blues lines that gets shoved into songs as the singer needs them (I think of all blues lyrics as like those refrigerator magnet words that you arrange and rearrange to make poetry or grocery lists).
The message I take from this “quoting” habit Dylan has adopted is that it’s his way of saying, “I inherited this language and I work in this tradition, and I’m using it all as best I can and passing it down, and similarly, if I’ve built well, someday someone will borrow what they need from me.” It’s his way of acknowledging that art is a river that we drink from but do not own and that curation is both trust and obligation.
Most interesting to me is that by tipping his hand, revealing his sources, baldly appropriating old song lines, by in essence mocking ego and individuality even as he made his songs simultaneously more transparent and more personal, Dylan has achieved a genuine late life greatness. “High Water” is a very mysterious song, but beguiling, so you keep coming back, trying to unriddle it, and getting drunk on the wordplay instead, all the while laughing because it’s deeply, darkly funny (Dylan is the funniest person since Faulkner to win the Nobel Prize for Literature) with lines like “I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind / I’m no pig without a wig, I hope you treat me kind.” The song doesn’t namecheck Edward Lear, but he’s in there somewhere, too.
If you hear anyone start babbling about how Dylan deserved the Nobel because he’s really a poet and not merely a songwriter, slap ’em upside the head for me. Dylan is not a poet. His words don’t do a lot when they’re nailed to a page. Or rather, they do less. But songwriters and poets, while they share superficial similarities, do not do the same thing. Bob Dylan writes songs, and when his words are married to music, that’s plenty—even when the music is minimal: “High Water” rides almost entirely on one chord and never, not once, do you think it sounds monotonous; on the contrary, it’s incantatory, spellbinding, like the wisecracking voice of doom itself: “Things are breaking up out there / High water everywhere.”
For most of his life, he’s been writing and performing songs that redrew the musical landscape. He didn’t just do things that people said couldn’t be done. He did things we didn’t know could be done at all. He fit that hole there never was a hero for.