Dylan and Defiance

October 17, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 37 5 min read


coverOn the first page of his 2005 memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan recounts his experience signing with Leeds Music Publishing company.  It was 1961 and Dylan had just traveled to New York City from Duluth, Minnesota.  He was twenty.  He’d been written about once or twice in the music section of the Times, and that was enough to convince label executives that he was worth a deal.  While walking around the office with Lou Levy, then the head of Leeds, Dylan bumped past Jack Dempsey, the famous boxer.  Dempsey took a good look at him, sized him up, and said that he’d have to get a lot bigger if he wanted to be a fighter.  Dylan politely told Dempsey that he wasn’t a boxer.  He was a musician.  A folk musician at that.

A few years later, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the now very popular Dylan played a routine acoustic set on Saturday evening.  He played well-loved folk songs for an affectionate folk-loving crowd.  But the next night, Dylan returned to the stage with a fully electric and amplified band — an apparent rock band.  Despite persistent boos and jeers from the crowd, who shouted obscenities and felt betrayed by his newfound electric sound, Dylan played without batting an eye, and he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” with a special bite.

Before the Dylan Electric controversy and his signing with a major label, before Dylan even took up a guitar, there was Woody Guthrie, whose honest, traditional, and dedicated approach to songwriting inspired Dylan.  Alongside “Song to Woody” and a few other early tries, Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind,” his first major hit.  The song became largely identified as a protest song aligned with the civil rights movement; beyond its message, what arrested listeners was Dylan’s voice: it wasn’t cute or polished or even all that pleasant.  It was a bit raspy, sometimes off-key, even wiry.  He didn’t sound like someone who would be on the radio, and yet, there he was, standing in front of the nation, connecting with people on the basis of what he had to say, not how it sounded.

Bob Dylan has a built a career by defying expectations — as a kid who told Jack Dempsey he was a musician, as a folk performer trying to go electric, as a voice on the radio, and now as the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dylan clearly infuses that same sense of defiance into his lyrics.  The difference between listening his words in a song or reading them on a page is marginal.  The power is always there, the inflection always inherent in his short, carefully rhymed (often internally rhymed) verses, his painstaking attention to rhyme and meaning existing on a continuum with hip-hop and slam poetry.  Consider the long but wildly short-tempo “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” with its verse: “A question in your nerves is lit / Yet you know there is no answer fit / To satisfy, insure you not to quit / To keep it in your mind and not forget / That it is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to.”

If Woody Guthrie taught Dylan how to properly structure and perform a song, then the Bible gave him a wealth of phrases, ideas, and philosophies to put to poetic music.  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” of course, is a reference to Ezekiel (12:1-2).  Notice how Dylan changes the exact line — “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Oh mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed.  They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not” — to a simpler, more poignant question: “Yes’n’ how many ears must one man have?”  Dylan’s rephrasing of the line shapes it into its own rebuttal, a small but powerful twist of feeling that he’s mastered.

One of Dylan’s most critically acclaimed albums, Highway 61 Revisited, is rife with Biblical allusions.  In “Tombstone Blues,” Delilah, a temptress from the Book of Judges, appears alongside John the Baptist.  Cain and Abel are included in “Desolation Row,” while the title track “Highway 61 Revisited” opens with the moment when God asks Abraham to sacrifice a son.  The whole concept of Highway 61, the road that stretches through much of the American heartland, rings with similarity to the Red Sea, the body that runs between the heart of North Africa and the Middle East and was significant in the story of Moses, one of Abraham’s descendants.

Taken together, Dylan’s intense interest in Biblical mythology seems to lean toward moments of conflict — a father being asked to kill a son, a temptress clashing with a saint, the feud between Cain and Abel.  The Bible is filled with conflict, but these are intimate, personal conflicts of a different sort.  Defiance arrives not with some sweeping turn of events or by divine intervention, but with the steeling of a person’s heart.  Small victories that win big battles.

