Blowin’ in the Wind
April 16, 1962. It took Bob Dylan 10 minutes to write “Blowin’ in the Wind.” And it changed the world forever.
Dylan sat in the Commons, a coffee shop in the heart of Greenwich Village. The Village at this time was the heart and soul of New York City, especially when it came to New York’s literary, intellectual, and musical life.
Inspiration came to Bob Dylan in short, electric bursts. It could happen to him anywhere. While riding on the New York City subway, wheels screeching against the dirty metal tracks, rats scurrying below. It could happen while out enjoying the bitter winter chill in Chelsea, making snow prints alongside a friend or lover.
Or it could happen over coffee at the Commons. And this time it did.
At the time, Dylan was enjoying a hot caffeinated beverage with his friend and fellow musician David Blue. It was a Monday afternoon. An acoustic guitar was lying at Dylan’s feet; steam arose out of a freshly refilled coffee cup. The gentlemen had been at the Commons for hours.
The clock struck five o’clock. And the flash of inspiration hit like lightning. As if magically raised to his fingertips, the guitar now rested in Dylan’s hands as he gently strummed a chord progression that he was tinkering with. Lyrics began to flow from Dylan’s mind like a stream cascading down alongside a forest path.
Right at that moment, a song was being born.
A Song of Protest
August 28, 1963. A sea of over 200,000 Americans stood in Washington D.C. on a sultry, summer day. Black Americans were struggling in America. A people torn apart by segregation, Black Americans were besieged by racial discrimination. Proposed Civil Rights legislation existed in theory but was stalled out in Congress. And on this day, Civil Rights Icon Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most important speeches in American history. Maybe in world history.
On that same day, at that same place, Peter, Paul and Mary sang a song while standing on the steps of the hallowed Lincoln Memorial. The song was written by Bob Dylan and would become one of the all-time great socio-political anthems. This was the same song that Dylan had created in a ten minute burst of creative energy on April 16, 1962 in the heart of Greenwich Village. The song was “Blowin in the Wind.”
The song was a message of frustration. A message of anger. It contained a message of hope. And although it was written by a precocious young white man from the American midwest, it confessed the soul of Black America.
Over time, the song has remained one of the great influential works of popular music. And over that same span of time, Bob Dylan has become one of the greatest legends of music history.
What Is Literature?
On October 13, 2016, Anna North wrote in the New York Times, “Bob Dylan does not deserve the Novel Prize in literature.”
That’s not to say she thinks he’s not a great musician. She believes he deserves many honors. The Grammy Awards. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. And she writes, “He is a wonderful musician, a world-class songwriter and an enormously influential figure in American culture.”
So why does North think that Dylan doesn’t deserve what is perhaps humanity’s top honor in artistic merit? Because, “by awarding the prize to him, the Nobel committee is choosing not to award it to a writer.”
Few would dispute that Bob Dylan is one of the master lyricists of world history. Ever since I was old enough to know who Bob Dylan was, I was aware that people considered him more than just a songwriter. He was a poet; a master poet. A poet like T.S. Eliot, or like Ezra Pound, or like Emily Dickinson.
If this is the case, then, isn’t Dylan without question a writer? Poetry, after all, is generally considered literature.
But what, after all is, literature?
Famous literary critique Terry Eagleton has raised the question of defining what literature is, a question that intellectual history from Ancient Greeks like Aristotle to 20th century French Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre has struggled with. Eagleton rules out certain definitions that are implausible. It can’t just be fiction, for example, because there are great works of non-fiction that have often been categorized as literature – the works of Sigmund Freud or the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for example.
Another, more promising definition of literature discussed by Eagleton defines literature as “highly valued writing.” Not highly valued by individual people like you or me, but highly valued by social groups: cultures, nations, and the world at large, even.
Why Bob Dylan Deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature
If Bob Dylan’s work, specifically his lyrics, aren’t highly valued writing, I don’t know what is. And because Bob Dylan’s writing is some of the most highly valued of the 20th century, he unquestionably deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Bob Dylan, on the strength of his literature, was included in Time Magazine‘s 100 most important people of the 20th century.
Not musicians. People. Let that sink in.
The same list that includes Albert Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, and Sigmund Freud. We’re talking about events like the Theory of Relativity, peaceful revolution, The New Deal, the “We Shall Never Surrender” speech, the automobile, and the sub-conscious mind. These are ideas and events that changed the world.
Bob Dylan didn’t just change music. Bob Dylan changed the world.
But – he didn’t even have to in order to deserve this prestigious honor. He didn’t win the “Change the World” award. He won the Nobel Prize in literature. And Bob Dylan changed literature.
He turned popular song into legitimate high literature. He exemplified the connection that two distinct forms of art – literature – can have with one another. He transformed what people thought was both possible and permissible in poetry.
Incidentally, at the same time he also changed rock and roll forever. In fact, Bob Dylan did more to convert “rock and roll” into “classic rock” than any other artist in music.
There was good rock and roll before Bob Dylan showed up. There was The Beatles, for instance. But let’s look at a sample of lyrics by The Beatles before and after they discovered Bob Dylan.
Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
So please, love me do
Whoa, love me do
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
What happened in those few years to The Beatles between “Love Me Do” and “Tomorrow Never Knows?” I’ll tell you what happened.
Bob Dylan happened.
The Beatles discovered Bob Dylan. And with Dylan, they discovered the intrinsic possibilities of rock and roll music to change the world, and just as importantly, to stir the depths of the human soul.
All because of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. His literature.
What could be more highly thought of than that?
– Brian M. Reiser,