Bob Dylan, The Poet

This past October, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded famed American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan the title in the field of Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Not only do I immensely enjoy listening to the music Dylan has produced over the past fifty years, but as a writer and poet myself, I have always looked to him as a source for literary inspiration and am greatly appreciative towards the Swedish Academy for broadening the horizons of what they formally consider literature through the inclusion of music. The composition of lyrics is very similar to that of poetry, in the consideration of rhyme, meter, sound, and the overall impact of words, and historically, poetry has often been accompanied with music. Traditionally, poetry and music have been intertwined more than any other pairing of art forms, so to have such a distinction in literature be awarded to a musician is a step in the right direction towards encouraging interdisciplinary creative pursuits and tearing down clear-cut barriers between one art form and the other.

It should be mentioned that Dylan is the first-ever musician to be awarded the Prize in all of its history, so the implications of such a unique choice for the award’s recipient indicate that perhaps in the future, more musicians with great lyrical merit may also be granted the honor. Although entire dissertations and extensive novels can be written about Dylan’s contributions to not only the world of music, but also to that of literature, I wanted to share some of my favorite examples of his unique, innovative poetic expressions that have forever changed the way we listen to and consider lyrics as an extension of literary artistry. Here are six songs that exemplify Dylan’s poetic capabilities, with emphasis on his extraordinary lyricism and literary style.

1.   “Masters of War” - The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963

There is perhaps no other song in Dylan’s immense catalogue that is as pointed, passionate, and biting as “Masters of War.” When I first heard the song in high school, I was right in the middle of experiencing an Orwellian-dystopia inspired cynicism with a Rage Against The Machine-fueled angst, so you can imagine why I immediately took a liking to Dylan’s most blatant song against the American military-industrial complex that was gearing up to fully embrace the Cold War. Singing straight into the face of Ginsberg’s Moloch (by the way, the two were friends, and if you ever visit City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco - which you definitely should - be sure to go up to the poetry room to see a framed picture of the two conversing at that exact location in 1967), Dylan critiques the capitalist greed, militarist violence, and obnoxious nationalist pride that fueled pointless wars like Vietnam and the Cold War. Addressing the masters of war, he says, “You that never done nothin’/ But build to destroy/ You play with my world/ Like it’s your little toy/ You put a gun in my hand/ And you hide from my eyes/ And you turn and run farther/ When the fast bullets fly.” The meter in these lines, and throughout the song, is fantastic, but the sheer address towards the “masters,” whom he essentially pinpoints as cowards, make this song unlike any other. 

Dylan was in his early 20s when he composed this track, and he was aware of his age, stating, “You might say that I’m young/ You mights say I’m unlearned,” but there is an ageless profundity to these words that give away the wisdom housed in the songwriter’s mind. Dylan further addresses these masters of war, and their essential cowardice, singing, “You hide in your mansion/ As young people’s blood/ Flows out of their bodies/ And is buried in the mud.” He holds on to the metaphor of flowing blood by later stating, very directly, “You ain’t worth the blood/ That runs in your veins.” Keep in mind that the Dylan that said this was a young, 22-year old artist, tackling entire global institutions with his pen and his guitar. As the song progresses, the gravity and weight of the songwriter’s words really sear in with my favorite stanza:

Let me ask you one question

Is your money that good?

Will it buy you forgiveness?

Do you think that it could?

I think you will find

When your death takes its toll

All the money you made 

Will never buy back your soul.

Dylan doesn’t shy away from confrontation in these eight lines, tying in heavily weighted topics such as the selling of souls (both of the masters’, and the soldiers that they have led to their deaths) for monetary profit. Of course, there are some religious undertones here, as in with a lot of Dylan’s works (he dabbled in various spiritualities, most namely Christianity in the late 1960s/early 1970s), but the emphasis on “buying forgiveness” and the inability to “buy back” one’s “soul” really makes this track a pointed reflection on why unnecessary wars and other political crises happen, and how the selfish decisions of a select few go on to affect the lives of millions, if not more, in both direct and indirect ways. Undoubtedly, “Masters of War” is both my favorite Dylan song, and one of my favorite poems, of all time.

2.   “It Ain’t Me Babe” - Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964

If you had to pinpoint one of Dylan’s songs as the perfect “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup song, it would definitely be “It Ain’t Me Babe.” As with all of his works, Dylan adds in his social commentary, suggesting how often, lovers may compromise their independent persona or integrity in the hopes of gaining a significant other’s favor. He sings, “You say you’re lookin’ for someone/ Never weak but always strong/ To protect you an’ defend you/ Whether you are right or wrong.” Whereas the narrative is very much “It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe,” it’s clear that Dylan highlights that the unnamed “babe” has unrealistic expectations, making for the ultimately clever, and slightly sarcastic, work of art that is this song. The melody, which comes off as more jovial than expected for a breakup song, consists of his signature acoustic chords paired with harmonica. For a wonderful modern cover of this track, check out Kesha’s heartbreakingly beautiful performance at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards.

3. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” - Bringing it All Back Home, 1965

Here’s a suggestion for a party game: memorize and sing along the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” some of Dylan’s most clever wording packed in with short internal rhymes and sung at a relatively fast pace - perhaps the closest thing to rap in all of his works. The song starts off with Dylan relating how he’s “on the pavement/ Thinking about the government,” and the rest of the song unravels into a satirical look at the normative community of the mid-60s and all of the behavioral mannerisms encouraged upon young ones, such as himself, at the time. For example, he sings, “Get dressed, get blessed/ Try to be a success/ Please her, please him, buy gifts” and later “Don’t wear sandals/ Try to avoid the scandals.” These lines pinpoint the materialistic, keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality of nuclear middle-class families of the midcentury, and it’s amusing and awesome to witness Dylan’s humorous jabs at them. Once again, the young songwriter delivers bits and pieces of his wisdom with genius lines, especially, “You don’t need a weatherman/ To know which way the wind blows.” The complexity of these lyrical arrangements, with the metaphor, meaning, rhyme, and word choice, lend to the overall acknowledgement of Dylan as a poet, and a highly successful one, at that. P.S. - Notice Allen Ginsberg in the left hand corner of the music video for this song! It really does not get better than Ginsberg, himself an incredible poetic genius, in the corner of your music video.

4.   “The Times They Are A-Changin’” - The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964

Perhaps no other musician is as renowned for being the voice of the counterculture and civil rights movement in the mid-60s as Dylan, and this track is undoubtedly one of the best examples of his works serving as anthems for progressive-thinking young individuals at the time. In “The Times They Are A-Changin,” Dylan calls upon “writers and critics/ Who prophesize with your pen” to join him in the documentation of an exciting time of change, and the song really captures the essence of hope towards a better future amongst the activists and revolutionaries in the era. He urges politicians to join their vision of a better future, relating, “Come senators, congressmen/ Please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall.” Once again, Dylan’s economic, yet highly efficient wording, is structured with rhyme, making for the perfect delivery of his concise, significant message.

The songwriter addresses “mothers and fathers” who “criticize” what they “can’t understand,” and although this track is from over fifty years ago, there are clearly a lot of similarities with the world of the mid-60s and the desperate attempt to conserve the ways of the past as is such in the sociopolitical atmosphere of late 2016 in the U.S. Unfortunately, it seems that the times did not change as drastically as they should have, but the hopeful lyrics of this song remind us that in the evolution of civilizations, there is always a tug-of-war between those who want to conserve tradition, for better or for worse, and those who want to move towards a new vision. Understanding this very notion, young Dylan sings, “Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’.” 

5.   “Like A Rolling Stone” - Highway 61 Revisited, 1965

No list of Dylan’s greatest works, both musically and lyrically, would be complete without giving “Like A Rolling Stone” an honorable mention, the track that officially skyrocketed him to a level of global stardom. In his narrative of a lady who has fallen from her assumed previously high social status, to the pairing of acoustic and electric guitars and harmonica, Dylan bitingly remarks, “Now you don’t talk so loud/ Now you don’t seem so proud/ About having to be scrounging for your next meal.” This track combines the songwriter’s classic social commentary with his distinctly clever humor as he asks his subject, “How does it feel… To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?” Point-blank, he deals with themes of status, history, pride, insecurity, and a bunch of other issues that came to mind in his original ramblings from which the song was derived. As is signature with all of his works, the song features snippets of sage-like prophetic wisdom via a young Dylan, found in lines such as “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” 

6.   “All Along The Watchtower” - John Wesley Harding, 1967

I know I said I’d be focusing mainly on Dylan’s poetic lyricism in these songs, but “All Along The Watchtower” features some of the musician’s absolute best guitar work. Jimi Hendrix himself agreed, as he famously covered the song and added his own unique rendition of it on his signature Stratocaster. But back to Dylan’s lyrics, this song features a short dialogue between a joker and a thief as they reflect on deeper themes in life, almost paralleling how Shakespeare’s tragic comedies would always feature a fool as the most clever, or aware, character in the play. Dylan’s joker relates how in life, “There’s too much confusion… Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth,” to which the thief responds, “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.” Ironically, the joker is the most aware out of all of the societally-accepted businessmen and plowmen, and the thief, himself an outcast and dissident, understands the sheer absurdity of it all - lending the song an almost existential, Waiting for Godot feel to it. For me, “All Along The Watchtower” is a critical example of how Dylan is able to communicate the same thematic complexities as his literary predecessors did in entire novels and plays, except in a short three minute song. 

As you can tell in over 2,000 words later, I’m a huge fan of Bob Dylan - not only as a musician, but as a revolutionary poet, a lyrical genius, and a creative innovator. To me, and to many others, his music and lyrics transcend the boundaries of time or place, reaching understanding ears from many and all walks of life through beautiful wording, clever (and sometimes humorously snarky) language, complex rhyme schemes, and careful metric compositions.

In his acceptance speech to the Nobel Prize Committee, he stated, “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’ So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.” In conjunction with the songwriter himself, I also thank the Swedish Academy for their decision to incorporate musicians into the realm of literature, broadening the scope of what we consider the literary arts and urging for the consideration of how one art form bleeds into, and consequently feeds, the other. Now, with all that being said, where do I apply for a PhD in Bob Dylan Studies? 

By Pauline Pechakjian