This a text version of my remarks about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize award from Shabbat morning 10/15
Robert Zimmerman was a Jewish boy from a small town in Minnesota, gifted with an artistic vision and a powerful spirit of rebellion, who made his way from the hinterlands of America to New York City’s Greenwich Village. The folk scene there was bursting at the seems, a writhing and living organism of creativity and cross pollination. The Kingston Trio, clean cut and ready for a high school year book photo, was singing Tom Dooley. Pete Seeger popularized If I had a Hammer. Joan Baez reached the top of the charts in 1960, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were playing the coffee houses and cafes. Robert Zimmerman arrived on the scene like stranger coming to town in a western, trailed by a mysterious past, and ultimately leaving behind his given name to become Bob Dylan.
In a few short years he was the biggest musical star in the world, almost a prophet to the young people in the mid 60s who looked to music for guidance and spiritual sustenance. The hit records came one after another, too many to name, and the songs he wrote became a generational soundtrack. He had various periods – a folk period followed by an electric period when he began to use amplified instruments. There was Christian period when for a time he seemed to embrace Christianity, or at least many of its ideals on his record Slow Train Coming. There was a return to Judaism, Dylan davening with tallit and tefillin at the Kotel in Jerusalem. After a motorcycle accident he withdrew from the public eye and regrouped.
But he always came back, he always reappeared. There were always new songs to sing and play. He was restless, his mind jumping from idea to idea, his gaze soaking up the American scene, and somehow spitting it back out with song lyrics that sometimes seemed to be divinely inspired, some kind of uber-muse working through Dylan’s inscrutable eyes. There were songs of social conscience like ‘the Times They Are a Changing,’ or ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ There were protest songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited,’ and there were powerful personal portraits of love and longing, of loss and the sheer determination to survive against all odds.
To know that he came from Jewish roots is to recognize the prophetic pull of the tradition in his themes and music. He sang about justice and truth, the power of the human spirit, and freedom. All Jewish ideals, all concepts that distinguished ancient Israel from its neighbors. And Dylan was a seeker, somehow discovering the way to drill down to the very core of an idea or issue or emotion, to uncover the truth, and then to lay it bare before our eyes, without flinching or turning away, and daring us to look at what he had uncovered. In this search for truth he was reflecting the biblical prophets of old, their fiery spirit and unforgettable words, still read and chanted 2000 years or more after they were spoken.
Bob Dylan has been no saint. He was always mercurial, often obscure, he was iconoclastic, complicated, and sometimes downright ornery and cantankerous. But his talent was undeniable, and I would argue it was primarily expressed through his words. The music was mostly made up of simple chords, songs with traditional musical progressions, classic folk and blues riffs and even melodies that had been played and replayed for decades. But his language was unique and entirely original, and this was his genius. The often dense and symbolic lyrics that he composed to express in timeless language the very moments, emotions, and ideas that define our lives.
It is because of that unique gift with words, words that changed music, words that defined a generation, that Bob Dylan was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature this week. There has been some controversy about the choice – after all, he is a musician and not a writer, some have argued. Others have said that rock and roll should never been considered on the same cultural level as the great novel or beautiful poetry. But if the prize at its core is about how the words of an artist can both shape and change the world, then it seems to me hard to argue, for few artists in modern times have shaped and changed the world through words the way Bob Dylan has.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Nobel was awarded to Dylan the very week that we are reading two of the greatest biblical songs ever composed. In the Torah portion we read Moses’ last message to the Israelites, a song of warning and a powerful charge to the people to stay true to the task at hand as they enter the promised land. And in this morning’s haftara text we read King David’s great hymn of victory and thanksgiving, with its soaring language, its metaphors of darkness and light, and its imagery of the great hand of God drawing David from the rushing mighty waters. In both cases the biblical poetry is a testament to the lasting power of song, and an example of how language, in the hands of the greatest artists, can create work of enduring, and sometimes even eternal value.
I don’t mean to suggest that Bob Dylan’s work should be considered on the same level as that of the Hebrew Bible or Shakespeare or Milton. Those authors were some of the greatest geniuses of literature in all of human history, artists who changed not only their own time but all the time to come, and who helped us to see ourselves in a new light, with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. And maybe 100 years from now people will look back at Dylan’s body of work and see him as a simple traveling minstrel with an electric guitar.
But the Nobel Prize is not of the past or the future. It is of our time. And as we Jews qvell when a Jewish scientist or novelist or economist wins the Nobel Prize, so too we should be qvelling this week. Fifty six years ago a young Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota walked onto the world’s biggest stage. He is still standing there, and he has never looked back.