Dylan is not the first song writer to win the Nobel Prize but he is among the greatest.
Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". A much admired personality across the world, Dylan has a special connection with Bengal through the Baul folk singers who roam around the countryside singing songs accompanied by either a single string (Ektara) or double string instrument (Dotara).
I recall from a book That I’d read many years ago that Dylan, then known as Robert Zimmerman, had visited the Birbhum district of Bengal where a large community of Baul’s live and where the annual Baul festivals take place at Kenduli and Shantiniketan during the Poush Mela festival. While mainstream pop everywhere has a smooth synthetic quality, folk singing, especially Baul singing, is earthy and raw. This is the same quality that I find in Dylan’s singing, the rawness of his voice and the delivery in the great American folk tradition. This is true even when he teamed up with the Canadian group The Band and forayed into the electronic world.
I have grown up with Dylan’s music, but what I have always admired is the quality of his poetry and words that reflect events in space and time. With Baul music too, it is their philosophy of life that is the focus. Nothing else is as important. So while we listen to the music we are moved by the poetry and the raw emotion. The connection with Bob Dylan and the Bauls is not very well known in the West, despite the music from The Big Pink, and I am appending a link for those who are interested.
However, the Bauls had other illustrious admirers. If you visit the same Birbhum district of Bengal, India, with its red earth and palms, you will probably go to Shantiniketan and the Vishvabharati University set up by another Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, a century before Dylan.
The first musician (and first non-European) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Tagore possessed an artistry and lasting influence that mirrors Dylan’s. So, Bob Dylan was ‘not’ the first song writer to win the Nobel. That distinction goes to Tagore who won the Nobel for his beautiful verse in Gitanjali (Song Offerings).
Tagore was born in 1861 into a wealthy family and was a lifelong resident of the state of Bengal, India. Tagore was a keen observer of India’s emergence into the modern age; much of his work was influenced by new media and other cultures. Like Dylan, Tagore was largely self-taught. And both were associated with nonviolent social change. Tagore was a supporter of Indian independence from Britain while Dylan penned much of the soundtrack for the 1960s protest movement. Each was a multi talented artist: writer, musician, visual artist and film composer. Dylan is also a filmmaker.
The Nobel website states that Tagore, though he wrote in many genres, was principally a poet who published more than fifty volumes of verse, as well as plays, short stories and novels. Tagore’s music isn’t mentioned by the Nobel Committee until the last sentence, which says that the artist “also left … songs for which he wrote the music himself,” as if this much-loved body of work was no more than an afterthought. With over 2,000 songs to his name, Tagore’s output of music alone is extremely impressive. Many continue to be used in films, while three of his songs were chosen as national anthems by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, an unparalleled achievement.
But, unlike Tagore’s Nobel announcement, in which his songs were an afterthought and the focus was his verse, the presentation announcing Dylan’s award made it clear that aside from a handful of other literary contributions this prize is all about his music. But like many great literary figures, Dylan is a man of letters and although this has created a controversy, it is a cause for celebration. For me, it is all about poetry and poetic expression and Dylan is right up there with the greatest.