So Bob Dylan becomes the first musician probably ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We knew he had it in him through seminal works like “Blonde on Blonde,” the 1966 double-LP the Swedish Academy behind the prizes cited as a Dylan starting point. The group compared Dylan’s lyrics on songs like “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — with its puns to getting stoned — or the enigmatic “Visions of Johanna” — “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet?” — to the poetry of Homer and Sappho.
“They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to,” the academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, said of the poets. “They were meant to be performed. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. … He is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”
She could also have included Dylan’s divorce album, “Blood on the Tracks,” and its single, “Tangled Up in Blue,” from 1975 in her praise. Or even some late period works like “Love and Theft,” an eerily prophetic work released on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Your days are numbered, so are mine … Sky full of fire, pain pouring down. … All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime/Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme,” he sang on “Mississippi,” a track recorded in May 2001 that resonated painfully on that 9/11 day.
But what about Paul Simon? Didn’t his “Sound of Silence” blow Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” away?
A case can be made for Joni Mitchell on “A Case of You,” alone.
Good on you, Dylan. But Nobel academy members, might we suggest you also take a listen to the catalogs of these artists next time you surprise the world by picking a musician to win the coveted literary award:
Simon, the writing half of 1960s folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, is the most poetic pop songwriter in history. Period.
His first classic, “The Sound of Silence” in 1964, became a Vietnam-era anthem with its eery, indelible opening lines, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again/Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping/And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains/Within the sound of silence.”
“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” six years later in 1970, bridged the tumultuous decade that had just ended to the nascent one with beauty uncommon to the popular song, “When you’re weary, feeling small …”
And then Simon got really good as a solo act. He plumbed divorce with as much smarts and insight as Dylan had on “Blood on the Tracks” with “Still Crazy After All These Years,” both released in 1975. His musical globetrotting on “Graceland” in 1986 right through this year’s “Stranger to Stranger” has kept pace with his words.
“Ignorance and arrogance, a national debate/Put the fight in Vegas, that’s a billion dollar gate,” he sings on the new “The Werewolf.” Been watching the presidential debates? Simon predicted them on this latest project.
Some called the Canadian songwriter and painter (yes, she drew her own LP covers) the female Dylan. She, like Dylan, emerged seemingly fully formed in the 1960s after knocking about folk clubs in Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, New York and her native Canada.
Her insightful poetry on songs like “Both Sides Now” has grown even more resonant through the marination of time. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now/From up and down, and still somehow/It’s cloud illusions I recall/I really don’t know clouds at all.”
The 1971 “Blue” album is a textbook in the literature of relationships and spoke to a generation of young women who were on the cusp of living the stories Mitchell composed. “I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints/I’m frightened by the devil/And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid,” she sang on its masterpiece, “A Case of You.”
Mitchell has also become one of Dylan’s harshest critics, accusing the bard of plagiarism, so we bet she’d love appearing on a list like this one.
The knock on the visionary Stevie Wonder is that as a lyricist the musician often resorted to simplistic, Hallmark card declarations like those on “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Some deride Wonder, the brilliant tunesmith, as “the black Paul McCartney.”
But awkward lyrics aside, there has never been a more timely pop recording than Wonder’s sprawling 21-track “Songs in the Key of Life” from 1976 — and one could make the argument that his single disc “Innervisions” in 1973 was even more cohesive from a musical standpoint.
Never mind. With songs like “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Black Man,” “Village Ghetto Land” and “I Wish” that touch on race, religion, love, sex, child birth and the history of mankind, “Songs in the Key of Life” is one of the greatest, most forward-looking albums ever made. The album’s themes, some sadly, will never fall out of national discourse. Isn’t that worthy of Nobel consideration?
The Boss borrowed so heavily from Dylan’s playbook as a writer on classics like “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and the character sketches on 1982’s stark folk album, “Nebraska,” that many would rule him out on that point alone. But then you realize that Dylan borrowed from predecessor Woody Guthrie, too, and realize that all artists are influenced by those who came before.
And, from “Born to Run,” lines like, “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream/At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines/Sprung from cages out on Highway 9/ … We gotta get out while we’re young,” are a pretty cinematic look at the evergreen need of the young to escape and make their own mark, better we hope, on a world they hadn’t made.
Springsteen recently released his memoir, “Born to Run.”
The only songwriter to ever win a National Book Award (for her beyond brilliant memoir “Just Kids” in 2010), Smith, who has recently appeared at the Miami Book Fair twice, started out as an actual poet before she released her landmark debut album, “Horses,” in 1975.
Smith’s early music on “Horses” and its 1976 follow-up, “Radio Ethiopia,” combined rock with her free-form, beat poetry-influenced lyrics. By the time of “Easter,” in 1978, Smith had mainstreamed to the point she collaborated with Springsteen on her sole Top 40 hit, “Because the Night.” But her lyrics never dumbed down.
And, again, that well-deserved National Book Award…
The Canadian Dylan. Hey, wait, isn’t that Joni Mitchell?
There’s room for two. Maybe three if you want to throw in Gordon Lightfoot.
But only Cohen is still going strong as a literary lyricist and songwriter, like Paul Simon at 75, in his twilight years. (Cohen’s 82.)
Fans still hang on poetry sewn into Cohen’s early standards like “Bird on a Wire” from 1969: “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free./Like a worm on a hook, like a knight from some old fashioned book/I have saved all my ribbons for thee.”
The Nobel academy’s Danius compared Dylan’s lyrics to the poetry of Homer and Sappho. Swap in Cohen’s and she might be similarly impressed.
If you go
What: Bob Dylan in concert
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 23
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Tickets: $63.75–$129.75, with $153.75 Latam Airlines Club Level, and $230, $320 and $450 VIP packages
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