I remember sitting alone, eating one of my first meals in the dormitory cafeteria at the University of Florida in 1965. Blasting out of the speakers on the wall was Bob Dylan crooning “The Times They Are A’ Changin’.”
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/ And don’t criticize what you don’t understand/ Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand/For the times they are a’changin’ !
There could have been no better way to name what we were feeling in those days. The civil rights struggle in the streets, Viet Nam exploding in napalm, John Kennedy gone, Bobby and Martin still speaking out, but marked for murder. And young people from San Francisco to Iowa City to Gainesville, Florida were beginning to speak out with Bob Dylan’s voice.
It took me a while to “get it.” I had spent my high school years drinking espresso in a folk music coffee house just off the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. A good friend and I played guitars sang the music of the day, mostly for our own amusement. But I had experienced Dylan mostly through his more sanitized interpreters like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary and the like. In college, I began to hear Dylan in Dylan’s voice.
Over the years, he morphed into rock and roll and later — reflecting a religious conversion — began writing songs which sounded more like William Blake than Woodie Guthrie. But always he kept growing and thinking and composing amazing poetry. Yes, poetry. I remember wondering in 1968 when his lyrics would begin appearing in the poetry anthologies I was reading as an English Literature major.
Today — October 13, 2016 — Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature! The organizers praised him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” A number of people have expressed disbelief that this aging hippie from the 1960’s would be considered for such a prestigious award. However, it seems to me most appropriate, and perhaps long overdue, if one embraces this definition of “poetry:”
“Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm…” Or, “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Sounds like Dylan to me!
And, if timelessness is part of the definition of fine literature including poetry, I would encourage you to read a summary of our national news and this pathetic election cycle and then join me in singing these words:
“Come senators, congressmen please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall/ For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled/ There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a changin’ !”
Bob Dylan — poet laureate for a generation.