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Nobel for Bob Dylan furthers popular vs literary argument

The awards committee never fails to surprise, at least in some categories, and this year the most eye-catching one was Bob Dylan

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Cometh with the autumn cometh with the guessing game of who will be awarded a Nobel Prize. The awards committee never fails to surprise, at least in some categories, and this year the most eye-catching one was American songwriter and singer Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was a very popular decision by many around the world, though not among some literary critics that turn up their noses at Dylan’s work as poetry. Snobbery among the chattering classes dictates that poetry should not be associated with popular culture, which is consumed by the masses. It should be by definition exclusive and less accessible.

Adonis in the race

Prior to the announcement of this year’s winner the rumor mill in some circles in the Middle East suggested that Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, better known by his pseudonym Adonis, had a very good chance of winning. He has been regarded for years as a favored choice by many critics and alleged insiders.

At eighty-six, he may need to wait another year, but his socio-political poetry shares much in common with Dylan, especially as he has spent decades challenging the oppressive character of political power.

From humble beginnings in the Midwest state of Minnesota, born during the Second World War, Bob Dylan’s work reflects his generation; he became one of the most influential artists of his contemporaries. He released his first album in 1961, when President Kennedy just entered the White House, and yet his ability to continuously evolve over five and half decades as an artist, a thinker and a social activist, has been quite astonishing.

Dylan’s latest accolade highlights the tremendous value of his collection of poetry, as a reflection of American history, society, values and flaws from his unique critical point of view

Yossi Mekelberg

The Swedish Academy that was criticized by the “purists” for awarding the prize to Dylan, should instead be praised for breaking with convention. As it correctly stated, Dylan, enigmatic and at times divisive, “… created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan’s music has had an impact well beyond the United States’ borders, even if it was American by nature.

A member of the Academy responded to a question about whether awarding the prize to Dylan reflected a broadening of the definition of poetry by referring to one of Dylan’s best known lyrics, “The times they are a-changing, perhaps.”

Dylan is no stranger to either controversy or being honored, though the latter came later in life. Winning 10 Grammy awards, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, in addition to being introduced to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by President Obama, are a reflection of his rise from a protest folk singer to a national and international icon.

From protest to lament

Nevertheless, Dylan’s latest accolade highlights the tremendous value of his collection of poetry, as a reflection of American history, society, values and flaws from his unique critical point of view. Awarding him the Nobel Prize is bound to turn attention to the relevance of his writings, even to those that were written decades ago. Many of his songs protest and some may lament, the state of the American society.

The themes of his songs, such as the discrimination of African Americans, the futility of military intervention abroad, miscarriages of justice, or the maltreatment of women in society, are still extremely relevant today. His immortal words in ‘Times are a-Changin’, chastize the detachment of the political establishment and its obliviousness to the feelings of the American people; a song that could have been written today in relation to the 2016 elections: “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’, It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, For the times are a-changing.”

In a similar vein “Oxford Town”, tells of the tribulations of a black student James Meredith, enrolling at the University of Mississipi. The treatment of minorities in the United States has improved, however, deprivation and neglect, as expressed in Dylan’s writings, still prevail in many parts of the country. Some of the bigotted expressions against minorities in this year’s elections, brought to the surface that the equality of minorities and women is far from being a resolved issue, though those are phenomena which are not exclusive to the United States.

His “Hurricane” ballad became a seminal expression of the miscarriage of justice, incarcerating Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a black champion boxer, for a triple murder he did not commit:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world….
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street
‘Less you wanna draw the heat.

Still today many prisoners can identify with these words, as their freedom has been taken from them, serving long sentences in jails for crimes they have not committed.

And as the US ponders its next move in Syria, while licking its wounds from the ordeals in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Blowin in the Wind”, is a reminder that any military intervention if not a last resort and not done in a proportionate manner, might blow up in everyone’s face.

Bob Dylan is still performing quite intensively, and has a very devout hard core of supporters, many of whom have followed him throughout his career, including through the evolution of his music and thinking.

Becoming a Nobel Prize Literature laureate may attract a younger generation to his work and its relevance to them. It may well also encourage young musicians to follow in his footsteps and write verses that their audience can identify with and which resonate with the world they live in.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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