“I think Bob Dylan wrote the first rap song,” my mother once explained to me over the sound of Dylan’s rapid-fire indictments in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” his need to breathe between lines seemingly inconsequential. We sang along to Dylan’s body of work all the way to his Jones Beach concert that day. I was 16 at the time.
My mother and I don’t have much in common as far as interests go. I never became a swimmer in my youth, nor did I grow into the diehard Knicks fan she was for some time. Very rarely did we watch the same television shows, and I never could get behind her hatred of “Good Will Hunting” or “Top Gun.” Music, however, was where we most strongly bonded, and Bob Dylan rests at the zenith of that connection.
Few songwriters are as both broadly political and intimately human as Dylan, whose discography displays a rich tapestry of protest anthems, heartbreak songs and love letters. Dylan’s versatility can be attributed to his profound sense of empathy, through which he often writes about the woes of various characters. Consider the chilling “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a song about the remnants of a society unable to grasp the cultural shifts of the 1960s. Dylan creates the character of “Mr. Jones” as a personification of these concerns, a man who must reconcile with no longer belonging to the dominant culture. Or “Like a Rolling Stone,” one of Dylan’s most famous songs, about a socialite who loses everything and joins the underbelly of society she once ridiculed. Although the song offers little sympathy for its subject, it is Dylan’s empathy that allows him to condense his larger message—one about the fickle and ultimately inconsequential nature of class—into a nuanced parable. Dylan’s frequent use of second-person perspective supplements this further.
On a more personal note, it was his 1974 album “Planet Waves” that became my shoulder to cry on as a teenager. In particular, the heart-wrenching hate song “Dirge”—in which Bob Dylan laments, “I hate myself for loving you”—connected with me in ways few songs had before. Romantic or otherwise, I think everyone can relate to the ills of a toxic relationship; the degree of rawness and intensity presented by Dylan was unprecedented in that regard. To this day, “Dirge” is a song that Dylan refuses to perform live.
The biggest impact Dylan left on me, however, was with his crowning achievement, “Highway 61 Revisited,” a great American storybook that saw Dylan perfecting his use of the microcosm. That it houses both “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Like a Rolling Stone” is indicative enough of its brilliance. In times when we are faced with demagoguery and dangerous degrees of nationalism, it’s important to remember that America isn’t defined by its flag or its anthem or any other sort of symbol. America is defined by Americans. No one understands that better than Bob Dylan, who spends the entirety of “Highway 61 Revisited” singing about the “geeks,” the “bums” and the “jokers and the clowns”—the real America.
There are exactly two things surprising about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The first is that it didn’t happen sooner. The second is that his award is even remotely controversial. The man wrote civil rights anthems, anti-war anthems and charted the movement of American culture across the decades. To say that Bob Dylan is one of America’s finest musicians is to completely understate his importance. Bob Dylan is one of America’s sharpest historians. He’s one of America’s most eloquent poets. And for the vagabonds, the outcasts, the misunderstood, Bob Dylan is an American hero.