Bob Dylan made a career out of being elusive. He continues that pattern today at age 75. He has performed under a half dozen pseudonyms, even the name he owns legally is of his own creation; he originally was Robert Zimmerman. He could write a dozen autobiographies with the number of stories he has told about his past. He has adopted four different music genres. Interviews, when he agrees to participate, are more questions than answers. Corralling him is like nailing Jell-O to a wall.
The way he is treating the Nobel Prize he received for literature in October and its grantors is more of the same. He was silent for weeks, finally thanked them, but refuses to go to the presentation. However, he did send a speech after claiming the honor left him speechless. All typical.
The reason Dylan got the medallion in the first place, quoting the committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” remains a constant.
Doug Dillard, the leader of the Dillards bluegrass band, has commented on Dylan’s singing voice being akin to that of a “blue-tick hound with its leg caught in barbed wire.” He’s not wrong. But, it’s the words, the emotion, and depth of understanding from the poet, not his social graces or operatic tones that got him to this party.
It took Leo Tolstoy nearly 588,000 words and 580 characters to tell “War and Peace”, his epic story of social and political injustice. It took Bob Dylan just six quatrains in three verses to accomplish the very same result.
In his two minute forty-seven second opus, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan broaches war, civil rights, and social injustice. He does so with unanswered questions. What else? He infers that the answers are written on some ephemeral piece of tissue wafting aimlessly in the breeze. Tissue that will eventually tumble to earth, but may look more like trash than truth that, tragically, no one may ever read. Or, possibly just a whisper that requires focused concentration to hear.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” is the song people who do not follow Dylan know best. Most artists have a signature song or work, but rarely is it one from their youth. The vagabond made his way to New York in 1961 and issued an eponymous album in 1962. It was a cache of Woody Guthrie songs plus traditional folkies. It went largely unnoticed selling only about 5,000 copies in the original release. By 1963 he was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and recorded it on his Freewheelin’ album which was the first of mainly self-written tunes. That’s when many of us sat up and took notice.
I’ve had four sightings of the troubadour. The first was in 1964 while he was mired in his folk phase wearing denim jeans, boots, and work shirts. He was sitting on the floor about three rows ahead of my girlfriend and me with his then paramour, Suze Rotolo, during a Peter Paul and Mary concert at Western Michigan University. We were 17, at our first live concert, and we’d never have noticed the pair had the principles of the show not recognized him to the crowd just prior to singing, you guessed it, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. The next was in 1972 at the University of Indiana. He was ensconced in his rock, electric phase by then.
I was drawn to him by his folk style and the message of his lyrics, but I think his best sounds were as a true rocker. His works with The Band are rock and roll gold. The last two encounters were later concerts one indoors and one in a minor league baseball park in Lexington, Kentucky. Both times I was glad to see him, but, in my opinion, he never regained the heights of his rocker days.
He’s a classic–he’s stood the test of time. Proof comes from another of his anthems, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. One verse delivers a news flash to parents “throughout the land… Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” The universality of this statement is illustrated by my 1964 efforts to coax my own parents to get hip to this fact, then, twenty-five years later as a parent, struggling to remember that what “Uncle Bob” had written is still true.
Bob Dylan is only the tenth American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in its 115-year history. The last was Toni Morrison 23 years ago. He joins the ranks with Sinclair Lewis, America’s first winner in 1930, Ernest Hemingway in 1954, and John Steinbeck in 1962. Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Brodsky round out this august list.
It is fair to think Bob Dylan is rude in the way he has treated the honor bestowed upon him. It is also fair to think he is an enigma, aloof, and just plain different. Kris Kristofferson, another American songwriting treasure, who could easily join this list, wrote, not specifically about Dylan, but about artistic people in general, “He’s a walking contradiction, Partly truth and partly fiction.”
Congrats, Bob Dylan. Thanks for putting so much thought and effort into making our lives more interesting.