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.