Almanac Music: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature

Bob Dylan recently won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, which has caused a stir among some commentators and academics. Here’s one example:

 

theconversation.com/in-honouring-dylan-the-nobel-prize-judges-have-made-a-category-error-67049

 

Bob would be amused, as he never did get on too well with academics and commentators.

 

The problem with much of this commentary is that these experts know little of Dylan’s work in the last 40 years and would struggle to name a single Dylan song since Hurricane because, after then, a lot of now-older people stopped listening.

 

In the last 20 years Dylan has put out half a dozen sensational albums, as well as many other albums in that time and here’s the best of them:

– 2012 Tempest

– 2009 Together Through Life

– 2006 Modern Times

– 2001 Love and Theft

– 1997 Time Out of Mind

– 1989 Oh Mercy

 

Many who know his career well believe 1997’s Time Out of Mind is his best album (at least as good, if not better than Blood on the Tracks), however 2012’s Tempest and 2006’s Modern Times are right up there. He is in a rich vein of form, as good as anything he did in his earlier days, which makes sense, because for most artists their later work improves on their earlier work.

 

Current fans believe Dylan’s last 20 years is better than his first 20. The lyrics of his songs are still amazing and his music is richer as he now thoroughly explores the genres of southern rhythm and blues, where modern music has come from.

 

Then there are Dylan’s multi-disc Official Bootleg albums, which stand apart from his normal single-disc albums. For example, three dozen extra songs and alternate versions from 1997-2006 appeared on 2006’s Official Bootleg #8 triple album Tell Tale Signs. These Bootleg albums are astounding, and he’s just brought out Bootlegs #10, #11 and #12.

 

For Dylan’s concerts, he’s still on the road most nights, playing to packed halls, with the same long-time musicians in his band, and two-thirds of his material is from the last 20 years. He’s been on the ‘Never Ending Tour’ for 28 years now and his bass player, Tony Garnier, has been with him for 27 years.

 

Wikipedia says ‘Dylan has attributed much of the versatility of his live shows to the talent of his backing band, with whom he recorded each of his 21st Century studio albums.’

 

He sets a fast pace with his concert schedule; here’s 2016 bobdylan.com/setlists

 

Click on ‘Select a year’ to see his concerts in any year from 1960 to 2016, and here’s Wikipedia on his 2016 concerts wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Ending_Tour_2016

 

Dylan’s book Chronicles was one of the NY Times best 10 books of 2004 and it has a chapter on his 1989 turnaround album Oh Mercy which talks in depth about his relationship with the producer of that album, Danny Lanois. Lanois, who also produced Time Out of Mind, steered Dylan back to the fantastic southern R&B that he plays today.

 

Then Dylan was a radio DJ from 2006 to 2009, where he hosted 100 one-hour Saturday night shows called the Theme Time Radio Hour, where he played one hour of his favourite songs on 100 themes, with a different theme each Saturday night. The themes were things like weather, mothers, drinking, baseball, coffee, jail, fathers, weddings, divorce, summer and flowers; for all of them, see http://www.themetimeradio.com/

 

He’s also written many movie soundtracks. Thomas Johnson, in the comments section in theconversation.com/au article referred to at the start, wrote about one such movie soundtrack called Cross the Green Mountain:

 

“So many people just associate Dylan with his 60s songs, apparently unaware of such brilliant writing on albums such as Oh Mercy and his most recent albums, with songs such as Scarlet Town and Pay in Blood. The writing in Cross the Green Mountain about the Civil War strikes me as among his best ever, and the Nobel prize recognizes the extraordinary longevity of Dylan’s literary achievements.

 

“The liner notes on Bootleg #8, the only album that this song appears on, quoted from Dylan’s own account in Chronicles, where to write this song he ‘spent hour after hour in the N.Y. Public Library reading contemporary accounts of the civil war’. All that preparation shines through on what might be his finest hour as a songwriter.”

 

Cross the Green River never appeared on a normal Dylan album, so most people wouldn’t know about it, and he has written many such movie soundtracks. Things Have Changed was a movie soundtrack and was never on a normal album. It won a Grammy. Together Through Life started off as a movie soundtrack and then became an album. Dylan’s movie soundtrack career goes all the way back to Pat Garrett and Billie the Kid and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

 

Dylan’s work extends farther than people realise. Make You Feel My Love, which became the most-sung karaoke song in the world and was made famous by Adele, is written by Dylan, is on Time Out of Mind.

 

In summary, if commentators are going to talk about Dylan and his Nobel Prize for Literature, they need to be across his work in the second half of his career (or even the latter two-thirds) otherwise they are just blowing in the wind or, as Bob might say ‘Don’t criticise what you can’t understand’ – or haven’t listened to.

Comments

  1. I’m one of those who stopped listening at Hurricane.

  2. Congratulations on your article David; very interesting.
    It was an inspired decision to award Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature.
    Bob is a genius & I rate him with Shakespeare.
    One of the greatest if not the greatest poets of all.
    (We know the greatest team).
    On theme time radio hour I loved his dialogue with Tom Waits.
    Have you seen Bob in concert?
    How do you rate Blonde on Blonde?

  3. Great article!

  4. David Conallin says:

    “he not busy being born is busy dying” like a good pies supporter I’ve stuck since I got is first LP in 1963 and have had a great trip. Great article. But a concert performer he is not.

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