Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature long overdue

Cultural icon’s connections to Judaism, Israel permeate lyrics.

October 14, 2016 04:44
4 minute read.

Bob Dylan wins Nobel prize in literature

Bob Dylan wins Nobel prize in literature


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Bob Dylan, the 75-year-old American Jewish singer-songwriter who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman who revolutionized contemporary songwriting in the 1960’s, has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the Nobel Prize press release.

Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, who awarded the prize, called Dylan a “great poet” and compared his works to those of ancient Greek poets Homer and Sappho.

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Dylan's seminal songs like "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changing" and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" burst the Eisenhower generation’s complacency like a knife to a balloon with lyrics full of anger and eloquence. And when he later took on rock & roll with "Like a Rolling Stone" and dozens of other songs with parable-laden, dense wordplay, he indeed turned into a pied piper for a sea of youth with "no direction home." He provided the direction and created a new language of communication that flew in the face of the moon/June and holding hand lyrics that had permeated rock music until then. Dylan’s lyrics paved the way for the cerebral songwriters that came after him, such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen.

It it unclear why the prize was awarded decades after the singer-songwriter was labeled the “the voice of a generation” and during a period where three of his last four releases were comprised entirely of covers, (two albums of songs popularized by Frank Sinatra and a record of Christmas carols). Even so, the fact that such a monumental figure as Dylan didn't win a Grammy Award until 1980 for Best Vocal Performance for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody" provides ample ammunition that his body of work is more about literature than melody or his notoriously nasal voice.

Beginning in the early 1970’s, he made multiple trips to Israel and even once began an application for him and his family to move to kibbutz Givat Haim. Dylan had a brief foray into Christianity with a string of gospel records which began with 1979’s, but seemed to have abandoned his adopted religion by the mid-80’s. The back cover art of his 1983 record Infidels shows him kneeling at the top of the Mount of Olives with the Dome of the Rock shimmering in the background. A photo from the same era captures him at the Western Wall wearing a black yarmulke and tefillin atop his trademark curls.

On one of the songs on Infidels, “Neighborhood Bully”, Dylan sang about Israel in a barely disguised manner. Written just after the 1981 destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, Dylan sneered, “He destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad. The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad. He’s the neighborhood bully.” In the first verse of the song, Dylan sings “Well, the neighborhood bully, he’s just one man. His enemies say he’s on their land. They got him outnumbered about a million to one. He got no place to escape to, no place to run…” Dylan has appeared in Israel a number of times, with his last concert taking place in June 2011, when he played barely recognizable versions of classics like “Tangled Up In Blue,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “All Along The Watchtower” and 12 other songs at Ramat Gan Stadium. At that show and at all of his previous Israel shows, he never alluded to the fact that he was in the Holy Land, even while playing in 1987 outside the Old City Walls in Jerusalem at Sultan’s Pool.

Dylan’s connection to his Jewish faith is more obtuse. In 1989, he somewhat bizarrely appeared on a Chabad telethon, playing harmonica to “Hava Nagilah” with his son-in-law Peter Himmelman. It’s not his only connection with the Orthodox movement; in past decades, there have been reports of Dylan frequenting Chabad synagogues for the High Holy Days, including a 2007 visit to Congregation Beth Tefillah in Atlanta, where he was called to the Torah for the sixth aliya and gave his Hebrew name as Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham.

One could say that his Chabad connection would be enough for the Orthodox world to claim him as one of their own, but with Dylan, nothing is cut and dry. In a 1997 interview with Newsweek, Dylan told David Gates, “Here's the thing with me and the religious thing… I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like "Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain" or "I Saw the Light” – that’s my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon.”

That lexicon he created with his own songs is why the Nobel Prize board somewhat belatedly has recognized him for his lyrical immensity, one that only comes around once in a generation.

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