ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Is Dylan Literature?

The unilluminating debate around Dylan’s songs and the Nobel for literature is put to rest.

Bob Dylan’s banquet speech was read out by the United States ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji, at the Nobel banquet on 10 December 2016. In his characteristic manner, Dylan has addressed the questions that have been raised by others about his winning the most coveted prize in literature. With gentle honesty, Dylan articulated his own views on being awarded the Nobel, raising new questions for all those critics, readers and listeners who have freely judged him since October 2016. Spencer Kornhaber in the Atlantic has quite aptly called Dylan’s speech “subversively humble.”

Since the time he was declared a Nobel laureate, Dylan’s work has been hotly debated by the literary class, by fans, by critics, and by self-proclaimed experts on what constitutes good or bad singing, good or mediocre lyrics, and how we should make a difference between songwriting and literature. This debate kept on, despite, and sometimes disregarding, the Nobel Prize citation that equated Dylan’s work in the Bardic tradition. Very few voices from the literary world, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Teju Cole apart, welcomed the announcement. Many names and many reasons were made against the rationale behind and judgment awarding Dylan the highest prize for literature. Even among songwriters, some argued that the late Leonard Cohen to Silvio Rodriguez were more worthy of the distinction. All this revealed a profound degree of shallowness regarding the experience of hearing Dylan. Dylan was the most famous white singer of his generation who took centre stage, singing about history’s most marginalised people. His songs captured the coldness of the American landscape and heart. If his love songs were despairing, his songs on racism were poignant and sharp. When a part of America was dreaming about and preparing for the future, Dylan was on Brechtian mode, singing of his dark times. Dylan saw the lack of justice around him and sang his quarrels and his despair. His voice was as jagged as his poetry, and sometimes you could hear him drag the words the way certain rough experiences of life and of the world enter our very mode of expression. You find this shake-and-drag movement in “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” where the singing is close to reading a text while walking through a hallucinatory road of dark clarities. In Dylan, it is impossible to dissociate the quirky inflections of the singer from the song. But these weren’t the talking points in thedebates around him.

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Updated On : 13th Jan, 2017

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