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.