Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize: A Historian’s Guide
18th October 2016
Any admirer of Bob Dylan’s work soon becomes aware of all the tiresome and uncomprehending clichés that are endlessly trotted out as reportage, usually by identifying him with the all topsy-turvy ferment of the 1960s – historical as well as musical. So, in the fall-out from his recent Nobel prize, Dylan’s significance has been depicted in terms of the usual quarter-truths, as if there must be some way to explain and contextualize the significance or value of his work. So (again) (and again) we hear that he was the spokesman of his generation; that he was the writer of the great anthems of the Civil Rights movement; that he was the person who inspired the counter-culture from the mid-60s onwards; and the supreme antagonist to the Vietnam war, and so on.
On the face of it, all of these claims are highly questionable: Dylan was never any kind of tub-thumping spokesman (the idea would be pure anathema to him). Indeed, it was the subtlety, indirection and obliquity of his early (undeniably) politic songs that both made for their power and prevented them being easily pinned down to a single message, or even to a single time. (For instance, a moment’s reflection shows you can link ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, or ‘Hard Rain’ to the end of ’62 and the Cuban crisis, but the songs and their language elude it too…). Again, it is worth mentioning that Dylan never really wrote another song about the Civil Rights struggle after about October 1963, in fact: when he was only 22 years old, and just hitting his artistic stride… Again, so far from being any kind of hippy during the summer of love and so on, in fact he spent the second half of the 60s holed up as a recluse in his rural retreat in New York State, raising his family and writing songs that owed more to the Bible or Hank Williams. Lastly here, there is no mention anywhere of the Vietnam war in his 60s and 70s work, aside perhaps from a cryptic verse in the 1965 song,‘Tombstone Blues’:
The king of the Philistines his soldiers to save
Puts jawbones on their tombstones and flatters their graves
Puts the pied pipers in prison and fattens the slaves
Then sends them out to the jungle
I am not a historian, but I suppose the point here is that the clichés show to my mind that journalism, like nature, ‘abhors a vacuum’, since it is the abiding paradox about Dylan that the man himself, and his work, obey a certain refusal to be pinned down, and involve an essential dynamic of futurity. This was the theme of my book on Dylan, Invisible Now (shortly to be released in paperback by Routledge/Taylor and Francis!). As such, I have always taken him as a singer close to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of the tie-in between social and personal transformation in his essay ‘History’, which identified historical change with an individual’s historically transformative, exemplary, pursuit of the ‘unattained, yet attainable self’. Now, that idea offers a way of making sense of Dylan’s life and career precisely, as turning on his rejection of the clichés that offer settled versions of who one is. If one wants from an historical point of view to understand Dylan’s significance and enduring value, in such terms, I would say, it is because of the ways he and his art turned on refusing history, and transmitting an embrace of self-uncertainty that became potentially liberating for his listeners, offering through art a way of fighting free of social or inherited fictions of identity, and also embracing new, as yet invisible, social contexts. So someone like Dylan makes history by refusing to accept it, and maybe that is how historians (as well as truly historical figures) work, breaking with history – whether written or experienced – in order to remake it. As this might suggest, my book on Dylan in the 1960s was concerned with this altogether as a cultural and political matter, as well as an artistic one. As such, it was an attempt to describe how bound up these different aspects of his work were, and still are, with each other.