Every October, I get mildly interested in who is going to be Nobel Prize Laureate this year. I don’t get totally excited, since most of the time I don’t understand enough about the physics, the chemistry and (Lord help me) the medicine. I can classify the importance of the Nobel Peace Prize reasonably, and I couldn’t care less about the Non-Nobel Prize for economics. Besides, I was never fond of the Nobel Prize for Literature, since it seems a much more random prize to award, as it is the only one for artists, totally ignoring musicians, sculpturists and whatnot. In particular, if you are not closely familiar with world’s modern literature, you can’t understand the first thing about the Laureates. It depends heavily on where you live, if you are to know the winners and to estimate whether the award is rightful or not. This seems different for the science prizes, as I can at least estimate how important the respective field of research is, and it is quite different for the peace prize, as everyone with an understanding of present-day politics can estimate the importance of the awardee.
This year was different. The Nobel Prize for Literature went to Bob Dylan. This surprised me for two reasons: I knew the winner beforehand, and the winner is not a writer in the classical sense of the word. As far as I know this is the first time that a singer/songwriter wins the Nobel Prize, and this is a fine decision. As a side note, much of the literature of the ancient times used to be presented in the shape of music (since songs and rhymes are easier to memorize, an important thing when you’re without much opportunity for written records), just think of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Today, those are only referred to by their lyrics, as the music has vanished from mankind’s memory, but they are considered classical literature nonetheless. So, a good thing to award the prize for literature to a songwriter.
Now, I haven’t had much time yet to dig deeply into Bob Dylan’s discography, something I urgently need to do in the weeks to come. I had been aware that he was quite an influential writer whose songs have been covered numerous times, like Blowin’ in the Wind and Like a Rolling Stone. But I had not been aware how many songs were originally his: Mr Tambourine Man, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Times are a-chaingin’, It ain’t me Babe, … and that list doesn’t start to be exhaustive. In fact, Dylan seems to be the most-covered musician in the past 100 years; I had believed this had been the Beatles, but they “only” have the most-covered song Yesterday (which is not the strongest Beatles-song by far, actually, but that doesn’t matter here). Of those many covers, most are better-known to be interpreted by other singers though they were written by Bob Dylan in the first place. Which is the phenomenon that happened to me, in fact.
One reason for this is Dylan’s voice which can’t actually be called melodic. In fact, he’s not much of a fantastic singer, as far as my taste is concerned. But his arrangements and his lyrics have been an inspiration for the entire modern popular music ever since the 1960’s. There is a virtually un-ending list of movies that feature a Dylan song in their score, which is why I know so very much of his work – though rather unaware.
Another fact that amazed me was part of the video clip for Homesick Subterranean Blues that was shown in the news after the Nobel Prize was announced: it was the inspiration to the beautiful video clip for Nur ein Wort by Wir sind Helden with their lead-singer Judith Holofernes. I had always given them the credit for the idea with the lyrics cards that they drop as the lyrics come – but again, it was Dylan’s idea. Wir sind Helden evolved this further to use little video tricks of slow-motion, playing backwards and gestures. But the basic is purely due to Dylan. Now, that is influencing new generations of artists. Mesmerizing.
I guess there’s much more down the rabbit hole. There’s a lot to discover in the oeuvre of Bob Dylan. And the few things that I have discovered already tell me he’s a worthy Laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature.