“I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard …”


I’ve never been a Bob Dylan fan. I always thought he got more credit than he deserved early in his career, making his name by stealing and performing other people’s work. (Fans may differ in their assessment of Dylan’s early years.)

His close association with the Baby Boomers – he’s been labeled the spokesman for their generation for as long as he’s been around – leaves a sour taste in my mouth given how readily that already privileged group traded their youthful idealism for selfish comfort and materialism.

Dylan’s own career arc, from leftie-folkie protest singer to corporate shill, licensing his music to the likes of Apple, Pepsi, Google, Kohl’s, Chrysler and other carmakers, and Victoria’s Secret, to name but a handful, perfectly mirrors his generation’s transformation.

And I cannot stand the man’s singing voice.

But … Dylan could write songs. Transcendent songs. That’s why he was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, in recognition of the beauty, power, and artistry behind his lyricism. As the Nobel Committee put it, the prize is “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Yesterday, Dylan’s Nobel Lecture was released. It provides fascinating insight into how he understands his influences and his acceptance of the idea that his lyrics in fact constitute literature after all. It also shows off the poetic expression for which he is rightly honored.

Here’s a bit of it:

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.

But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.

The entire lecture is worth reading. Or better yet, listen to Dylan read it himself.