From Folk Singer to Nobel Prize Poet

From Folk Singer to Nobel Prize Poet

Bob Dylan has always been a poet–he just added on another talent with his music, his expertise playing the guitar, harmonica and his iconic singing. Also a skilled pianist, he possibly uses that instrument to begin his compositions. But this past week he was honored for being a troubadour, a poet who writes verse and then puts it to music–he was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature.

When considering Dylan’s work it’s hard to separate the music from the lyrics, but Bruce Springsteen captured some of that emphasis in 1988 when he was inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “Dylan was a revolutionary. The way Elvis freed your body, Bob freed your mind.”

Yes. Dylan’s lyrics, his poetry, his story telling–it freed your mind, took it down interesting paths, destroyed boring assumptions so that you were now considering new and different ways of looking at society, at life. Thus the Nobel Prize for Literature. His work has been a ballast for others and his lyrics so much a part of our American lexicon that we might not know that “HEY, that’s a Bob Dylan song.”

In his celebratory piece in the LA TIMES, Randy Lewis traces Dylan’s career, starting with his 1962 debut, “Bob Dylan,” which showed a young artist working in the traditional folk music realm. On that first record he sang versions of folk, country and blues standards such as “House of the Risin’ Sun,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and his own compositions “Pretty Peggy-O” and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”

His work flourished at a time when people gathered and sang folk songs and Bob Dylan could write them, one great one after another.

Blowin’ the Wind, It Ain’t Me Babe, Mr. Tambourine Man, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, Forever Young, I Want You, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Like a Rolling Stone, On the Road Again, Rainy Day Woman, and Shelter from the Storm–to name only a few.

In an interview in 2004 Dylan reflected on his creative process. In reference to “Like a Rolling Stone” he said: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away, it goes away. You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song….”

“I wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk music tradition. You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song.”

But it’s the distillation of these old stories, these old laments and how they join with the chords he has decided to strum on his guitar that makes his song-writing genius.

Robert Hilburn, music critic for the LA TIMES: “Look at all the great writers. When you talk about words having an effect on people around the world for generations — his words make us dream, they inspire us, they comfort us, they exhilarate us…. You could have given him this prize 20 years ago for the cultural revolution he created with just words.” YES!

So enjoy some of Dylan’s lyrics, his literature. I’m sure the melody will pop into your head as you read.

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND, 1962

How many roads must a man walk down, Before you call him a man? Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail, Before she sleeps in the sand? Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly, Before they’re forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’, 1963

Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway, Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled, There’s a battle outside And it is ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin’.

FOREVER YOUNG (played at the beginning of the popular TV show, PARENTHOOD)

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

16 thoughts on “From Folk Singer to Nobel Prize Poet

  1. It seems that the people that need to hear and heed these words don’t take the time to get the real meaning of banning canon balls and standing in the doorway blocking the hall. Great piece Beth!

  2. What a great piece (and trip down memory lane)! I can remember one evening, after way too much wine, having a discussion with a girlfriend who was militantly emphatic that Bob Dylan was a poet, the BEST poet, of our lifetime. The rest of us drunkenly challenged her. With his Nobel award, she is avenged. 🙂

    • Love that story, Roxanne. I remember watching a grainy film about him in Old Town in Chicago and not totally getting were he was going, what he was advocating. I woke up soon after!!

  3. Dylan’s music is so iconic, inventive and so etched into the minds of our generation. I know some novelists are not happy he won a prize for literature but I think he deserves it. He is truly one of a kind.

    • Hi Rebecca,
      I agree. Maybe it’s the times we are living in, the plethora of ideas that drowned out so many good writers, but Dylan’s string of words can hang in the air for hours and gather together sentiments we all feel deeply. THANKS.

  4. This is the best piece I’ve read about Dylan and his Nobel Prize. Thank you so much! Did you know the NYT said he didn’t deserve it? He’s just “an enormously influential figure in American culture.” The “writer” is a Millennial who’s woefully uneducated and jealous. She thinks “real writers,” like herself, should have won it. Brenda

    • Wow, Brenda, you have made my day. Thanks so much. I will hunt up that article by the millennial. Again, it’s always hard for a younger generation to understand the digging and the work that brought them to where they are. Those that go before can mess things up, but also make them better. Dylan was the crier in the night, letting us know we had to get a move on.

  5. Dylan? Of course he is a poet, just read his words……he just happened to put them to music. A major influence on song writers everywhere, including John Lennon and the Beatles. A well deserved award and a fabulous presentation here in BOOMER HIGHWAY.

    Bill

  6. It’s a pity there are some who feel Dylan doesn’t deserve this prize. His music and lyrics have influenced an entire generation and he is one of the greatest living poets. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  7. Such a beautiful article! I remember as a little girl, my mother and I would sit on the floor and she would strum “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the guitar and we would sing our hearts out! Adding an additional expression of artistry, such as putting his poetry to music, only adds to its depth!

    • I agree. And not only did his music spark years of enjoyment for all guitar players and singers, the message stole into our minds and hearts too–never to disappear.

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