The literature is a-changin’

Tim Eggert

Half a century ago, Bob Dylan notoriously preached, “For the times they are a-changin.’” Since the rock-legend has been rewarded the Nobel Prize in literature, his musical scriptures are more pertinent than ever before. The music that once radicalized the rock genre has now redefined the boundaries of literature.

As the first musician to receive the award, Dylan joins the honorable ranks of Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway. However, the new laureate and his musical poetry has generated discussion over the separation of literature and music in context of the prize, and the literary canon.

The controversy stems from the uncertainty of how we ought to digest Dylan’s music. Does Dylan’s songwriting lose its validation when the melody is removed? Can we read his enigmatic lyrics as lines of poetry?

Traditionally, recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature have produced archetypal novels and poetry and are held in high regard by the canon: a collection of prestigious and influential authors. In his reformative way, Dylan fits neither bill. The lack of precedence surrounding Dylan’s award doesn’t debase his literary style, but instead diversifies the prize and literature as a whole.

We’re finally witnessing the academic affiliation of songwriting with literature. Arguably, there is no formal separation between these forms of poetry, but this year’s prize acknowledges that literature encompasses music and that lyrics can be transcribed as poetry.

Adding a rhythm produced by instruments seems to enhance the meaning of the rhythm of words, but some may stand without the translation into melody.

So what does this mean for the future of the prize, literature and music? The prize has reinforced its progressive reputation, but we can’t expect an American nor another musician to win again anytime soon. With this shift in the definition of “literature,” a more serious reading of song lyrics and a better understanding of how music transcends literature has been promoted. Moreover, music is being recognized as an art that contributes to multiple disciplines, and that its artists are more than romantics or celebrities, but true authors.

Bob Dylan may be the exception to most musicians and laureates, as his music is certainly literary and outright existential. But, prize or no prize, Dylan is an artist, musician, poet, activist and above all else, an author. His tunes have endured as a cultural and political testament to the youth of Americans and the rise of the rock genre.

Literature ought to be contemporary and reflect the emotions and perspectives of a society. Since these elements can exist in music in lyrical form, they deserve the same recognition.

Dylan claims, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” but now we may need a musician to know which way the literature goes.