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Music|Bob Dylan, the Musician: America’s Great One-Man Songbook – New York Times

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Bob Dylan in 2012. Credit Fred Tanneau/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

What took them so long?

That’s the only question for the Nobel committee that finally chose Bob Dylan to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

It’s not as if some new work suddenly clinched the deal. Mr. Dylan has been recognized by anyone who cares about words — not to mention music — since the 1960s, when he almost immediately earned an adjective as his own literary and musical school: Dylanesque. His most recent album of his own songs was “Tempest,” back in 2012; since then he has been paying tribute to the so-called Great American Songbook of pre-rock pop, like his album of Sinatra covers.

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But there’s no question that Mr. Dylan has created a great American songbook of his own: an e pluribus unum of high-flown and down-home, narrative and imagistic, erudite and earthy, romantic and cutting, devout and iconoclastic, finger-pointing and oracular, personal and universal, compassionate and pitiless. His example has taught writers of all sorts — not merely poets and novelists — about strategies of both pinpoint clarity and anyone’s-guess free association, of telegraphic brevity and ambiguous, kaleidoscopic moods.

A longtime stumbling block for Mr. Dylan’s literary recognition — which eventually didn’t matter to the Pulitzers (2008) or the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2013) and now to the Nobels — has been that he is a songwriter, so his words are best heard with his music. Another is that his voluminous output includes some clinkers and throwaways. Both are absolutely true, and so what?

Mr. Dylan’s good stuff, in all its abundance, is the equal — and envy — of countless writers who work strictly on the page. As much as any literary figure to emerge in the 20th century, he has written words that resonate everywhere: quoted by revolutionaries and presidents, hurled by protesters, studied by scholars and taken to heart in countless private moments.

As much as any academically beloved poet — say, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot — Mr. Dylan has always placed himself on a literary continuum where allusions focus and amplify meaning. But half a century ago, when guardians of culture were diligently policing boundaries between the purportedly high and low, Mr. Dylan drew his allusions not only from Western literature but also from the blues and the news, gleefully knocking their heads together; in “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” he put Shakespeare in the alley. He pointed directly toward some of his sources: Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Arthur Rimbaud, the Bible, the Beats and, above all, the anonymous writers and transmitters of folk songs who told the stories they had to tell. He gathered and implied countless others, making him a postmodern pioneer and, eventually, something like a one-man internet. Mr. Dylan instantly became a fountainhead of aphorisms and allusions himself, a writer other writers would build upon until, generations later, his wild innovations were just part of an American heritage.

It’s a commonplace — but a true one — that there’s a Dylan line for every occasion, and another commonplace that a stray line of an old Dylan song can suddenly nail a situation decades after it was written: Through the years, his riddles have become prophecies. Meanwhile, the fact that Mr. Dylan’s words are written to be sung, that they are physical emanations of breath and pitch and articulation, often adds an additional discipline: the rigorous edit that is built into an oral tradition. There’s no place for parentheses, footnotes or explanations — but there are, of course, rhymes. Lines like these, from “Isis,” combine the matter-of-fact tone of film noir with the rigor of a mathematical proof:

She said, ‘Where ya been?’ I said, ‘No place special’
She said, ‘You look different.’ I said, ‘Well, not quite’
She said, ‘You been gone.’ I said, ‘That’s only natural’
She said, ‘You gonna stay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I jes’ might.’

Mr. Dylan’s songs do get more mileage, and more shades of meaning, with every inflection he brings to them onstage on his never-ending tour. He can sharpen their barbs, tease out their mixed emotions and infuse them with passion or irony, constantly rescuing them from their own familiarity — constantly recharging his reputation, as if he hadn’t already earned it all. But with all Mr. Dylan has written, any song has to be strong, almost monumental, to deserve a place in a set list at all.

Mr. Dylan’s place in literature — the way he drew his very individual, paradigm-shifting radicalism from folk music’s collective preservation of tradition — was clear long before the literary establishment deigned to recognize him. The Nobel doesn’t have to certify Mr. Dylan; half a century of literature has already done that. Still, better late than never.

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