Ron Rosenbaum

The Inside Story On Bob Dylan's Pulitzer--Plus, Who's Next?

You all probably know that the Pulitzer Prize Committee awarded Bob Dylan a “special citation” for his lifetime body of work:

“A Special Citation to Bob Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

Some have asked “why Dylan now?”, others “why not Dylan before now?”, why the “lifetime achievement” Oscar type citation rather than a regular award. Some have found it cripplingly hard to handle the idea that a one time “anti-establishment” singer is being honored by the establishment. In some commentary on it you hear the echo of those tediously outdated complaints Dylan used to suffer every time he shifted direction. Complaints that date back to Beats muttering into their expressos in Greenwich Village coffee houses that Dylan has somehow “sold out”. A trend that began with the poor sad folkies who couldn’t get the genius of his shift to electrifying rock ‘n’ roll.

But was Dylan ever really “anti-establishment”? Maybe in the beginning as a lefty acoustic folk singer he was for a while, but then he rather rapidly turned on the lefty acoustic folk singer establishment itself when it objected to him refusing to toe the acoustic faux-folk line in his work (anyone remember “My Back Pages”?)

Let’s face it, for a long time, Dylan has neither been anti-establishment nor establishment, he’s been off somewhere on his own establishing an “establishment” of his own, you might say, an idiosyncratic Dylan establishment that doesn’t conform to conventional pro or anti stereotypes: he’s been following his nose (well his ear) to new territories, a habit that was often portrayed as “betrayal”, sell out, even “Judas”-like by some who can’t handle an artist so difficult to pin down for long.

A couple of days after the Pulitzer citation, a writer for the NY Times called me and indicated, in a long pre amble that he was trying to breathe some life into the anti-Establishment/establishment dichotomy in an essay for the “Week in Review” section.

He was trying to get me to confirm what seemed to me a dubious thesis that the culture continues to reward Dylan with honors and he continues to “spurn” them. I asked the guy where was the spurning? Yes, nearly 40 years ago he wrote a song about his discomfort accepting an honorary degree from Princeton (“Day of the Locusts”). But even then he didn’t refuse the degree. And ever since then he’s shown up for every award, Kennedy Center Honors, Oscars, Grammys etc and generally accepted with humility. I cited one Dylan website Expecting Rain” where I’d read some article quoting Dylan reacting to the Pulitzer with “disbelief”. Not exactly spurning it because it was “too establishment, dude”.

Needless to say my dissenting view was left out of the resulting article and various Dylan savants were quoted–surprise!– agreeing with the writer, but, to my mind, they were all locked into that virtually pre-historic initial image of Dylan as merely a rebel, which I tend to feel is a reductive way of looking at him. “Rebel” is just not a particularly useful way to talk about his two greatest albums “Blonde on Blonde” and “Blood on the Tracks”, for instance. These are investigations of love and obsession not blows against the Empire, unless you define it as the tyranny of love…The ancient dichotomy is just too easy a way to pigeonhole his music and his persona.

I loved the Toddy Haynes film, I’m Not There but thought the one flaw in it was that it spent too much time with the whole sterile protest singer vs. non-protest singer argument–the second silliest Dylan argument there is. (First silliest: is he poet? No, people, he’s a songwriter there’s a difference.) Anyway enough with the whole anti establishment lens for looking at him. It’s not 1970 any more!

Still, no Pulitzer recognition of any kind til this year? The The Times guy asked me what I thought the Pulitzer Committee was up to? Trying belatedly to look hip?

“I can’t read their minds.” I told him.

No, but a couple nights later I ran into someone who could read their minds. Someone with first hand knowledge of the Pulitzer and why Dylan got it now.

According to this source (and I think he knows what he’s talking about), the Pulitzer Prize for Music had long been the special province of a single Columbia music professor and the prizes all tended to go to a certain type of contemporary formal composer, some of whose music was so obscure few had heard it and in some cases it had never been played, at least in public.

Duke Ellington never won an a Pulitzer and there was some feeling there was a racial angle to the kind of criteria that were being used that excluded American jazz geniuses, not to mention the entire development of rock and roll and the brilliant work of some Country & Western songwriters (Willie Nelson, Rodney Crowell all those unsung writers for whom just about every song is like a haiku version of a Raymond Carver short story–eminently Pulitzer- worthy.)

But, my source said, “they got rid of him” and began to try to making amends over the last few years, giving lifetime achievement type citations to the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk. And this year Bob Dylan. And yet somehow this disturbs–in an old maid kind of way–some people. My Timesinterlocutor wondered if he’d show up at the Pulitzer luncheon or if his failure to show for a luncheon would demonstrate his disdain for the recognition. A blow against the Machine! But since he was touring in Europe at the time a failure to appear might be the result of concert commitments rather than “spurning”.

Give the guy a break already.

By the way, full disclosure: I’m working on a short book about Dylan for Yale University Press. Interested to hear from any fans or “Dylanists” (I prefer that to “Dylanologist”) on an any aspect of his life or work you feel has not been dealt with adequately or has been dealt with inaccurately.

i’d also be interested in hearing if readers had suggestions for the next “Lifetime Achievement” type Pulitzer for overlooked musicians.