Conflict over death, sadness, and human faith were also the favorite themes of Dylan Thomas, the poet from whom Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman) took his name.  Thomas’s poems are often death-obsessed — the poet himself died young at 39.  In “Clown in the Moon,” Thomas writes, “I think, that if I touched the earth, / It would crumble; / It is so sad and beautiful, / So tremulously like a dream.”  The usual mood is there: reflective, honest, melancholy.  In “Oxford Town,” Dylan maps this same mood over a song about racism in a small town.  The last verse in Dylan’s song has an eerily similar feeling to Thomas’s: “Oxford Town in the afternoon / Everybody singing a sorrowful tune / Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon.”  The two poets meet somewhere in the middle — Oxford town in the afternoon, like a dream, haunted by sadness.

Thomas is also renowned for continually resisting the thought of death, best evidenced by poems like “Do Not Go Gentle (Into That Good Night)” and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”  He writes, “Though they may be mad and dead as nails, / Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; / Break in the sun till the sun breaks down, / And death shall have no dominion.”  This simple refusal to let grief and death take control of the beauty in his world was shared by Dylan, who again shaped the feeling into a powerful social outcry in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  “Take the rag away from your face,” Dylan sings hard-nosedly to mourners, “Now ain’t the time for your tears.”

If you take the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, the stories of the Old Testament, the poetry of Dylan Thomas, the styles of folk, rock, and blues, then it’ll add up to something like Bob Dylan’s literary style.  His work is an ideally balanced marriage between content and form, like W. B. Yeats or Tennyson, with an air of social and political challenge.

The Nobel Prize cements Dylan’s legacy as a musician who shaped, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “new poetic expressions in within the great American song tradition.”  He joins the ranks of other American laureates like T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison.  As someone who’s spent his life defying expectations, Dylan probably enjoys being in that company; like all great artists, he knows that he deserves to be there.

Image: Wikipedia

is a graduate of the University of Michigan. His work has appeared in The Millions, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, musicOMH, and Thought Catalog. He can be reached via email at [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@brianburlage).


  1. NOT connecting with people on the basis of what he had to say, not how it sounded

    BUT connecting with people through lyrics rather than sound

    Use nouns instead of “of what” and “how it”?

    So many empty words: on the basis of what. Laughable, sloppy, callow writing.

    You write like people talk on Judge Judy.

  2. @cbaker

    I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    And just for that one moment
    I could be you

    Yes, I wish that for just one time
    You could stand inside my shoes
    You’d know what a drag it is
    To see you

  3. Sigh.

    The one good thing to come of all these “Dylan deserved the Nobel because he’s an awesome musician” essays is that they have made it easy to identify critics and commentators whose opinion is not to be taken seriously. Because if you fail to understand something so fundamental as the difference between music and literature, your literary credibility pretty much shrinks to nil.

  4. @toad – the proper way to put it is to consider lyrics as a subset of poetry, with poetry being considered as literature. Dylan didn’t get prize for his music.

  5. Jack, by that logic poetry is lyrics and Anne Carson should win a Grammy. Can you imagine the uproar from musicians if something that stupid were to happen?

    Literature is meant to be read. Music is meant to be heard. If you believe the artistic experience of reading a poem is the same as listening to a song then again I’m not interested in what you have to say about literature.

    Literature’s influence in America is dying and its death is accelerated by a world renowned prize saying American literature is so irrelevant and unworthy that we will give the Literature Nobel to a famous musician who made some killer records 50 years ago.

  6. Wow! Just head to any lyrics website and read “Desolation Row” or “Gates of Eden” or many other songs by Dylan. The man is a poetic giant, who just happend to be a great songwriter. I’m not saying he’s more deserving than Roth, DeLillo, or Pynchon, I’m just saying that there is merit to the words of Dylan. Lets celebrate his art and not turn this into an argument about the downfall of American literature.

  7. How literalist do you have to be to not see the greatness of Dylan’s WRITING? Categories needn’t be so rigid. ie: Shakespeare might appear in an English class but he will also be studied in a History class. Is it really that hard to understand how someone whose WORDS were as influential as Dylan’s would win an award for writing?

