On 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.
The Millions recently published guest contributor Ed Simon’s list of nominations for America’s national epic. Ed had included Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; editor Lydia Kiesling ruthlessly cut the entry, feeling that it was too cute to cross genres. Now that the Nobel Prize Committee has upheld Ed’s judgment, we run his argument in its entirety below, with our apologies for denying his prescience. As the Laureate says, “We’re idiots, babe.”
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) by Bob Dylan – There is a temptation to claim that when it comes to Dylan, the greatest epic isn’t any individual album, but rather the entirety of his collected output, or maybe even better, the substance of his very life. After all, his story is almost absurdly archetypical American, a tale of rugged individualism and self-invention in which our young hero went east rather than west. His is a story about young Robert Zimmerman, suburban Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, hitch-hiking to Morris Plains, New Jersey, where he received a folk benediction from the hillbilly Okie troubadour Woody Guthrie dying from Huntington’s disease in a state hospital. As a result, he acquired the bardic name Dylan and moved to Greenwich Village where he would reinvent American music. Performing for half a century and with 37 albums, Dylan reconciles American contradictions more than any other performer before or after. He has been the firebrand revolutionary singing for civil rights and the reactionary Christian fundamentalist revivalist; he played folk modeled on the oldest songs in the English language and he went electric; though as he put it with characteristic impishness at a 1965 press conference, he primarily thinks of himself “as more of a song and dance man.” While the argument could be made for several different albums as Dylan’s American epic, it is Highway 61 Revisited which most fully embodies the grandeur and the shame of what the word “America” means – it is prophetic in its evocations. He riffs on Genesis when he sings “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,’” but as in the original God is serious, so is Dylan’s, continuing with, “Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’” The songwriter’s genius for what critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” understands that collapsing biblical history into American is a fundamental strategy for expressing the strangeness of this country. Why shouldn’t Mt. Moriah be on America’s most iconic highway? In his lyrics, which skirt just this side of surrealism, there is a panoply of strange characters, including Cinderella, Bette Davis, Albert Einstein, Cain and Abel, Eliot and Pound, Ophelia and Robin Hood (just to present a smattering). Dylan’s lyrical logic is myth logic, but all the better to be recounted in the language of dreams. The road is the medium of the hero’s journey, and Highway 61 isn’t the only one on the album; there’s also “Desolation Row,” where “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” calling forth nothing so much as America’s brutal racial legacies. And of course there is the opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” The electric masterpiece whose performance Pete Seeger tried to prevent at Newport by attempting to cut the electrical cables with an axe, the track which inspired a concert-goer at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to scream out at Dylan, “Judas!” – the rock song which birthed rock music. A six-minute long evocation of wounded friendship, rage, and rebellion. How does it feel, indeed?