It must have been 1966, the year that Dylan released Blonde on Blonde. I recall sitting in my bedroom in Gloucester with my friend Steve listening to such Dylan classics as Just Like a Woman and One of Us Must Know, played on my Dansette record player, and debating whether this latest album was better than Highway 61 Revisited, or The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The latter had been and remains a particular favourite of mine. It seemed to capture the mood of an era of protest with songs such as Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A -Gonna Fall and Oxford Town, which considered some of the greatest challenges of the time. With hindsight, I now recognise this period of my life as a time of political awakening and understand why such songs resonated so strongly.
It has always been difficult to pigeonhole Bob Dylan. In his early days, and certainly before his use of an electric guitar and the famous shout of “Judas” during his 1966 Manchester Free Trade Hall concert, he was often regarded as a folk singer. The influence of Woody Guthrie and his association with Joan Baez was evident in both his music and his involvement in protest and human rights movements. Dylan’s performance with Joan Baez in 1963 during the March on Washington, demonstrated his influence on the protests in response to denials of rights at that time. As his music has evolved the influence of gospel, blues and country music can be readily seen and he has proven himself as one of the greatest song writers of the past century. There have been times when I have lost touch with Dylan’s developments, too bound up in other matters to keep abreast of his prolific output, but whenever I have returned to listen to his latest recordings I have been further convinced of his genius.
So, what is it that has attracted me to the work of this ever-travelling troubadour? If I were to suggest that it was the dulcet tones of his angelic voice, you would probably, and quite rightly consider me obtuse. I am, however, certain that from the first time I ever placed a Dylan recording on a turntable, I was aware that I was listening to a master wordsmith, a man whose turn of phrase was fully deserving of my attention. Here was a performer who played with words, imbued them with meaning sometimes transparent and others obscure, but who certainly displayed a form of expression that put him on an equal footing with many of the poets of his age. If Ginsberg and the beat poets were to be lauded and the Liverpool poets to gain some renown, then surely Dylan should be placed on a pedestal alongside these and possibly even on a higher platform.
Dylan belongs to a long-established tradition of Rhapsodists and Bards who would compose and perform their works, sometimes to the accompaniment of music and often for specific ceremonies or special occasions. Such weavers of words were common in ancient Greece and can be found in the histories of the Celtic and Norse regions and even in recent times in India; the Rabindra Sangeet of Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore is one such example. Because of this tradition, challenges to the controversy surrounding the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan can be well justified. The arguments against this award, and there were many, some of which were well articulated and sincerely expressed, seem to have been based upon two suppositions. Firstly, Dylan is a musician and not a serious literary figure. This argument may be countered by the definition of literature as the use of words to create work of lasting merit, surely applicable to this particular individual. The second argument, and this one made on far more flimsy ground, is that the outputs from Dylan can only be described as low culture. Those who make such assertions rarely seem able to define where the boundary between high and low culture should be drawn. Will we still be praising the works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Beethoven and Chopin in a hundred years’ time? Of course, we will. Will the same apply to the words and music of Bob Dylan, we cannot be sure, but it certainly seems likely. Amongst those who have come to the defence of the decision made by the Nobel Committee, we find Salman Rushdie and Stephen King, both of whom seem to me to know a thing or two about writing and literature.
Can we compare the lyrical work of Bob Dylan to the poetry of other great Nobel laureates such as Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, or Louise Glück? Well, I suppose we could, but since when did writing become a competition? As a reader of poetry, I might, and do, express my enthusiasm for the works of Michael Longley, Norman McCaig, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin to name but four, but I can also express my admiration for Bob Dylan without turning this into a shallow debate.
Much of the music of Bob Dylan has formed a background to my life. In my youth his often acerbic music of protest rang out during those marches against apartheid in South Africa and in support of peace and against the bomb in which I participated. As a student when reading English literature, I listened to Dylan’s music as representing a continuation of the visionary works of William Blake, William Morris and George Orwell. In recent years I have found myself drawn to Dylan’s reflections on societal dysfunction and his own coming to terms with ageing. Yet over all these years I had never had an opportunity to see and hear him perform live.
All that changed last night, when along with my eldest son Tom, himself an accomplished musician, I made the sixty-mile journey north from my Northamptonshire home to Nottingham to catch up with Dylan and his Wild and Rowdy Ways tour. In an impressive and packed arena, we sat patiently as the crowds assembled and awaited the arrival on stage of Dylan and his five-piece accompaniment band. Before setting out for the event, I wondered what the composition of the audience might be. I had assumed that many, like me, may have been listening to Dylan’s recordings since the 1960s. This proved to be true. But equally apparent was that this concert had attracted attendees who were clearly older than the great performer (Dylan is 81 years old as I write this piece), and others who were in their early teenage years. The attraction of Dylan’s oeuvre appears to transcend the age groups. I had also pondered the thought that as a performer who has toured for so long and is no longer in the first flush of youth, Dylan might struggle to maintain the high standard of performance for which all of the audience would undoubtedly have been hoping. On this account, I should have had no fear.
From the moment the first chords of Dylan’s piano were struck, to the final notes of his encore, given in tribute to Gerry Lee Lewis whose death had been announced today, the maestro and his band held the audience in thrall. Seated, barely visible for most of the performance behind an upright piano, Dylan and his musicians created an intimate atmosphere that might have been more easily achieved in a back-street bar or 1960’s smoky jazz club. Yet their sound filled the giant auditorium as Dylan’s voice rang out with the poetry that I had come to hear. On the few occasions when he ventured out from behind the piano the reception of a devoted audience was raucous and filled with affection. The reasons for attendance may have been many and varied. To be in the presence of a twentieth-century musical icon, to see for oneself whether the legends and lore that surround Dylan are true, or simply to immerse oneself in the atmosphere of a great performance and a good night out. Whichever of these applied, the audience left the venue elated.
As for my own experience. Sitting and listening to Dylan deliver his words, many of which were already familiar from his recordings, simply served to reiterate my view that here is a man who plays with words in a manner that equals many of the writers of this, or any other age. It is more than sixty years since I first encountered Bob Dylan, a time during which I had often expressed a hope that I might see him perform live. And here I was, with Dylan at last!
Richard Rose is a British writer. His most recent collection of poetry "The Hidden Source" was published by Cyberwit in 2023 and follows and early anthology, "A Sense of Place." He is the author of two collections of short stories, "Breaching the Barriers; Short Stories and Essays from India," and "The Hidden Source." He lives with his wife in the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside.