He has been called the Voice of a Generation, labeled as a folk singer or rock musician, given countless awards and accolades, and most of that comes with a shrug or denial. The latest award given to Bob Dylan, however, might not be so easy to shrug off. Last week the Swedish Academy announced that it was awarding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
This marks the first time the award has ever been given to a musician since its creation in 1901. It puts Dylan in the ranks of William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and T. S. Eliot. That is some impressive company to stand with, but then again Dylan’s own body of work is impressive as well.
From his early acoustic works to his electric rock to his latest albums, Dylan’s originals include iconic songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Like a Rolling Stone, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door, Chimes of Freedom, Forever Young, Tangled Up In Blue, Shelter from the Storm, Things Have Changed, and Tempest. The list could go on and on.
Many great musicians and artists have public said that Dylan and his work were inspirations. He has also collaborated with many artists over the years, including Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, The Band, and others. David Bowie wrote a tribute song to him, aptly titled Song for Bob Dylan. His songs have been covered by countless artists over the past several decades as well, including George Harrison, Van Morrison, The Byrds, Neil Young, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Ramones, Jimi Hendrix, Sufjan Stevens, Rage Against the Machine, and most recently Adele.
His humble beginnings and early work with American folk music set him apart from any other musician, and influenced much of his career since. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., he changed his name to Bob Dylan when he moved to New York City to begin performing. His first album, self-titled Bob Dylan, featured two original songs and 11 traditional American folk songs like Man of Constant Sorrow and House of the Risin’ Sun. His next albums would feature songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are a-Changin’, It Ain’t Me Babe, Mr. Tambourine Man, Like A Rolling Stone, and Visions of Johanna.
His career in the 1980s and ’90s saw more changes to Dylan’s style, with two Christian albums (Slow Train Coming and Saved), collaborations with The Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Paul Simon and others, with multiple albums covering different genres with equally varying reviews by listeners and critics.
In recent years, Dylan has released three albums in which he maintains his creative originality while in many ways returning to his own roots of folk music. The title song of the album Tempest is a 14-minute ballad about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. He most recent albums, Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels, are comprised of standards from the Great American Songbook.
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Dylan is also a poet and writer. His poem, Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie, is a tribute to the musical idol of his youth and a legend of American folk music. The first part of his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One. The book was a New York Times Best-Seller and was also nominated for a National Book Award.
Constantly changing his style, sound, genre, and subject material, Dylan has made himself one of the most prolific American songwriters, and continues to perform on his Never Ending Tour, which began in 1988. Taking into account not only the entirety of his body of work as a whole, but the individual songs and lines from those albums throughout his career, Dylan has unquestionably added to and changed the American and international poetic landscape. Dylan himself, in fact, has said previously that he considers himself a poet over a musician.
By becoming the first musician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan’s legacy continues to expand and reaffirms that songs, being lyrics verses written to a tune or melody, belong to literature.
What is your favorite Bob Dylan song? Comment below!