Bob Dylan’s politics and words are worthy of the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan is responsible for a work of journalism that should have earned him a Public Service Pulitzer.

Chances are that no one was considering rock musicians for the award in 1975, when Dylan recorded the singularly amazing song “Hurricane.”

A true crime tale told with compassion for an alleged killer, “Hurricane” laid out the facts of the false imprisonment of boxer Rubin Carter. The song’s popularity led to a retrial for Carter and a federal inquiry in which a judge ruled Carter did not receive a fair trial. 

No doubt that work played a role in news this week out of Oslo, Norway, where it was announced that Bob Dylan earned the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

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There are those who say he’s the first true musician to win the award. But let’s be honest — Dylan, albeit a great musician — is a renowned poet, a masterful storyteller and craftsman of the English language on a par with Shakespeare himself. And “Hurricane” isn’t the only place where Bob Dylan's skills are masterfully applied to politics. There are plenty of other examples.

Traditionalists worry that the award will open some flood gate of Nobel Prize pandering to popular culture. Let me assure you, (Tupac Shakur aside) there are no popular songwriters who’ve mastered their craft in the way Dylan has done.

“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” “Whole lotta love”, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?” or “Murder was the case that they gave me” — while memorable lines — have no where close to the lyrical or contemporary power of “Hurricane.”

Dylan sings: “Remember that murder that happened in a bar?/Remember you said you saw the getaway car?/ You think you'd like to play ball with the law?/Think it might-a been that fighter you saw running that night?/ Don't forget that you are white”

Here are nine other Bob Dylan songs that changed America and our conversations about politics, race, war and social injustice:

1. “Blowing in the Wind”: (The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, 1963) A powerful anti-war song that served a ‘60s anthem. Blowin’ in the Wind asks the questions of youth and replies with the voice of wisdom. 

2. “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”: (The Times They Are a-Changin', 1964) Like Hurricane, Hattie McCarroll tells the story of injustice. Carroll, a black woman who worked as bartender in Baltimore, was beaten to death by 24-year-old Billy Zantzinger, a white man, who was infuriated that he wasn’t served fast enough. Dylan, accompanied only by his guitar and harmonica, relates the outrageous tale as he read it in the newspaper.

3. “The Times They are a Changin’”: (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964) Can you call this a popular retelling of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Probably. Did the song make it okay for young Americans to protest the county’s involvement in Vietnam? Absolutely.

4. “Maggie’s Farm”: (Bringing it All Back Home, 1965) A bluesy piece about factory work or an anti-capitalism anthem? Maggie’s Farm makes a call for individualism, while slamming the hypocrisy of freedom through servitude. It's been covered by U2 and Rage Against the Machine.

5. “Slow Train Coming”: (Slow Train Coming, 1979) Recorded during Dylan’s Born Again phase, Slow Train rails against false prophets and prophetically takes a jab at Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE or men like him.

Dylan sings: “Big-time negotiators, false healers and woman haters/Masters of the bluff and masters of the proposition/But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency/All non-believers and men-stealers talkin' in the name of religion/And there's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend/That slow train is death.” 

6. “Gotta Serve Somebody”: (Slow Train Coming, 1979)

Here Dylan sings: “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you are going to have to serve somebody.” Can’t say there’s any ambiguity in that. The song addresses Ambassadors, boxers, socialites, rock ’n’ rollers, thieves, doctors, young Turks and City Councilmen “taking bribes on the side.” 

7. “Heartland”: (Across the Borderline, 1993) Co-written with Willie Nelson and appearing on a Willie Nelson album, “Heartland” is a song about the housing crisis — written 15 years before the meltdown we know as The Great Recession. Heartland tells the story of a family that lost everything to greedy bankers who swindled their livelihoods and walked away without recrimination.

8. “Masters of War”: (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963) Another powerful anti-war statement. Dylan says it’s about pacifism. I think Masters of War would scare the wits out of radio programmers if it were published today. Read the lyrics

9. Union Sundown: An uptempo explanation of Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik if there ever was one. 

In the song, Dylan sings: 

“Democracy don't rule the world/You'd better get that in your head/This world is ruled by violence/But I guess that's better left unsaid/”

Girardot is an award-winning former editor and columnist with the Los Angeles News Group. He is co-author of true crime tales "A Taste For Murder" and the soon-to-be released “Betrayal in Blue: The Shocking Memoir of the Scandal that Rocked the NYPD.” Follow him on Twitter @FrankGirardot

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