Following the Oct. 13 announcement that Bob Dylan – who once sang for Saint John Paul II – is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, Catholic university professors told Crux he deserves to share the stage with literary immortals and with a charismatic pope who understood the power of the arts to stir people’s souls.
Some people reportedly cheered, while others laughed and others gasped at the news that Dylan had received the world’s most prestigious literary prize.
According to the Nobel citation, Dylan, whose rock classics include “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” is being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
“It’s richly deserved,” said Ernest Suarez, the David M. O’Connell Professor of English at The Catholic University of America. He said Dylan helped create a new literary form, combining the genres of poetry and song writing, drawing on modern and classic poetry, and varied musical influences including the blues.
Suarez teaches a class on “Poetry and Rock in the Age of Dylan and Dickey,” examining the influence of the rock pioneer and the American poet James Dickey who wrote the novel Deliverance.
Valerie Sayers, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of six novels, said she was “absolutely elated” at the news announced yesterday by the austere Swedish academy.
“I think he has met his times with the right form. Song writing was the right form for a poet of his era,” she said of the first working musician who will receive the Nobel Prize. “He was able to use songs to remind people of their historical and communal roots.”
Gail Wronsky, a professor in the English department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said she was “really excited” about the Nobel going to Dylan, whose work helped inspire her to become a poet. “It’s important they recognized song lyrics as poetry,” she said.
Wronsky added that the honor is going to a great poet, recognizing the body of his work over more than five decades and the impact his songs have had on generations of fans, including writers and musicians he influenced.
Dylan, 75, was born as Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, and raised in a Jewish family. As a musician, he adopted the name Bob Dylan, inspired by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
In the 1960s, his ballads became anthems for the anti-war and civil rights movements. Over the decades, his songs reflected the many musical influences on his work, from blues to folk to gospel to pop to country and western.
“He draws on so many different sources. Dylan is like a sponge. He absorbed (his music) from everywhere,” Suarez said, pointing to influences on the artist ranging from blues pioneers like Blind Willie McTell and Lead Belly, to poets like T.S. Eliot, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
The Catholic University professor said, “What I find most inspiring about him is his willingness to change and take chances,” adding that in addition to varied musical genres, Dylan’s songs have been inspired by different cultures, faith traditions and periods of history.
Dylan has been called a modern troubadour, which Wronsky says is an apt description. The troubadours of the Middle Ages “were poets and songwriters who performed for the courts of Europe,” she said. “Their themes were mostly love.”
Like those forebears, Dylan too is a traveling performer, but instead of focusing on themes of love and chivalry for royal audiences, he has pricked consciences with ballads on of the folly of war, man’s destruction of the environment, and the isolation of the poor.
“Dylan is deeply spiritual,” Suarez said, noting that while many of his songs are decidedly secular, many others reflect his search for truth and for meaning in life and what it means to be truly human. “He’s a spiritual seeker, and that’s an incredibly important part of his art.”
“There has been from the beginning a spiritual element in his work,” Wronsky agreed.
Human dignity has been a recurring theme of Dylan’s songs. “He acknowledges in everything he does, the sacredness of life, and our obligations to each other,” Sayers noted.
Some of Dylan’s songs in the 1960s had titles with religious allusions, including “Gates of Eden,” and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” The 1964 song “With God On Our Side,” fiercely scorns the way wars have been rationalized throughout history by harnessing divine approval.
In the late 1970s lasting through part of the 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian. His songs in that period include “Saving Grace” and “They Killed Him,” a lament about the murders of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ.
Many fans and critics think that Dylan’s overtly religious songs are not among his best work, because they are too didactic. “I consider some of his not explicitly religious songs as being much more effective at conveying the sacred,” Sayers said.
Dylan is said these not days not to follow any organized religion. His 1997 song, “Trying to Get to Heaven” includes the lyrics: “I’ve been all around the world, boys, and I’m tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.”
That same year, Dylan performed for Pope John Paul II and a crowd of 350,000 young people at a Eucharistic Congress in Bologna, Italy. The rock legend fittingly sang “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” before concluding his set with “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.”
John Thavis, then the Vatican bureau chief of the Catholic News Service, reported how the future Nobel laureate met the future saint: “Dylan put down his electric guitar, doffed his cowboy hat and walked over to shake hands with the pope, who greeted him warmly. It was an unusual encounter of charismas, and the crowd cheered wildly.”
Not missing a beat, Pope John Paul II based his remarks on Dylan’s classic song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” That wind, the pope said, was the Holy Spirit leading people to Jesus.
And in response to the Dylan’s sung question, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?,” the pope answered: “One! There is only one road for man, and that is Christ, who said, ‘I am the way.’”
Dylan’s appearance at the gathering caused a minor stir at the Vatican, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – later Benedict XVI – reportedly concerned that the rock stars who performed for the pope had a rather different message than the pope did.
But that encounter of Dylan and John Paul II “is a perfect pairing in some ways,” said Sayers.
“They both had a puckish sense of humor…. Here was a pope who understood popular art, who began his adult life in the theater. They would have felt a connection as two artists.”
Dylan, she said, “is a rock musician who takes religion seriously and has interwoven it in his work always.”
When the sandpaper-voiced, lanky balladeer steps onto the stage in Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the prize, he will be enlisted in a roster of stellar literary laureates who include Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling — as well as, more recently, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa.
“I think Dylan is right there with them,” Suarez said.
Many are expecting him to give one of the most memorable Nobel acceptance speeches ever — and could set a new precedent with a song performance — proving that even in the tradition-bound world of the Swedish academy, the times they are a-changin’.