    And for the record, spoken word albums are a category at the Grammies.

    Also, “Literature is meant to be read. Music is meant to be heard” is just flat out wrong. Plays are meant to be seen and heard. Theatre is clearly a form of literature. Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller are writers, much like Bob Dylan.

    Lastly, the prize is not there to celebrate American literacy or to prop up some writer who not many people have heard of or to award money to someone who isn’t already wealthy. It’s to reward excellence and merit. And they’ve done an almost inarguable job choosing this writer who has influenced many forms of literature, including film, poetry, novels, music and non-fiction writing.

  8. Sean

    Love ya dude but why?

    “And they’ve done an almost inarguable job choosing this writer who has influenced many forms of literature, including film, poetry, novels, music and non-fiction writing.”

    Why are people racing to make Dylan out to be something he isn’t? Until a week ago exactly zero people referred to Dylan as a “writer”, for the simple reason that he isn’t one. He’s a musician/singer-songwriter/song-and-dance man.

    I’m honestly interested in why are people so desperate to defend this. Do you want lit to seem cooler? Do you want to come across as hip and progressive and non-rigid? Do you wish writers were as popular as Dylan? Educate me. I don’t get it.

    To strip away the music and voice from Dylan’s ouvre is to strip it of its power. I’m not a huge fan of theater as literature either, for the record, but the difference is that different actors can portray the parts in a play – some better than others, but the essence remains. By your logic Dylan’s WORDS would be just as powerful and influential if fucking Coldplay performed them. Which is a hilarious joke.

    “the prize is not there to celebrate American literacy”

    Absolutely true. The prize is also not there to deliver a fuck-you to American literacy, which the Committee is absolutely doing by saying there is no writer in America worthy of this prize for going on 23 years now. If you don’t think the Swedes are making a political statement with this award (while trying to garner some weird boomer cred) you’re being willfully naive.

    Look, Dylan’s awesome. He’s awesome! One of the greatest musicians who ever lived. He’s my absolute favorite musician. But he produces music, not literature. Doesn’t mean one art form is inherently better. But calling music literature serves to marginalize literature, and if you care about literature this should be troubling.

  9. Toad,

    I’m all for respectful disagreement so here are some thoughts.

    I’d like to hear more about why Dylan’s writings are that different than, say, Pinter’s, another Nobel winner. The best you really did on that front was criticize Coldplay (who have two damn good albums before they became a rather paint-by-number arena rock band) but if you replaced Coldplay with Jimi Hendrix that complicates and mostly invalidates your logic, no? In the case of Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, Dylan’s words grew more powerful and influential. It is this labile, elastic and malleable character that defines Dylan’s output and makes literature in general encompass more than just novels and short stories.

    The verse of Pound in the Cantos is pretty freakin’ musical. Slave narratives, letters (look at Geoff Dyer’s writing on D.H. Lawrence or plenty of other writers whose correspondence is as important as anything that wrote as “intentional literature”) and unauthored texts are also literature, no? I don’t see how keeping the definition of literature open (And it is KEEPING it open, not expanding it) is such a bad thing. Heck, my Norton Critical Edition of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground has in the Responses seciton The Beatles’ song “Nowhere Man” listed right after Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man and Woody Allen’s Notes from the Overfed. Stand-up routines have qualities of both literature and philosophy. Screenplays are part of literature. Paddy Chayevsky is literature, man. Lenny Bruce is literature, so much so that he was taken to court and driven to his death for his words, artfully arranged, in a way that shook the system to its core and influenced not just other comics but authors, filmmakers and anyone who values free speech.

  10. Well, no one can say this has been a boring selection. Perhaps it was good to open debate about what constitutes “literature.” Certainly historically speaking, there have been countless societies with an oral tradition exclusively, since they did not have a written language.

