Bob Dylan remains controversial. The recent announcement that the 75-year-old songwriter will be this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was met with comically smug dismissals on social media: don’t Baby Boomers celebrate themselves enough? Weren’t some of Dylan’s lyrics bad? Doesn’t Dylan write in vulgate? Doesn’t Dylan write in an antiquated idiom? Isn’t Dylan a white man? (Gotta love an entire Weltanschauung predicated upon the ad hominem fallacy.)
There was much pearl-clutching, but most of the confusion seemed to center around whether or not Dylan’s lyrics count as “literature,” a distinction that wouldn’t have made much sense in the West up to and including the Elizabethan era. Putting aside the fact that the label “literature” is more of a qualitative judgment than a formal definition (like drama, prose, poetry, etc.), at the heart of the quasi-controversy is the sense that easy dismissal of Dylan’s work eludes us. To borrow a (Harold) Bloomian description, Dylan’s universe anticipates and contains the criticisms lodged against it. It remains larger than the moment because it confronts and engages tradition.
People continue to struggle to label Dylan. It’s almost as if there’s some gnostic quality whereby if you call him exactly what he is, you’ll understand the true nature of his powers. He’s a celebrity, sure, but he also has more cultural and spiritual heft than merely a celebrity. He’s a songwriter, but so is Kevin Federline. He’s a poet, but most of his words live on the radio, not the page. We struggle to define him, not quite understanding why we call him the things we do, why our vocabulary fails, or why, as Leonard Cohen put it, awarding him the Nobel Prize seems like “pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.” It’s a testament to our impoverished relationship with tradition—as Eliot and Pound understood it—that we can’t really say what Dylan is.
That’s because of what Dylan does. He’s a man outside of time, a medium channeling characters and stories that are thousands of years old, reanimating them with the spirit of his living breath. Not a popular pastime in the age of the eternal now.
It should be obvious through context that what I mean by “tradition” is exactly what Eliot meant by it: a conscious sense of how the past inevitably shapes the present and an awareness of the timeless coexisting with the temporal. Dylan channeled tradition by inhabiting different personas, both on the stage and in his songs. He’s notorious for his phases, which I think of as a unique way of subsuming the individual self to tradition. The hardscrabble young folkie, the Dadaist poet scrambling his senses, and the itinerant face-painted gypsy are all well-established characters that Dylan played in his own life, each representative of different aspects of larger and deeper traditions themselves. One of the most recognizable traditions that Dylan works within is what critic Greil Marcus called the “old weird America,” a “playground for God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes.” It’s the secret history of America’s back roads, river boats, and windswept alleys, populated by distinctly American characters. Dylan didn’t create this “invisible republic” himself, but he channels it and inflects it with his own idiosyncrasies when he sings:
There’s a woman by the river
With some fine young handsome man
He’s dressed up like a squire
Bootlegged whiskey in his hand
There’s a chain gang on the highway
I can hear them rebels yell
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
I’m old Tom Moore from the bummer’s shore in the good old golden days
They call me a bummer and a gin sot too, but what cares I for praise?
I wander around from town to town just like a roving sign
And all the people say, “There goes Tom Moore, in the days of ’49”
In the days of old, in the days of gold
How oft’times I repine for the days of old
When we dug up the gold, in the days of ’49
The first lyrics were written by Dylan himself, but the second are from “Days of 49,” a traditional song Dylan found through Alan Lomax and rearranged to suit himself. He played and recorded a lot of traditional tunes, which is as literal an enactment of Eliot’s context-predicated style of resourcement as you can find. The line “when we dug up the gold” might be banal in the mouth of another singer or the mind of another poet, but Dylan’s larger project of returning the American myth to America shines a kinder, more interesting light on it. The boom-bust cycle of American prosperity is turned into a profound myth of American loss and nostalgia.
If you close your eyes and put your finger down on any line of Dylan’s lyrics, you’re most likely to come across the old, weird America Dylan. But there’s another, much older tradition that Dylan is drawn to. Artur Rosman, who considers Dylan a theological influence, points to his deep engagement with Western spirituality as a major factor in becoming a fan. “I first ‘got’ Bob Dylan,” Rosman writes, “during an extended 2001 study abroad in Rome while reading through all the theology I could get my hands on and dealing with a death in the family. The echoes of Psalm 23 in Time Out of Mind’s ‘Tryin’ to Get to Heaven’ were what I needed to redeem the time”:
The air is getting hotter
There’s a rumbling in the skies
I’ve been wading through the high muddy water
With the heat rising in my eyes
Every day your memory grows dimmer
It doesn’t haunt me like it did before
I’ve been walking through the middle of nowhere
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
When I was in Missouri
They would not let me be
I had to leave there in a hurry
I only saw what they let me see
You broke a heart that loved you
Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore
I’ve been walking that lonesome valley
Trying to get to heaven before they close the door
To get a handle on what Dylan actually does, we have to understand the various traditions and histories that constitute the reality he recreates. And if Dylan is what Dylan does, then Dylan is a troubadour. Press interviews are a notoriously bad method for understanding Dylan, but he has called himself a troubadour. The word itself is an odd thing, a specter from the distant past that might spook the vapid (would they prefer the more accurate/arcane term jongleur?), but it’s accurate. As Ezra Pound wrote in his early book The Spirit of Romance, the main function of the troubadours was to simultaneously preserve and recreate traditional wisdom from motley sources. Fermenting in a melange of Christian, pagan, Islamic, and secular traditions, the troubadours combined them all in structured lyric meant to be heard in the common tongue. These are love songs mostly—colored by deep mystical insight—but they’re also political satires, intellectual appreciations of the pastoral, and occasional insults. Pound counts the troubadour Arnaut Daniel as among the strongest in the tradition:
I never held it but it holds me
All the time in its bail, Love,
And makes me glad in anger, fool in wisdom
As one who never can fight back,
Because one who loves well cannot defend himself.
’Cause love commands
That men serve and soothe it:
For which I expect,
A good reward,
Whenever it is granted
The complexity of these love songs, neither simple nor sweet, is exactly the attitude Dylan strikes in his own. Love itself means many things at once, and you can never be sure if the woman he’s singing to is a lover or goddess or both.
Leonard Cohen is right; the Nobel needs Dylan more than Dylan needs another medal. But if this win is an affirmation of Dylan’s power, then it’s also a celebration of Eliot’s definition of tradition: “It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour … the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” Dylan’s news will stay news.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.