Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize May Be a Challenge to the United States of Trump

Even though Dylan's prize was a surprise and a bit controversial, it seems the Swedish Academy deserves thanks for its willingness to blur - even if only for one year - the lines separating 'high' and 'low' art.

Bob Dylan.
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski

The Swedish Academy's decision to award this year's Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, the first musician to ever win the prize, immediately stirred emotional and conflicting responses - and this certainly achieved the Academy's goal. 

Dylan, even if his most glorious days are well behind him, is a much better known international personality than other previous winners, including last year's winner, who many have probably already forgotten her name (Svetlana Alexievich). 

There is something unnatural about the choice of Dylan. He won the prize as a poet, even though most of the power of his songs lies in the way he sang them (and to a lesser extent, their power is also felt when other singers perform them).

He did not win the Nobel because of the sole novel he published in 1971, "Tarantula," which did not win a lot of praise at the time. And what was supposed to be the first volume of his autobiography, "Chronicles: Volume One," which was released over 10 years ago, may describe with great charm the way Dylan creates his art and the beginning of his rise to greatness, but it is doubtful this could be considered great literature either.

One can assume the main reason for his winning, alongside the wonderful public relations the ceremony will receive in December, is different. It lies in the way Dylan redefined the way in which popular songs are written. And in this context we can at the very least divide rock music into before and after Dylan. His influence on everyone who heard him, from the early 1960s, was incredible. It is enough just to see how Lennon and McCartney's songwriting changed not long after their first meeting with him.

Even though Dylan's prize was a surprise and even a bit controversial, it seems the Swedish Academy deserves thanks for its willingness to blur - even if only for one year - the lines separating "high" and "low" art. In any case this is a forced differentiation, anachronistic, that Dylan and the Beatles did a great deal to erase over 50 years ago. I doubt whether any of the young consumers of culture is still aware of it. One can admire the works of previous prize winners, such as Albert Camus and Shai Agnon, alongside Dylan's songs. Yet not all of the constraints have been  broken: It seems there is still no danger the Kardashians will win the Nobel next year.

Bob Dylan in a file photo taken on July 4, 1978 in Paris.
Pierre Guillaudm AFP

The prize committee explained its choice of Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." That is the heart of the matter. Dylan, already at a quite early stage, succeeded in taking the old traditions of folk songs and blues and turning them into a new mixture, appropriate for the new times in America.

A few years ago, the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" was released, showing the New York folk scene in the early 60s through the eyes of (an imaginary) and failed singer. In the last scene of the movie, Davis leaves disappointed and defeated from the club where he appeared. The voice heard in the background of the artist who appeared after him is Dylan. The revolution had started.

A few years later, Dylan led a different revolution, when he wedded acoustic folk music to rock and connected it to the loud electric guitars. This step too was received with mixed feelings, an uproar (in a famous performance in Manchester someone from the audience called out to him "Judas," traitor). Throughout these years Dylan polished his writing and presentation. 

In the stream of images and associations in his songs, he often included historic American figure, real and legendary. He succeeded in recreating in them the spirit of what music critic Greil Marcus described as "the old, weird America."  It wasn't always possible to understand what Dylan was saying, even on the tenth reading or listening, but mostly it sounded wonderful.

Over a 55-year career he did have moments where he fell or was stuck. Dylan himself once claimed he did not record a single acceptable album from the early 1970s through the end of the 90s (and in doing so erased - with a wave of his own hand - such masterpieces as  "Blood on the Tracks" and "Before the Flood," his live performance album with The Band.) 

Not all his live performances, in recent years, met the expectations of his fans. Even in Israel many were disappointed by his last appearance here in 2011. But it is hard to argue with the enormous production of his, from the 1960s onwards.

Dylan was described for years as a poet, prophet or even messiah, as the voice of the conscience of his generation. The generations have changed, but he is still here, without showing any real signs of weakening. In recent years he has been busy mostly with recording his own versions, rather eccentric, of the songs which are included in the so-called "Great American Song Book." Old-time hits form the 1920s and 30s which were made famous by such greats as Frank Sinatra and his likes. This too, somehow, comes out interesting. 

Now the great honor given to him by the Swedish Academy joins his bounty of previous awards. He is worthy of this prize, not just because of his historic "Blowin in the Wind,"  which television channels showed so often yesterday because of its hints to the civil rights movement. "Like a Rolling Stone" too (Has a better rock song ever been written?) and so many other songs, that have left their mark on the era.  

Dylan may be the greatest documentarian of the American spirit over the past five and a half decades. It is enough just to remember, for example,  his "Ballad of a Thin Man," from 1965, the song that the founders of the American Black Panthers  played time after time while they were putting together the first edition of the movement's newspaper:  "Because something is happening here, But you don’t know what it is." 

The leaders of the Panthers saw in these words a covert description of racism, but to the same extent they could have described the process  of melt down Donald Trump has gone through over the past two weeks. And maybe, the choice of Dylan was also a sort of defiance against the phenomenon that Trump represents.