    Despite the arguments back and forth, the lines seem pretty entrenched. I’m not sure how many are going to change positions on this. However, I must say that I think Dylan’s behavior is inexcusable. He is being both rude and disrespectful. If he has decided that he does not want to accept the award he should at least do so politely, just like Sartre did.

  11. Two playwrights recently won Nobel literature prizes in the past decade: Harold Pinter and Dario Fo.
    Well, what is a written play, exactly. It’s a written art form that invites collaboration. While many plays of course can be read for pleasure (Shakespeare!), it’s a form that, as written, expects collaboration–on the part of a three-dimensional set, actors, a director, etc. A play is written not to deliver everything on the page, but invites others to add nuance and perhaps unexpected angles in performance.
    What is songwriting? As a written form, lyrics. But like playwriting, those words are just the beginning. The accompanying music then transforms those words, adds emotional depth, suspense, and drama. And when performed, collaboration kicks in with what types of instruments are used, who is interpreting the song, etc. The best songs invite collaboration. That invitation is built into the expectations of the written form.
    Cheers to the Nobel committee for adding songwriting (and playwriting) to the list of literary genres worth recognizing. Bob Dylan, as arguably the greatest songsmith of the past century, is an inevitable choice.

  12. @Sean

    “I’d like to hear more about why Dylan’s writings are that different than, say, Pinter’s, another Nobel winner.”

    Simple: Pinter’s words don’t require a musical backing in order to work.

    It’s possible that the overall crappiness of contemporary poetry (aka, verticalized conversationally-confessional prose) is contributing to this confusion.

    Just line up Ted Hughes’ “Football at Slack” beside “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the latter starts reading like a greeting card in comparison; I love Bob’s stuff (between ’66 and ’76) but “Blowin in the Wind” is not exactly a marvel of complexity and slow-burning imagery. Like most popular (if not Pop) lyrics, the words of BITW are incantationally-repetitive, designed to be understood and appreciated in one pass, and in less than five minutes, by people who aren’t necessarily extremely bookish.

    Melody, phrasing and arrangement (not to mention great mics, EQ, mixing, et al) are the unsung (npi) component of the song lyrics that people most often love to nominate as stand-alone Lit. They aren’t; if lyrics work in songs, they are necessarily less dense than great Lit. If the lyrics of a song were capable of standing alone, they’d be too dense to work in a (populist) song… which is why, for example, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics for “Marianne” or “Bird on a Wire” are *nearly* Lit on their on… but still look thin next to Anne Sexton’s stuff on the page. On the other hand, this wasn’t true before the 20th century… soon after the advent of which poetry and song had taken structurally divergent paths. As we know, they used to be the same thing. Not these days!

  13. @Mike

    “However, I must say that I think Dylan’s behavior is inexcusable. He is being both rude and disrespectful. If he has decided that he does not want to accept the award he should at least do so politely, just like Sartre did.”

    Let’s hear it for the “rude” and “disrespectful”… too many obedient, agreeable, spinelessly kowtowing little celebrities in Sparta these days.

  14. The argument could go on to the end of time, and yet!. Dylan ( photos of that gorgeous young man with the harmonica taped all over my bedroom walls in the ’70’s), is NOT a writer of literature, poetry, books. My god is the committee of the Nobel prize for literature so poorly read? But like our Steve Augustine says, prizes are of little value. It may appear that even (so far) Dylan could not give a shit.

  15. Sean

    Respectful discourse it is! Re: Hendrix, this is actually a great example in my favor of why music isn’t literature. What makes Hendrix’s version great is his incendiary guitar work and his passionate vocals. The lyrics are basically an afterthought.

    Read the first verse of All Along The Watchtower:

    “There must be some kind of way outta here
    Said the joker to the thief
    There’s too much confusion
    I can’t get no relief”

    If this is poetry, it’s high school AP level poetry. Pretty clunky, particularly the folksy “outta here”. The thief/relief rhyme is blase and feels sort of forced on paper.

