After announcing that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish committee has faced some harsh criticism for their decision — namely, because Dylan is a career musician, not technically an author. But if you listen closely or read his lyrics, Dylan weaves his words into narrative storytelling and poetry, regardless of whether they are accompanied by musical instruments, and here are 10 songs that prove his literary brilliance.
“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” – Blood on the Tracks
This is one of the tracks that best demonstrates Dylan’s ability as a narrative storyteller. On its own, the almost 9-minute track weaves together a colorful, imaginative and open-ended tale involving all the elements of a good story: romance, morality and mystery.
“Visions of Johanna” – Blonde on Blonde
“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it” opens this ballad. Perhaps inspired by one of Dylan’s former muse, ex-girlfriend and collaborator, Joan Baez, the song explores loneliness, lost love and the concept that even as one moves forward, the past is never far behind.
“Tangled Up in Blue” – Blood on the Tracks
Love, loss, and the uncertain future are recurring themes in Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. With this song, Dylan reflects on his younger years, his travels, wondering about “all the people we used to know/they’re an illusion to me now” and a lost lover. One of the most touching lines in the song is “We’ll meet again someday on the avenue, tangled up in blue” — beautifully combining hope with uncertainty.
“Hurricane” – Desire
A powerful narrative song that offers social commentary, “Hurricane” describes the plight of Canadian middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of murder and later released from prison.
“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” – Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
“You just sort of wasted my precious time, but don’t think twice, it’s all right” captures the universal emotions felt by anyone who’s ever endured heartbreak: The bitterness that accompanies heartache and the hopeful feeling that maybe everything will be okay.
“Idiot Wind” – Blood on the Tracks
This song cuts right to the chase with sharp criticism with its simple but brilliant insult: “Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth/ Idiot wind/Blowing every time you move your teeth/You’re an idiot, babe.”
“Blind Willie McTell” –The Bootleg Series 1-3
This descriptive, heartfelt and melancholy tribute to Willie McTell paints a colorful picture of the narrator’s travels and wanderings and delves into Dylan’s connection to the roster of artists and writers who came before him and helped shape who he is.
“Masters of War” – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
A powerful anti-war protest song that has held the test of time, “Masters of War” contains sharp, heart-wrenching lyrics as Dylan describes his anger toward fear-mongering politicians.
“Floater (Too Much to Ask)” – Love and Theft
Known for his constant reinvention, Dylan, a Minnesota native, adapts a Southern twang and becomes a character straight out of a Mark Twain novel, describing simple pleasures like enjoying the sunshine, crushing on his second cousin and fishing.
“Ballad of a Thin Man” – Highway 61 Revisited
Perhaps this somber track could best address the current criticism of his award: “You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books; you’re very well-read, it’s well-known, but something is happening here and you don’t know what it is.”
If you’re still not convinced of his literary excellence, perhaps another line from “Tangled Up in Blue” sums up his gift to the world: “Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.”