From Newport to the Nobel Prize: Bob Dylan's Shapeshifting Legacy

by Scott Slucher

Last week, Bob Dylan once again found himself in the center of controversy when it was announced that he would be this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A statement released by the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy recognized Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Ever since the announcement, people from every walk of life weighed in about whether or not he deserved the award.

Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted, "From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice." This sentiment echoed a chorus of congratulatory praise ranging from President Obama to Bono to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit musical Hamilton

Not all novelists were so gracious. Irvine Welsh disparaged the announcement, tweeting that it was "an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies." Philip Roth made no public comment, but fans and foes of the polarizing novelist, whom many considered a likely recipient of this year's award, took to social media to express their shock with sharply worded and often humorous barbs. The New Yorker's Alexandra Schwartz wrote, "This may be the most effective trolling of Philip Roth the Swedes could ever have come up with." 

So, why Bob Dylan? There are many accomplished authors, like the aforementioned Roth, whose careers are worthy of this kind of valedictory moment. How is it that an aging rock star, long past his prime, can elicit so much attention, as if it was 1966, rather than 2016? Let's face it - Dylan's recent recordings, pop standards from the mid-20th century, seem to follow a trail blazed by geezers like Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. Was Irvine Welsh right? 

Hardly. 

Bob Dylan single-handedly rescued pop and rock from irrelevance by infusing it with a sophistication that not only inspired the musicians of his day, but also the playwrights, painters, novelists, journalists and at least a couple of future presidents. Dylan still matters because of the music, of course, the lyrics of which stand alone as poetry. He also matters because of the role he plays - a restless seeker and sponge, who ingests everything he comes in contact with, be it people, places, movies, novels, newspapers, poems, and songs, and reflects it all back to us in unflinching social commentary that, in the 1960s and 70s, elevated popular music to the role of Greek chorus, warning us of our hubris. 

This is why Hunter Thompson called Dylan the Hemingway of his generation, for the stylistic breakthroughs that gave expression to the hopes and fears of his time, just as Hemingway's revolutionary stories from 30 years before had accounted for his. This is why Greil Marcus wrote an entire book about "Like A Rolling Stone," perhaps the most influential pop song ever recorded. This is why The Weathermen, a radical left-wing organization who instigated mayhem and violence in the late 60s and 70s took their name from Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." People are eager to follow anyone who seems to have the answers, and whether Dylan liked it or not, he assumed the role of spokesman for his times, appearing like an Old Testament prophet, condemning us of our sins. 

Dylan continues to fascinate and inspire because he's impossible to pin down. The first words of Martin Scorsese's wonderful documentary, No Direction Home, come from Dylan himself as he uncharacteristically explains his motive. "I was born every far from where I was supposed to be, and so I'm on my way home," he says, describing a restless yearning that has mistrusted comfort and acceptance at every step of a career spanning more than 50 years. 

It's tempting to go all the way back to Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born into a middle-class Jewish family, and trace the path he took to this moment, pointing out each bit of evidence along the way where he zigged when the rest of the world zagged. This ground has been well covered with countless books and articles, but it's worth revisiting a few key moments from Dylan's career that put the Nobel Prize in context. 

GREENWICH VILLAGE

In early 1961, Dylan hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York, in part to meet his hero Woody Guthrie but also to figure out the next step in his musical journey. Those early days were marked by a wild and naked ambition yet unmarred by jealousy and fame. It was also a time of chronic lying, as Dylan crafted an ever-shifting origin story to suit his evolving stage persona, one that traded his middle-class Jewish roots for a sexier narrative that had the orphaned troubadour traveling the back roads of America like Guthrie, making friends and collecting songs.

Dylan captured those early days in the Village of the early 60s in the liner notes he wrote for In The Wind, Peter Paul and Mary's album that made a hit out of his first great song, "Blowin' In The Wind." 

"Snow was piled up the stairs an onto the street that first

Winter when laid around New York City

It was a different street than - 

It was a different Village - 

Nobody had nothin - 

There was nothin t get -

Instead of being drawn for money you were drawn

for other people -

Everybody used t hang around a hea pipe poundin subterranean

coffee house called the Gaslight - 

It was at the time buried beneath the middle a MacDougal

Street - 

It was a strange place an not out a any schoolbook -"

Dylan wrote many poems like this, back in those days, and printed them on the back covers and dust jackets of his early albums that were read as much as they were listened to, dripping with the self-conscious influence of heroes like Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. 

Within fourteen months of arriving in New York, Dylan evolved from a one-dimensional Woody Guthrie wannabe to an accomplished interpreter of American folk music and budding songwriter, with a Columbia recording contract masterminded by John Hammond, the legendary producer who discovered Billie Holiday. 

A PAWN IN THEIR GAME

In The Wind and Dylan's own Freewheelin' were released in 1963. By the end of the year, Bob Dylan would be the darling of the New Left and a cultural phenomenon. He wrote a string of topical songs that not only acknowledged the race problem in the country but, in songs like "Only A Pawn In Their Game," he parsed the nuances of racism, tracing the problem up the chain of money and power to its source: 

"A South politician preaches to the poor white man

'You got more than the blacks, don't complain

You're better than them, you been born with white skin' they explain

And the Negro's name 

Is used it is plain

For the politician's gain

As he rises to fame

And the poor white remains

On the caboose of the train

But it ain't him to blame

He's only a pawn in their game"

In song after song, Dylan condemned the liars, cheats, and users of the day with unadorned songs that detailed the crimes and named names with a righteous fury that earned him labels like "prophet" and the "voice of his generation."