    But – add in music (either Dylan’s aching harmonica and simple chords OR Hendrix’s urgent slightly-reverbed electric guitar) and sing the words (Dylan’s chillingly opaque voice OR Hendrix’s soulful plea) and this approaches greatness. Hendrix’s solo still gives me chills after hundreds of listens. The power in this song is the combination of lyrics, musical arrangement, and vocal performance. The sum is greater than the parts. Stripping out 2 of the 3 makes no sense!

    The “danger” in expanding the definition of literature (to include, by your accounting, tv/movie scrips, music, social media posts, standup comedy, talk radio, basically every mode of communication/artistic expression known to man) is that it marginalizes actual literature, the experience of which requires solitude, patience, and critical/creative thinking, and has the potential to explore the human condition in more depth than any other art form (in my opinion of course). To lump this in with every other form of communication cheapens the power of literature.

  16. @steven, oh yeah baby, it sucks to be poor, I still need the money to get to the Ukraine to see my (sadly silent) buddy il’ja, on the way stop in Germany, but first Jersey to stalk Anon. Toad, where the hell do you live? Disclose ya bastard!.. Priskill and MoeMurph, are you game? Criteria is simply this: speak of Dylan and bu-bye. Hah!

  17. Heather, Steve, Toad, et al — Yesss! Count me in. And I would be feeling like a sniffy poo-bah over this Dylan thing but for all your persuasive arguments as to why he’s a great songwriter — period. Brilliant even, no question. But, dang, let’s give lit some props. God know it gets little enough.

    Maybe that it? Music and musicians are in the mainstream already — music has that hypnotic, non-verbal, non-linear thing going on, constantly under-girding even the best lyrics, as Toad points ou.t Poor lit has to succeed on it’s graphology alone. Mere words — so unless Anne Carson gets nominated for the Grammy (hey, poetry is “musical,” right?) gotta agree that Dylan is off his turf.

    I would really love to see Anne Carson at the Grammys.

  18. Hi Heather, I too a brief sabbatical from the Millions comment section but am back. This is a dysfunctional family, but what the heck. My opinions:

    a.) A large portion of the world could care less about Bob Dylan (if they have even heard of him) but are bewildered that, once again, writer Ngugi Wa Thingo’o has been passed over, creating the possibility that, like Chinua Achebe before him, he will pass away without ever getting a call from the Nobel Committee (to ignore or not, at his pleasure);

    b.) Chinua Achebe had more literary genius in his fingernail parings than Bob Dylan has in his whole body. Mr. Achebe and Mr. Thingo’o possess gravitas. Dylan has all the gravitas of a grasshopper stuck in an espresso cup.

    c.) Dylan may be rude, but he is situationally rude. He showed up for the Kennedy Center Awards in his best bib and tucker with his hair neatly combed.

    d.) His voice annoys me. (Strictly subjective opinion)

    e.) @stevenaugustine I call BS. Class is class and a troll is a troll, and I smell troll, not some brave rebel or other such thing.

    Exhibit A: 1963 Tom Paine Award. A few weeks after the JFK assassination, Dylan accepted this award for his civil rights work, then went into meandering speech in which he commented that “he saw something of himself” in Lee Harvey Oswald. After being boo’d off the stage, he followed up by apologizing in an “equally rambling letter” which he signed off to as “respectfully and unrespectfully.”

    What a clown.

  19. You know Murph, there is something about being raised as a woman where it is still drilled into our heads that to disagree and opine is distasteful. Well fuck it. Your statement is on point, interesting, well spoken and we are the better for it. Yes, comment sections can be sour, but at the same time it is a great place for us to engage in some small way with world issues. A very small opening for discussion, but we are the better for it.

  20. @Moe

    “Dylan accepted this award for his civil rights work, then went into meandering speech in which he commented that “he saw something of himself” in Lee Harvey Oswald. After being boo’d off the stage…”

    Sorry, Moe, but you’ve made me like Dylan more! Laugh (though I still A) think it’s ridiculous that he got the Nobel for Lit while I B) still find the Nobel meaningless). I also think he had the most heroic and (asexually) thrilling vocal style in “Western” popular music around the time he cut “Like a Rolling Stone”… though I’m afraid his genius burned very brightly and fairly briefly.

