I first heard the news of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Lit Prize from my taxi driver, who saw I had an acoustic instrument in the trunk. Instead of talking about the weather, we talked about Dylan. I was surprised that he'd won, due to the nature of the award. We assured each other that it was (probably?) a Momentous Time in History.
I grew up with Dylan's music, as many generation X, Y and Z kids did. He represented a time, a Greenwich Village era of free love and protest. In grade 7, our middle school English teacher assigned 'Positively 4th Street' to us as a framework from which to explore the negative effects of bullying. I listened to it, I wrote my response. Though well meaning, the assignment was formulaic. Ascribe meaning to a song, have students respond. 33 copies of the same paragraph.
I went home and listened to The Fugees. I liked Lauryn Hill and memorized all her raps. I listened to The Roots' 'Illadelph Halflife', Common's 'Be' and Kweli and Def's 'Blackstar'. I got to know Philadelphia, Chicago and Bed Stuy through those records. The albums were kaleidoscopes, secret entrances to the cities they loved.
I visited Philly, New York and Chicago—all for the first time—this Fall. Experiencing them for the first time was like meeting someone you've already had conversations with in your dreams. Oddly familiar, yet new.
Bob Dylan was peppered into my youth, but he wasn't the main channel. If I could name older generations whose music I latched onto, I'd choose Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Pete Seeger. The list goes on, but Dylan is likely at the end of it.
Being a folk musician today is compelling for many reasons. There's so much to fight for, songs that need to be and should be written. There's poetry to make, people to listen to and be inspired by. Movements to join, politicians to protest and governments to dissolve.
Dylan's recognition is Great. It is a Momentous Time in History. My hope is that Dylan does not become a catch-all for songwriters in the eyes of the global community. For all his international glory, Dylan is a small link in the long chain of American folk music, and before that, Scots-Irish, Native and West African music.
Some Buddhist philosophies assert that all living creatures are waves that exist for just a moment on the surface of the water, until we return to the proverbial sea from whence we came. In Dylan's case, that sea is African-American blues, jazz, and stringband music. It's Elizabeth Cotten and Jean Ritchie and Bessie Jones. It's Gil Scott-Heron. It's Jill Scott, his daughter. It's James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Louise Erdrich, Charles Eastman, Toni Morrison and Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's many conflicting, turbulent concepts that push the younger generations along in both literature and song.
Academies decide lots of Things. Who deserves what, and who did what to deserve what. Academies are okay I guess. They make Decisions about Greatness which spark Momentous Times in History.
But do we really need an academy to ascribe value to someone whose value has already been ascribed? Is Dylan more of a King of literature than Tupac? Tupac moreso than Alice Walker?
I like Momentous Times in History as much as any other person, but there needs to be an understanding of who and what we are recognizing, and why. I celebrate Dylan for Dylan. He is less the face of a movement and more a tile in a changing mosaic.
If we can recognize that awards do not pave the golden path to immortality, then we can give each other far more meaning than Academies ever can.
As Dylan himself sang:
"The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a' changin'!"