As his fame grew, Dylan became disenchanted with the agenda-makers of the New Left, not to mention the folk purists who fiercely guarded the scene, rooting out the slightest traces of commercialism. Not long after the assassination of President Kennedy, Dylan received the Tom Paine Award from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. At the awards dinner, he got drunk and insulted those gathered, aging radicals who'd weathered the red-scare and saw young Dylan as heir to The Cause, declaring that he saw a little of himself and them in Lee Harvey Oswald. Dylan's handlers smoothed things over, but the tension remained. 

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1965, the folk scene was a battleground that demanded a choosing of sides between sellout commercialism and an authenticity rooted in 30s left-wing radicalism, presided over by guys like Pete Seeger and publications like Sing Out! Dylan released Bringing It All Back Home in March and sent a shockwave through the folk community by opening the album with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," an electrified rock/blues number that became one of the most iconic songs of the decade. No one saw it at the time, but the album's release marked the beginning of the end of the folk boom. The final blow occurred later that summer when Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival, a watershed moment that validated rock-and-roll music simply by virtue of Dylan's "choosing" it over folk. 

The purists backstage at the Newport festival certainly saw Dylan's actions as a choice, and they didn't like the side he chose. As Dylan and his sidemen took the stage and tore into "Maggie's Farm," the audience booed and Pete Seeger had to be restrained as he attempted to chop the sound cables in two with a fire axe. 

After three songs, Dylan and his band left the stage. The crowd, who had just jeered at his betrayal, cried for an encore of his acoustic hits, and as their chanting reached a fever pitch, Peter Yarrow, Dylan's friend and emcee for the night, pleaded with Bob to come back and sing. Finally, he returned and performed "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," his farewell to the folkies, and "Mr. Tamborine Man," which pointed the way forward for those willing to take the journey. 

After the show, the folk press erupted with one self-righteous broadside after another, and then, four days later, Dylan went into the studio to record "Positively 4th Street," his unequivocal response.

The fallout from Newport is hard to overstate. Dylan, who seemed like an incorruptible sage to his legion of fans, shocked them with his "betrayal," characterized as a total sellout. When he took to the road to support the forthcoming Highway 61 Revisited, each sold out venue greeted him with hostility. Fans shouted their disapproval of the new songs, then sat in rapt attention whenever he played the old ones. In England, one fan shouted "Judas" during a break between songs, but Dylan, not one to back away from a fight, fired back with, "I don't believe you," before ripping into "Like A Rolling Stone," telling his band to play it as loud as they could. 

ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER

If you were to look for one quintessential Dylan song, you might be tempted to look on Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde On Blonde. There are at least a half-dozen gems between those masterpieces, but Dylan's greatest song may be "All Along The Watchtower," a deceptively simple track from John Wesley Harding

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief

"There's too much confusion," I can't get no relief

Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth

None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

 

"No reason to get excited," the thief he kindly spoke

"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke

But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate

So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

 

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view

While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

 

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl

Two rides were approaching, the wind began to howl.

There it is, the entire song, consisting of 12 lines, yet hinting at an epic struggle between virtue and corruption. In a way, it's Dylan returning to the stripped down style of his early 60s protest songs, but there's a mystery those songs lack. Really, it's the perfect blending of, what was at that point, early and later Dylan songwriting styles, combining the stripped down simplicity of the first few albums with the symbol-laden, densely packed narratives of Bringing It All Back Home, Highways 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde

The song opens with archetypal characters who populate stories from the beginning of time -  a joker and a thief. The joker, perhaps Dylan himself, expresses a desire to escape. We're not told what it is, but we sense the anxiety, the heightened sense of drama as the scene is presented in close-up. 

The joker goes on to complain about those around him, rich and poor alike, who don't get it, who don't understand the value of life. This, coming from a man who, at the height of fame and fortune, walked away from it all and retreated to the woods to settle down and raise a family.

The thief reassures the joker by reminding him that though they'd both been among the lost, they'd somehow made it through to the other side, to a place of understanding and freedom. The thief ends his remarks with a warning to stay vigilant, lest they are tempted and fall into danger.

Next, Dylan pulls back for a wide shot, like a film director, to describe a scene peopled with princes, women, and barefooted servants who live within a walled castle that both protects and restrains within a hierarchy of haves and have-nots. It's safety, for sure, but it comes at a price. 

We hear the growl of a dangerous predator, as Dylan cuts to the two riders, the joker and the thief, approaching the castle. The story has come full circle, with the two companions traveling alone in a dangerous landscape of wild animals and dangerous men, free from the constraints of society, but exposed and alone. Neither the insider nor the outsider has it easy, a wonderful confession of where Dylan was at the moment of the song's writing. He had cut himself loose from the familiar constraints of record contracts, touring schedules and life that had been mapped out for the next decade by way of his motorcycle wreck. "All Along The Watchtower" remains a monument to Dylan's skill as a songwriter and storyteller. 

As of this writing, more than a week after the announcement of the Novel Prize, Dylan has yet to respond to the Swedish Academy's repeated attempts to contact him. It's a cat and mouse game I hope the folks at the Academy appreciate because of the relevance he brings to the award.

At Newport, he refused to accept the rage of his critics. In this moment, he refuses their praise. At both points, he takes the posture of the prophet, allowing the big stage to burnish his legacy while at the same time pointing out the absurdity of such an idea.