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The Nobel committee lets in a bit of light

by Arthur Milner


To live outside the law, you must be honest.

— Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” 1966


It happened that my wife and I were discussing sixties music one day in October. Her parents, longtime CCF-NDP activists, had listened to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. I suggested that her parents selected their music according to their politics. Whereas I, a half-generation younger, selected my politics according to my music – chiefly, the songs of Bob Dylan.

The next morning we learned Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. For three days, Jennifer and I listened to “early” Dylan: his first seven LPs, recorded between 1962 and 1966. I’d been a fan since the release of the third of these, The Times They Are a-Changin’, in 1964. I was 14.

I didn’t just listen to Dylan. I learned to play the guitar in 1968, and within a couple of years I’d memorized the words to perhaps 50 of those early songs. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that those songs laid the foundation for the person I am. There is, for example, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Dylan’s anthem to equality and humility and the difficult lesson of learning you’re just like everyone else:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine

You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you? …

Now you don’t talk so loud

Now you don’t seem so proud

About having to be scrounging for your next meal.

How does it feel?

There’s this from “To Ramona”:

I’ve heard you say many times

That you’re better than no one

And no one is better than you.

From “Chimes of Freedom”:

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

And for each and every underdog soldier in the night

And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

From “My Back Pages” (rumoured to be Dylan’s farewell to “the movement”):

A self-ordained professor’s tongue

Too serious to fool

Spouted out that liberty

Is just equality in school.

“Equality,” I spoke the word

As if a wedding vow.

Ah, but I was so much older then

I’m younger than that now.

From “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”:

I started out on burgundy

But soon hit the harder stuff;

Everybody said they’d stand behind me

When the game got rough,

But the joke was on me,

There was nobody even there to bluff;

I’m going back to New York City

I do believe I’ve had enough.

From: “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you;

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore;

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

From “One Too Many Mornings”:

It’s a restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no one no good,

When everything I’m a-sayin’ you can say it just as good.

You’re right from your side, I’m right from mine.

We’re both just one too many mornings an’ a thousand miles behind.

And there are Dylan’s stories about the American underclass as told in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, “Ballad of Hollis Brown” and my personal favourite, “North Country Blues”:

Come gather ’round friends

And I’ll tell you a tale

Of when the red iron ore pits run plenty,

But the cardboard-filled windows

And old men on the benches

Tell you now that the whole town is empty.

Of course, none of this means Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. I’m pleased, because I think we artists are too prone to celebrating the obscure. As for those who fear that the selection committee has damaged by stretching too thin the category “literature,” let me quote Dylan’s friend and colleague Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack, a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

— “Anthem,” 1992

The Nobel committee made a crack and let in a bit of light.


About the Author

Arthur Milner
Arthur Milner is Inroads’ culture columnist and a member of its editorial board. He is a former artistic director of Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company.


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