  21. YEAH!!!! I will bring my Twitter character, a former Trump Tweeter/Elvis Impersonator named “Mediocre Apparatchik.” He is a bit language-challenged as he spent most of his American English boot camp sneaking out on smoke breaks. Before his sudden departure, he was tweeting as an 82 year old lady from Dayton named Mildred.

    Assuming he can break out of his undisclosed detention center (he came out in support of Hillaryska) he is UP for a road trip” Over phone line, he told me:

    “YEAH! Rte 66 Baby. Singing Shouty Songs of Elvis we will ride to Las Vegas for much gamblings…avoid the Wayne Newton, OH NO, and head for the Springs of Palm. GO HILLARYSKA!!!

    [Loud thumping sound… phone goes silent)

    @mamurphymaureen “Moe Murph”

  22. @steven augustine I love the fact that it is a “cheesecorn” maker specifically. I imagine some strange receptacle at the top to pour powdered cheese in at just the right moment.

    You probably can order little ampules of cheese product from the same TV commercial guys you buy your “cheesecorn maker” from.

    P.S. Out in Belleville Illinois where my Mom is living (coincidentally the home of Ken Bone) they had a German-style Christmas market and a big thing was bags of popcorn that mixed sweet caramel corn with super-hot Jalepeno/cheddar corn. It was SO good!!!

  23. @Moe

    That sleek, expensive fantasy product was probably inspired by the fact that I haven’t had cheesecorn (tremble) in 20 years… but I imagine it must be powered by an I-Phone app and come in 30 artisanal flavors . I prefer the Gluten-free nutmeg/ chicory.

    PS When first I read “Ken Bone”, in your comment, I assumed you were referring to an up-and-coming exponent of Midwestern Magical Realism… and it turned out that you were!

  24. To Toad, if you want to exclude street language from literature go scrap Kerouac from your list, and Shakespeare for that matter. And try consider how for instance Joyce’s Finnegans Wake works: not on the page, if you do not read it aloud you will never get its multitude of meanings and linguistic connections. Joyce would be the first to point out the importance of sound in literature. Poems like Desolation Row or Ain’t Talkin’ by Dylanare so dense and so captivating that many spend hours writing about their profundity. Sappho’s poems are revered, but they are songs! The written stories would not exist without the first tradition: singing about what mattered. To narrow down literature to novels and abstract poetry without rhyme or rhythm, as is done by a many modernists is exactly what is killing literature now. Dylan’s words go further then just personal or romantic thoughts, they go to the core of what this human world confronts right now, in terms of religion and society and philosphy, and in the mean time it connects with tradition through emulation of old texts. If that is not literature, then what is? Aragon said that poetry on the page reads like it is black and white, it gets colour by being sung. That is something a whole lot of poets forget these days, they deny that their work stems from the troubadours, they were there first! And for the record, I am delighted that song writers are now acknowledged by the Nobel prize, yet i would have been glad too if the prize would have gone to the equally great Thomas Pynchon who revolutionized the novel too and showed that novels did not have to be just plot oriented bourgeouis stuff.

  25. I so admire Dylan for his silence. I could speculate his reasons, but rather I choose to admire this most honest, decent, no bull shit, straight shooting, and still rebellious man. “Roll on John” and “It’s all right ma” have been playing a couple hours a day in honour of his integrity and remarkable authenticity. Thiong’o, hang on my dear man, soon, soon.

  26. Things were exhilarating there for a few days, though, Heather, weren’t they…? I almost started flashing peace-signs again and unearthing my old “stickin’ it to The Man” smirk and swagger…

  27. Well, when the committee described his lack of response as “impolite and arrogant” I was so pissed me off that a “peace” prize would be so judgmental. I guess prizes really have no meaning if Dylan was forced by his PR people to ingratiate himself towards these idiots.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.