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My favorite Nobel laureate

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Bob Dylan

U.S. musician Bob Dylan performs during The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent, on June 30, 2012.

Ki Price / Reuters

It has begun to sink in.

Bob Dylan.

Yep, the guy who wrote:

“Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine

“I’m on the pavement, thinking ‘bout the government.”

He is now a Nobel laureate with William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yates, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway.

I could not be happier.

Now, I know that some of you do not agree with the choice. Some of you list worthies who you feel better deserve it. You also question whether the lyrics to Dylan’s songs constitute “literature.”

Not me.

And not just because I think “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is a better poem than “The Waste Land.”

No, it is because, like many of you, I grew up with Dylan. As he evolved, so did I. Honoring him confirms my opinion of him, and we all need confirmation every now and then.

I first heard of him in 1961. I had backed off rock ’n roll, picked up a guitar, learned four chords and become a “folkie.” I bragged of my newfound trendiness to a girl living up in New Jersey, whom I had met a few summers before and with whom I had been corresponding ever since.

To impress her, I displayed my knowledge of the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four and other college folk groups. She replied that they were just slick commercial imitations of the real thing and if I wanted to know where folk music was going, I should come north and she would take me to New York City and “the Village.” In the letter, she included a clipping from The New York Times announcing the arrival of “a bright new face in folk music” — Bob Dylan.

A snappy comeback would have been to invite her down to hang out with the Mountain Rhythm Boys in the back of the Rebel Gas station as they recorded their weekly radio spot, but I was so humbled by her chiding that I don’t think I ever wrote back.

Not long after that, I was walking down the hall in my dorm when out of an open door came a voice that sounded like someone with a corn husk caught in his throat. It was Dylan and he was growling out a song he wrote, a song made popular by another of my favorite slick folk groups, Peter, Paul & Mary.

“How many roads can a man walk down

“Before they call him a man?”

For a student in the small-college citadel of liberalism in Birmingham, with the civil rights movement swirling around me, the words of “Blowing in the Wind” struck home.

So I bought his records, along with records by others who sang about social issues, and in the process discovered how folk music had always been an expression of people and place, even when it was contrived, which it sometimes was.

Then in 1964, he came out with “Another Side,” an album that featured a song which for me, at 21, expressed what I was feeling as convictions I once easily held began to fray around the edges:

“Ah, I was so much older then,

“I’m younger than that now.”

Another year passed and one night, sitting in an upstairs apartment in Tuscaloosa, a friend put on Dylan’s latest. Instead of the acoustic guitar I expected, I was blown back by electric instruments and (dare I say it) drums.

Then came the words. And the rhythm. And the surreal image of a tambourine solo.

“Folkies” didn’t like it. I did.

Which meant I wasn’t a “folkie” anymore.

Then he took a break. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, but I had “Highway 61 Revisited” to sustain me until he returned.

When he did, the albums came fast and furious, as he took off in all sorts of directions — rock ’n roll, country, gospel, even a Christmas record.

I couldn’t keep up.

Others could, and now he has been enshrined with the greatest.

Like I said, I couldn’t be happier.

But looking back, as folks my age tend to do, if he had not recovered from that accident, if his body of work had ended in 1966, he would have still deserved all the honors heaped upon him.

Though Bob Dylan rejects the idea of being the voice of a generation, whether he likes it or not, for me he was.

For those who want to catch up, there are books like David Hajud’s Positively 4th Street and, especially, Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheeling Time. (She was the girl with him on the cover of Freewheelin’, the album that established him as a social commentator as well as a blues artist.)

Or get a copy of Martin Scorsese’s award-winning film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. And watch and listen and be confirmed.

 

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional OpEd and Features writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.