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Dylan’s musical legacy came initially from a folk tradition that was also based in protest
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WITNESS: Bob Dylan - The Times They Are a-Changin'

Harriet Griffey

14th October, 2016

In becoming the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Bob Dylan is in esteemed company; many previous recipients have also been voices for social protest and change, all of whom have borne witness to their life and times writes HARRIET GRIFFEY

The use of music, to link one generation to another, to provide spokespeople for social change and environmental protest, is an ongoing tradition

"I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand"

From Every Grain of Sand by Bob Dylan © 1981 by Special Rider Music

On October 13th it was announced that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". He is the first singer songwriter to be awarded the prize for literature since its inception in 1901.

Dylan has lurked on the fringes of Nobel Laureate consideration for some time, although wasn't actually thought to be a contender for this year where the smart money was on Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and fellow American Philip Roth.

Arguments about whether Dylan, as a songwriter and a lyricist, can even be considered a poet have raged in the past and will undoubtedly continue, especially now. It is an accolade that will sit comfortably with those like the UK's recent poet laureate, Dylan fan and environmentalist, Andrew Motion, however, and also with Dylan himself, who once said, "I consider myself a poet first and a musician second."

Dylan's musical legacy came initially from a folk tradition that was also based in protest. Two singer songwriters that provided early influence were Woody Guthrie, famous for writing This Land Is Your Land, and the Dustbowl Ballads about the dust storms, droughts and the Depression of the 1930s, and folk singer, political activist and active environmentalist Pete Seeger.

It was in the 1960s that Seeger started his crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Going on to raise money for a 106-foot sloop called the Clearwater, this was designed to focus attention on antipollution campaigning and education and was launched in 1969, eight years before Greenpeace launched its Rainbow Warrior. Seven years ago, after decades of activism by the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Seeger's non-profit environmental organisation, General Electric began dredging the PCB contaminated sediment from the waters of the Hudson.

The 1960s was a time of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, women's liberation, and a growing environmental movement heralded in part by the publication in 1962 of marine biologist Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring and an emerging social consciousness about the environmental impact of economic progress 

Dylan's songs of the 1960s tended towards civil rights and anti-war protest rather more than environmental concerns, but were readily adopted as cogent protest anthems. A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall in 1963, allegedly written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, is one example that sees the linking of social protest to cultural pursuit: Blowin' in the Wind is another that can be cited, along with Chimes of Freedom and the ever-relevant The Times They Are a-Changin'.

The use of music, to link one generation to another, to provide spokespeople for social change and environmental protest, is an ongoing tradition. Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) is a 1971 classic that has as much meaning today as then, while Jimmy Cliff's 1989 Save Our Planet Earth, Jamiroquai's 1993 When You Gonna Learn and Ben Harper's 1995 Excuse Me Mr, are just three more recent examples of music raising awareness of environmental issues.

The use of art to provoke social change isn't limited to music either. Picasso's 1937 masterpiece Guernica, produced in response to the bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War, set the bar high and nearly 70 years later continues to remind us about the human and environmental horror of war that is played out daily in places like Syria.

Ai Weiwei is probably the contemporary artist who has most closely continued this tradition. Overnight in February 2016, he wrapped Berlin's Konzerthaus with 14,000 orange life jackets and, while you may dispute its artistic value, it was effective in grabbing public attention to raise the plight of 1 million refugees arriving in Europe via the sea. Banksy is probably the best-known guerrilla street artist, but graffiti is intrinsically an artistic protest using public space to communicate public concerns.

In April 1965, the Guardian newspaper wrote this about a young musician called Bob Dylan: "Predictably he relies often on traditional ballad meters, as the grass roots of oral poetry. Dylan is young, and admits it. He is naive and implies it at stations along his particular line. He is committed; yet what is a poet for these luminous days, when illumination may come from the clash of cobalt and iodine, if not to be committed?" The same was said of Pound, Auden and MacNeice; the same is true today of poets like Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell and George MacBeth. The difference is that Dylan is not a readers' poet: some but by no means all of his verse is able to stand by itself but more commonly it needs musical backing and the strangely dry, bitter quality of his voice to supply the dimension that other poets derive from literal organisation.

Back then, few would probably have imagined that the poet would come of age and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is in esteemed company; many of them have also been voices for social protest and change, all of whom have borne witness to their life and times.

Previous Nobel Laureates for Literature this millennium.

2016 Bob Dylan, United States

2015 Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus

2014 Patrick Modiano, France

2013 Alice Munro, Canada

2012 Mo Yan, China

2011 Tomas Tranströmer, Sweden

2010 Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru

2009 Herta Müller, Germany

2008 Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, France

2007 Doris Lessing, Britain

2006 Orhan Pamuk, Turkey

2005 Harold Pinter, Britain

2004 Elfriede Jelinek, Austria

2003 JM Coetzee, South Africa

2002 Imre Kertesz, Hungary

2001 VS Naipaul, Trinidad-born British

2000 Gao Xingjian, Chinese-born French

 

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