Bob Dylan's best lyrics: The songs that prove he deserves his Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan's best lyrics: The songs that prove he deserves his Nobel Prize
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

"Beauty walks a razor's edge/ Someday I'll make it mine"
— Bob Dylan "Shelter from the Storm"

Bob Dylan has always had a fraught relationship with being called the "voice of a generation." But whether he likes or it not, his words drove movements for peace and change. They gave hope and inspired generations of artists to pick up pens and attempt the same. 

Thursday, Dylan earned the ultimate accolade for the beauty he brought in the world, becoming a Nobel Laureate, the first to deal in music as their primary medium. He received the prize in literature for "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," as the Swedish Academy wrote in its announcement. Notably, he's the first American to win since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

Detractors are already starting to gather across the internet, arguing for other musicians and other artists who deal in more serious mediums. But as many critics have pointed out, few artists have seen their work have a more significant and lasting impact on culture at large.

"He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition," professor Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy said in an interview following the announcement. 

Below are some of the lyrics individuals looking to celebrate or understand the artist can start. A select few are paired with more in-depth breakouts, highlighting overlooked aspects of Dylan's catalog and career.

Bob Dylan
Source: 
DEA/AP

Half-cracked prejudice leaped forth
"Rip down all hate," I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now.

— "My Back Pages"

With its hook, "Ah, but I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now," Dylan's "My Back Pages" seems to confront the ways in which he was held up as the "spokesman for a generation." Appearing on the 1964 Another Side of Bob Dylan, it marked a shift away from his protest songs of his early days that often sum up the whole of Dylan's legacy.

"The big difference is that the songs I was writing last year ... they were what I call one-dimensional songs," Dylan told the Sheffield University Paper in May 1965. "But my new songs I'm trying to make more three-dimensional, you know, there's more symbolism, they're written on more than one level."

Bob Dylan
Source: 
Uncredited/AP

When you ain't got nothing, you've nothing to lose. 
You're invisible now you've got no secrets to conceal 

— "Like a Rolling Stone"

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

— "Mr. Tambourine Man"

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
"I thought you'd never say hello" she said
"You look like the silent type"
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the fifteenth century
And 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
Tangled up in blue

— "Tangled up in Blue"

Bob Dylan
Source: 
Anonymous/AP

You'll never know the hurt I suffered
Nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you
Your holiness or your kind of love

— "Idiot Wind"

One of the angriest and most disdainful tracks in Dylan's catalog, critics have pinned "Idiot Wind" and the album where it appears, Blood on the Tracks, as being a narrative of his painful divorce from Sara Lownds. But Dylan rejected this way of looking at it. 

"A lot of people thought that song, that album Blood on the Tracks, pertained to me," Dylan once said of "Idiot Wind." "Because it seemed to at the time. It didn't pertain to me. It was just a concept of putting in images that defy time – yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I wanted to make them all connect in some kind of strange way." 

The way it blends base insults like "You're an idiot babe, it's a wonder that you still know how to breathe," and high poetry, like "I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me," was more lyrical sport than confessional. But that's part of Dylan's genius: He has the ability to fool the world into thinking he's baring his soul, while he's off making even deeper cuts.

Bob Dylan
Source: 
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?

— "Masters of War"

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child's balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.

— "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
And what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children

— "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"

Bob Dylan
Source: 
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

— "Blowin' In the Wind"

The beauty of Bob Dylan's works is that a hundred people can approach them, and all of them will come away with different images and takeaways in their heads. "Blowin' in the Wind" is one of the more unexpected examples of this phenomenon. On one hand, it's Bob Dylan's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel of protest songs, and that's in large part because its questions —  "How many times can a man turn his head/ Pretending he just doesn't see?" — can fit just about any outrage imaginable.

But in that way, the song edges into being more of a philosophical exercise. Are human beings too fallible to heal the world? In racing to put out one fire, will we always invariably cause another? The songs only gives questions, no answers, but that's likely part of the reason it endures. 

Every generation asks themselves these questions as they become engaged, conscientious people. Until someone phrases them better than Dylan, his music will endure. The Nobel Prize is just one more safeguard to ensure his words aren't lost to time.

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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