The literary jury might be out on whether Robert Zimmerman, better known to the world as Bob Dylan, deserves a Nobel Prize for Literature, but what cannot be denied is that the man has penned some of the most brilliant lyrics in the history of popular music. Not too many have blended art, philosophy, social causes and every day life into a single lyrical narrative as often and as effectively as Dylan has. So as the world debates as to whether he deserves a Nobel, we bring you eight songs that prove that the man is at heart, a poet.
Blowin’ in the Wind
Dylan’s range of questions make Blowin’ in the Wind perhaps one of the most powerful protest songs in the history of popular music. No one has an answer to what he asks. The answer literally is still ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
“How many years can a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea
How many years can some people exist
Before they are allowed to be free
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he does cannot see?”
Like A Rolling Stone
They had reservations about releasing it because at 6 minutes, it was considered too long; but the song is now considered as one of Dylan’s greatest creations – bitter and cynical. Once again, the question and answer format comes into play (How does it feel, begins the main line), and this time it is accompanied by a sneer as Dylan warns the uncaring better off about how quickly the wheel can turn.
“You said you would never compromise
With the mystery tramp
But now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And say ‘do you want to make a deal'”
It’s Alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding)
Perhaps no Dylan song has as much poetic imagery as this one. The man was known for being a little abstract at times, but ‘It’s Alright Ma’ sees him at his evocative best, bringing out shades that are dark and brooding. If this is not poetry, perhaps we need a different definition of the term.
“While preachers preach of even fates
Teachers teach that knowledge wait
Can lead to hundred Dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
Even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.”
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
Dylan singing about love? He did sometimes. And of course, it was seldom done in a manner that suggested the sentiment was a gentle one. But this one time, the man sounded softy disappointed. And was surprisingly straightforward about it – no metaphors, this was a love sick puppy being poetic about having been kicked, and signing off with a delectable line.
“I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice
Masters of War
The ultimate anti-war song remains one of Dylan’s most direct attacks on war-mongering administrations. Some of the adjectives might make purists wince, but rarely has anyone spoken about those who hanker for war with such poetic contempt. Small wonder the song is still played at peace rallies.
“You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
As the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansions
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud…”
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Sung in the form of a complicated rhyme that represents a conversation between a parent and their “blue-eyed son,” this is perhaps Dylan’s magnum opus in terms of sheer lyrical complexity as he tackles a darkness that is encompassing his world (those were the days of the Cold War, remember?).
“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a-many and their hands are all empty
Where pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well-hidden.”
Mr Tambourine Man
He was not known for his singing skills, but on rare occasions, Dylan did try to do more than recite. And he did more than try on Tambourine Man, in which he asks a character to play a song even as he follows him. There was imagery reminiscent of Rimbaud and Fellini and while some muttered about some of the lines being “drug-induced”, no one could argue with their beauty.
“Though I know that evening’s empire
Has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand
But still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me
I am branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And my ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming…”
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Dylan song that has become an anthem across the decades, ‘The Times…’ sees Dylan get into one of his rare prophetic moods. Some do not like the preachy side of the song which seems to have an element of talking down, but well, seldom has a sermon for change been delivered as tellingly:
“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes open
The chance won’t come again.
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no telling who
That its naming
For the loser now
Will late to win
For the times they are a-changin'”
Where do you stand on the debate on whether Dylan deserved the Nobel for literature? Tell us in the comments below.