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Like sand and glue

A young Bob Dylan singing protest songs at a rally in the US.

A young Bob Dylan singing protest songs at a rally in the US.

A little while ago, Bob Dylan was award the Nobel Prize in Literature – the first songwriter ever to receive the award. I found this really interesting for two reasons…

Firstly that some people should question that a songwriter should be given an award for literature.

And secondly – why hasn’t it happened before?

Personally – I am a Dylan fan. I’ve seen him in concert a couple of times. I love his early acoustic roots and songs like Blowing in the Wind – but I am also a fan of his electric side.

He really does know how to write a song! His music might not appeal to everyone. David Bowie got it pretty right when he wrote about ‘a strange young man called Dylan – with a voice like sand and glue.’

Dylan’s rough and scratchy voice might not appeal to the purists or to opera lovers. But sand and glue is exactly what his songs are…..

Sand is rough. It scratches polished surfaces and shows what’s underneath. It gets in your shoes and irritates you until you have to do something about it. Sometimes a sandy beach or a desert is so hot it burns when you touch it. Sand shifts and changes over time. And glue sticks. Sometimes when you don’t want it to.

Dylan’s music has been all that to me.

My first Bob Dylan album - it featured the storytelling song 'Hurricane' about a black boxer falsely (so Dylan said) convicted of murder by an all-white jury.

My first Bob Dylan album – it featured the storytelling song ‘Hurricane’ about a black boxer falsely (so Dylan said) convicted of murder by an all-white jury.

The Nobel Committee is supposed to award the prize to the person ‘who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. Literature is technically defined as a body of written work – and commonly thought to be work of high artistic or intellectual value.

I’m not quite sure what is meant by an ideal direction – but when you look back at the history of this award – there are some hints of what the Nobel Committee thinks it is….

  • subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny – Doris Lessing
  • reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés – Elfriede Jelinek
  • scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden – Dario Fo
  • reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts – Gabriel García Márquez
  • illuminate the human condition in the world of today – William Golding

Dylan was given the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Many of Dylan’s songs became the anthems of the American Civil Rights movement. They were the voice of protest. And sadly many of those protests songs are still relevant today.

As of today, Dylan hasn’t acknowledged the award – but then, he is ‘a strange young man’ – although at 75, perhaps not so young anymore – at least in years.

As I write this, the music going around in my head is, surprisingly, not Dylan’s. Last night I was at a gig with another singer-songwriter in the great American tradition.

Loudon wainwright appeared briefly on MASH - writing funny, but insightful songs about wars and the people who have to fight them.

Loudon Wainwright appeared briefly on MASH – writing funny, but insightful songs about wars and the people who have to fight them.

Loudon Wainwright isn’t as famous as Dylan, but like Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams and so many other – he sings songs and life and death and love and families and government and…. Songs about people.

I guess that’s what’s meant by ‘an ideal direction’.

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One Response to Like sand and glue

  • Got to say I much prefer Bowie to Robert Zimmermann but I’m completely with you that a songwriter should be honoured in this way. I remember there being a movement for Leonard Cohen to be poet laureate but it didn’t come to anything … shame.

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