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Bob Dylan wins rock’s first Pulitzer

Eleven years after Bob Dylan was first nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize Board has quit waiting and given the iconic singer-songwriter the Pulitzer Prize, writes Indrajit Hazra.

music Updated: Aug 19, 2008 10:39 IST
Indrajit Hazra

As the man had once put it in his song, Subterranean Homesick Blues, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” But a Pulitzer Prize can’t hurt to drive home the message.

Eleven years after Bob Dylan was first nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize Board has quit waiting and given the iconic singer-songwriter the Pulitzer Prize.

But what has Dylan won the award for? After all, the award — at least in the non-Journalism categories of ‘Letters, Drama and Music’ — is given for specific recent works. Dylan’s most recent album, Modern Times, was released in 2006, and despite its critical success, it wasn’t quite a searing creation like The Times They Are A-Changin, or Blonde On Blonde or Blood On the Tracks. Also, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music has gone to American composer David Lang. As a writer of books, Dylan’s 1971 experimental novel Tarantula and his 2004 cut-and-paste-style memoir, Chronicles, Volume One have hardly been Philip Roth — or for that matter Jhumpa Lahiri — material.

Which is why a citation helpfully explains that Dylan has been given a ‘Special’ Pulitzer “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

The debate of whether Dylan is the finest living poet in the English language or ‘just’ the greatest songwriter with ‘poetic power,” of course, will hardly die down. Noted Dylan scholar and author of critical books on TS Eliot, Keats and Tennyson Christopher Ricks has been clear about his view on Dylan. “I don’t think there’s anybody that uses words better than he does.” The real question, as Ricks posed it when Dylan’s nomination for the Nobel Prize once again created a stir recently, is whether the songwriter’s works can be considered ‘Literature.’

But while the Swedish Academy still mulls over that question, the Pulitzer Board has finally taken a call.

Dylan becomes the first 'rock'n'roll Honorary Pulitzer winner, joining the likes of other musical greats like George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk (both of whom were given the Honorary Pulitzer posthumously) and Duke Ellington (whom the jury had voted for the Pulitzer for Music Award in 1965 but the board refused).

As to whether Bob Dylan himself thinks he is Pulitzer-worthy, one can't really rely on his old comment, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man." Simply because the same man had also said at one point, "I think a poet is anybody who wouldn't call himself a poet."