How should one aurally mark the occasion of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature? One could, if one was foolish, ask a Dylanologist to name his or her favorite Dylan tune; to do so is to open a Pandora’s box full of hot air. Still, a few nominations would float to the top of the list: the sublime “I’m Not There,” a semi-lost track from The Basement Tapes; a mid-career masterpiece like “Blind Willie McTell”; one of the early landmarks, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
I’m not sure what my favorite Dylan tune is, but my pick for the best would probably be the most conventional one: “Tangled Up in Blue.” (Fittingly for Dylan, an artist inseparable from the great American folk tradition, it’s an opinion I inherited from my parents.) It might, in fact, be the greatest song in popular music.
In his excellent piece on the award this morning, my colleague Spencer grapples with the deathless fight over Dylan’s literary-ness. Like Michiko Kakutani, I am loath to separate Dylan’s lyrics from his music, but I am hard-pressed to see how he doesn’t qualify as literature. Many of Dylan’s best songs are short stories, with complete universes and plots, whether the crisply formed tales like “Black Diamond Bay” or the woozy, dissolving late talking blues “Highlands.”
“Tangled Up in Blue” fits somewhere in the middle. There’s a full cast of characters, a set of indelible images, a variety of settings. But the song also features an unreliable narrator; it’s not clear how the episodes described fit together, where and when they all occur, or who precisely the characters are. Is the “she” mentioned in the song constant throughout, or is there more than one woman? (Adding to the confusion, Dylan sometimes performs the song, written in the first person, in the third person.)
Perhaps the bard was even asserting his own place in the literary tradition with the song. At one point in the narrative, Dylan picks up a woman who’s working in a topless bar.
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
Who is he referring to? One common guess is Dante. Dylan himself has said Plutarch, though he likely meant Petrarch. During his Christian phase, Dylan often rewrote the lyrics to refer to various verses of the book of Jeremiah. Sometimes he omits it altogether. The narrator goes on:
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue
Dylan is divisive, and proselytizing for him tends to be painful for both the Bob obsessive and the Bob skeptic, but for millions of listeners (and the Nobel Committee), this description of the enigmatic 13th-century poet could just as easily describe the effect of Dylan’s own work.