The awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan has provoked enthusiasm and dismay since its announcement on October 13. Dylan himself has indicated distaste for the distinction by ignoring it. His silence called forth a rebuke from the Stockholm apparatus, wherein Per Wastberg, a writer, called Dylan “arrogant and impolite.” But Sara Danius, secretary of the Swedish Academy, quickly explained: “A member of the academy, Per Wastberg, has publicly expressed his disappointment at Bob Dylan’s omitted response. This is Mr. Wastberg’s private opinion and is not to be taken as the official standpoint of the Swedish Academy.”
It may be that the honoree himself grasps the absurdity of the affair. Dylan is not without a cynical side. Nor is this the first misstep by the Swedish Academy in its recent Nobel selections for literature. Since 1976, when the prize was awarded to Saul Bellow, the Swedes have swung wildly between inspired and baffling choices. Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978), the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis (1979), and Czeslaw Milosz (1980) all were worthy of recognition. Milosz, like other literary Nobelists, may have been selected for a political reason—to express support for the rising Solidarity labor movement and other oppositionists in Poland. The selection of Elias Canetti (1981) was a fascinating example of good the Swedes can do with the prize: It brought global attention to a Sephardic Jewish writer from Bulgaria who wrote in German.
At the end of the 1990s, however, the Swedish Academy suffered an outburst of silliness that may have set a precedent for the awarding of Dylan. In 1997, Dario Fo, a radical leftist Italian theatrical clown, received the prize; in 1998, the prize went to José Saramago, a Portuguese author of mediocre fictional works, a verbose enemy of the Catholic Church, and an unapologetic adherent of his country’s Soviet-model Communist Party. In 1999, Günter Grass, an indefatigable enemy of America, was so rewarded by the Swedes. Grass had gained attention during the Nicaraguan civil war by arguing everywhere he could that the Sandinista commissars were victims of a demonic American imperialism equal to Russian Communist oppression in Poland.
Worse was to come: In 2004, Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian known for a quasi-pornographic obsession with sadism and abuse, was elevated to the Nobel heights. Next came playwright Harold Pinter, another inveterate America-hater, in 2005. True, the 2010 accolade went to the Peruvian-born Mario Vargas Llosa, who well deserved it, and from 2011 until now, the Swedish Academy has muddled along, notably bestowing the Prize on Canadian short-fiction writer Alice Munro in 2013 and a Belarusian chronicler of Stalin’s repression, Svetlana Alexievich, in 2015. Then it hit on the novelty it perceived in Bob Dylan.
The Swedish Academy declared tersely that they acknowledged him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” What “great American song tradition” did the Swedes consider in their deliberations? Perhaps, given their anti-Americanism, they conflated the protest genre of the 1960s with folk music. In this, they would not be alone. Carolyn Hester, a “singer-songwriter,” gushed in the Los Angeles Times: “I was astonished at the news, overjoyed. A sense of validation swept over me. It seems we built a long-lasting platform of sorts, a fortress of folk music, that can still carry the strength of our convictions.” Dylan Owens, a writer for the Denver Post—and one of perhaps thousands of Americans named after the star—praised Dylan for his “damning critique of the American dream” and his “dense tapestry of folk references.” He affirmed, “the win would seal Dylan’s status as not only a living legend of music, but [of] words as well.”
But the celebration of Dylan as a “folk poet” raises a problem of cultural history. American “folk singing” began in the 1930s, but Dylan’s version of it is not a “folk product.” Recent and contemporary “folk music” has almost nothing in common with the creations of American “folk” cultures and subcultures. Country-western music and some elements of ordinary rock music draw more deeply on genuine folk sources. The folk music associated with Communist cabaret singers like Pete Seeger was a political invention intended to merge the Communist agenda with a sense of belonging to America. The habit of imitating “folk” culture has carried on for decades. Dylan slipped into this role when he began performing in New York City. Authentic “folk” music emerged from local communities and their heritage and was seldom intended for a wider audience.
Dylan discovered a niche in pretending to be a son of the soil, another “Dust Bowl refugee” like Woody Guthrie. Early examples include “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” from 1963-64. Dylan has assembled a system of pastiche appropriations, mostly from leftist café guitar players and blues performers, and added his own occasional impersonations of past songwriters such as Guthrie and the blues performer Leadbelly.
Dylan’s legacy is found in many pop trends, from the compositions of Bruce Springsteen to rappers. The latter would probably deny it, but they owe a great deal to Dylan’s practice of rendering rhymed gibberish as if it were insightful and beautiful lyric. In his 1965 “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the epitome of his turn from “faux-folk” to an approximation of then-popular rock music, he wrote:
Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail . . .
In his 1965 “Highway 61 Revisited,” he described
Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I’ve got forty red, white and blue shoestrings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
You know I can’t get rid of these things . . .
The habit of improvising meaningless verbiage to fill space in his songs was one that Dylan never broke. Parsing such “word salad” would be difficult, if not impossible. Did he intend anything comprehensible?
It is interesting to ask how Bob Dylan might be contrasted with Dylan Thomas, the tragic Welsh poet from whom he derived his stage persona (after leaving behind his family name, Zimmerman). Unlike Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas was an accomplished lyrical poet whose inspiration was based on an authentic folk source: the Celtic oral culture of Wales. Thomas’s body of work is intensely original but strongly disciplined, whereas Bob Dylan’s output has been markedly derivative and clumsy. The medieval troubadours and singers of archaic sagas with whom Bob Dylan is compared were, unlike their contemporary impersonator, equally disciplined in their writings and recitations.
Stephen Schwartz is author of Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (2005) and Kosovo: Background to a War (2000).