My father and I have sung lullabies since before I can remember. We started our tradition when I was infant: he would sing; I would cry. Sometimes, I’d quiet down and listen. As I grew older, I began singing with him. Our lullabies feel as imprinted upon me as nails on my fingers. They remind me of home, like the scent of fresh challah or the first bite into my dad’s shortbread cookies.
Five of those lullabies are Bob Dylan songs. They soundtracked my childhood, and as the years progressed, the full Dylan canon began scoring my life. My parents are chiefly responsible for my musical tastes, and my dad in particular encouraged my appreciation of Dylan. He included Dylan in the same category as only a select few singer-songwriters — Tom Waits, John Prine, Joni Mitchell — whom he considered geniuses for their writing as much as for their music. Yet as wonderful as those other artists are, Dylan reigned, and reigns, above them. As Dylan himself told the Rolling Stones, as recorded in Christopher Sanford’s biography, Keith Richards: Satisfaction: “I could’ve written Satisfaction, but no way you fuckers could’ve written Tambourine Man.”
That’s basically right, but with an asterisk. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were musical geniuses. Their discography includes some of the best instrumental composing, from “Satisfaction” to “Gimme Shelter,” in all of English music. In no world, however — in no iteration of themselves — could Jagger or Richards have written the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Or “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “115th Dream,” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” No one besides Bob Dylan could. Dylan is, of course, an excellent musician, and perhaps indeed could have penned the chords to “Satisfaction.” But Dylan’s extraordinary, rather than merely wonderful, talent has always been his writing. It is in the literary sphere that Dylan has thrived and soared. It is with his words, not his beats or riffs, that Dylan has articulated the angsts, joys, rages and fears of an entire generation, and many people after that.
Dylan is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. That includes all novelists, all playwrights and poets. So, too, is Dylan one of the most unusual. He is a poet, yes: one glance at the lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man” conveys that. But, more specifically, he is a bard. Today, our use of “bard” usually refers to a famous poet or minstrel — hence William Shakespeare being called “the Bard of Avon.” However, a true bard, in the original sense, is a professional story teller: one who, through verse and music, orally tells his or her tales. This sense of the bardic tradition has declined, but the fact we still read “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” shows that it remains central and influential to modern literature. Dylan, today, carries the mantel that almost 3,000 years ago Homer bore.
For that reason, Dylan does not just fit squarely within the bounds of literature, albeit at its outskirts. He is also one of the most innovative and important literary figures today. Dylan, and few others, keeps alive the ancient intersection of song and story that has proved so powerful. What’s more, he has integrated the bardic tradition into popular culture, earning it modern fans around the world.
Dozens of writers besides Dylan would deserve the Nobel Prize in Literature: Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Haruki Murakami come to mind. Less widely recognized writers, from underdeveloped countries, would deserve the award as well. That’s the case every year. Dylan, in particular, doesn’t need the recognition or money a Nobel Prize brings. However, the bardic tradition does need a Nobel Prize — and it has just won its first in the award’s 115-year history. Moreover, Dylan himself deserves his Nobel Prize, for returning the bardic tradition to prominence in modern consciousness, for writing some of the greatest poems and lyrics of the 20th century, for widening the bounds of literature to include him and the ancient art he represents.
One day, I will sing lullabies to my children, and I will include Bob Dylan’s songs among them. In that way, when my children are too young to read, I will introduce them to the world of stories.