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When something unexpected happens in the art world, critics have to catch up. They naturally turn to old methods, the very thing a new event calls into question. So when Bob Dylan was awarded 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature, commentators predictably said more about themselves and their assumptions than about Dylan and the Nobel. Those invested in taste cultures either applauded the choice as populist or dismissed it as slumming; the generationally minded used it as a pretext to celebrate or condemn the counterculture of the sixties; the vulgarly political found a European statement against Trump’s America or the reverse, an epitome of Trump’s anti-intellectual chauvinism. And most everyone assumed that a Nobel Prize bestows something worth fighting over in the first place, something both Dylan’s nonchalance toward the award and modern writing on prize culture will cause you to seriously question.

But beyond op-ed polemics, it is undeniable that his music, lyrics, and performances have expanded our concept of the literary beyond the book, his music reanimating oral culture’s bardic tradition. His four most important roles have been as a dramatizer of contemporary history, a philosopher of liberation, a vernacular researcher of American musics, and an undercover teacher and critic of literary methods. Here they are, briefly dissected.

Historical Dramatist

Dylan’s music dramatizes the collective truth of contemporary history. “A Hard Rain’s A- Gonna Fall” dug beneath the obvious terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis to find the shards of hope and beauty of lives lived under the sign of destruction. Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975, used confessional narrative to allegorize America’s social fragmentation and its creeping compromises with money and power. His so-called Christian records, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and 1980’s Saved, manifested the need for Truth persisting beneath the surface of such disillusioning times. His best songs archive the feeling of history and put flesh on its most striking contradictions, while lending life and passion to abstract concepts and now distant events. While they fail to account for all possible perspectives and identities, they often articulate collective undercurrents hidden underneath more cramped, individualistic perspectives.

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Thinker of Liberation

Dylan’s central concept has always been freedom, executed through songs that reveal the traps that keep people oppressed and exploited. But the political emphasis of “freedom,” a notoriously vague concept, has varied drastically over the years. At one extreme, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965) undoes the snares of consumer culture, while on the other, “Neighborhood Bully” (1983) preaches Israeli liberation at the expense of Palestinian life. Over the years, Dylan has conceptualized liberation in both leftist and reactionary ways, for both collective and personal ends. If not always far-seeing about the uses of freedom, Dylan has always been an uncanny reader, spotting the danger lurking in even the most benign-looking things. His songs expose the chains holding back true liberation, both personal and political.

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No one has made a stronger case for the creative potential of research than Dylan. As a sort of vernacular folklorist and academic, Dylan has been an avid hunter of sources, techniques, and information since his earliest days in New York. It’s surprising that he became a rock star rather than a professor, and we should be happy he made records rather than dry monographs. His best work functions like a vortex: it concentrates the power of disparate media, primary and secondary sources, to produce a new whole, while leaving the seams visible for those curious about his source material. Beyond simple intertextuality, songs like “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and “Idiot Wind” demonstrate that research can yield something emotionally powerful, that one medium can deputize the techniques and effects of the others to create something radically new.

Literary Model

The idea that Dylan is a protean figure, flitting from identity to identity with the times, was the start and end point of Todd Haynes’s disastrous 2007 biopic, I’m Not There, but it misses the greater continuity beneath the surface changes. Dylan is a lifelong student of lyrical genres, and unlike most of his contemporaries in music or poetry, he is adept at them all: the love ballad, the apocalyptic, the pastoral, the hymn, prayer, and narrative romance. His interest is primarily in how songs work, how they are made, and how they can be bent, played with, experimented upon. It is this self-conscious presentation of method that makes him a teacher, a modeler of literary practice. He’s reworked the dominant literary forms for a contemporary audience. Immersed in Dylan, you are better equipped as a reader of all sorts of poetic language. In his long career, he has road-mapped most of the formal experiments one can perform on the extant genres. In the process he shows listeners how it’s done.

For those still smarting that a great American novelist like Don DeLillo was passed over for Dylan, you can console yourselves by reading DeLillo’s fine 1973 novel, Great Jones Street. It’s about a divisively brilliant, spiritually searching singer-songwriter named Bucky Wunderlick. Disillusioned with modern American life, he records something called the Basement… ahem, Mountain Tapes. It’s almost as good as Blonde on Blonde.

This article appeared in print with the headline “A Nobel Cause”