Earlier today, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first American to do so since Toni Morrison in 1993, and the first musician to win the prize for literature. Dylan’s highly literary style owes as much to the Beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as it does to the hobo campfire storytelling style of his boyhood hero Woody Guthrie.
Over the years, Dylan acted as an often unwilling spokesperson for a generation, a visionary poet, a storyteller composing long, surreal story songs like “Black Diamond Bay,” and a sort-of songwriter/journalist chronicling his times and continually seeking to point out hypocrisy and injustice. Characters, real and imagined, populate his work: wandering saints, mysterious women, hobos, con-men, madmen, angels, devils and Napoleon in rags all appear in his lyrical parade. He’s especially drawn to conflicted outlaws who embrace personal freedom over the confines of society. He provided the soundtrack to the 1973 film “Pat Garret and Billy the Kid” and is sympathetic to the gangster Joey Gallo in “Joey” from the 1976 album “Desire.” As a songwriter/journalist he wrote classic protest ballads like “Only a Pawn in their Game” and “Hurricane” about the imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
A true lover of language, Dylan regularly employs stream-of-consciousness-style techniques inspired by the French Symbolists and Beat Generation writers. He was a personal friend of Allen Ginsberg, and with Ginsberg’s influence took traditional folk music and dipped it in LSD to create surrealistic, hallucinatory lyrics full of hip slang, obscure literary references and sometimes nonsense words just for their sound.
In some songs he directly references writers like James Joyce (“I Feel a Change Comin’ On”), Verlaine and Rimbaud (“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (“Desolation Row”) and many others.
Dylan even penned a few books of his own. He published a book of experimental Beat generation-style prose poetry called “Tarantula” in 1971 and a memoir, “Chronicles Vol. 1,” in 2004. His influence on literature, though, comes not from his books, but his lyrics.
Check out this playlist featuring some classic Bob Dylan songs.