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The wicked messenger brings good news

Oct 14, 2016

According to the Special Theory of Relativity, time slows down as you approach the speed of light. I think that’s also true for political campaigns, especially this one.

Every day seems longer and more interminable as we get closer to the actual election, and more and more weird and fantastic stuff seems to be happening.


Looking just at yesterday, I could talk about Michelle Obama’s immensely moving speech, the latest list of women to charge the Republican presidential nominee with harassment, or that same nominee’s lack of understanding of the First Amendment.

There are reverberations of all these things in Michigan, too, and I could talk about them. I have, I shall, and I will again. We have, after all, 25 brutal days to go. But I don’t want to today, for something amazingly good happened too.

"What in the world took them so long?"

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, news that at first stunned me – and then left me thinking,

“What in the world took them so long?”

Like most literate people my age, I know some Shakespeare. I’ve read Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, and the Johns, from Barth to Irving to Updike.

But there is not a day when some Dylan phrase or song doesn't pop into my head. Not that I was an especially dedicated fan. His time as a topical and political song writer is long over; he abandoned the genre to his admirer and rival, the brilliant Phil Ochs, whose demons killed him more than 40 years ago.

Personally, I prefer the poetic melodies of Leonard Cohen, another singer who, like Dylan, was not born with the gift of a golden voice. But in terms of the American experience, neither is anything close to Dylan.

Every generation's music is sneered at by those who came before, and every generation looks down their noses at the next generation.

Every generation’s music is sneered at by those who came before, and every generation looks down their noses at the next generation. I am largely ignorant of and unable to appreciate most modern music – and my students tell me so.

But when I asked one great devotee of techno and hip-hop, he said, “Well, no. We don’t have a Dylan.” Not even close.

I suspect many people know his lyrics without even knowing they are by Dylan.

How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?

Or...

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/and don’t criticize what you can’t understand ... for the times, they are a’ changing.

If you want to understand the civil rights movement, two Dylan songs, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Only a Pawn in Their Game, are better than any textbook. And all this was only the very early Dylan.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better cowboy song than Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. He’s done a Christmas album – not bad for a Jewish kid from Minnesota – and his last studio album was a collection of old Frank Sinatra hits, a project I suspect the early Bob Dylan couldn’t have imagined.

Like millions, I often find odd Dylan lyrics popping unsummoned into my head. Yesterday, another young person said she thought it was too bad he hadn’t written a song describing a certain candidate in this year’s election.

“Oh, but he did,” I told her. Half a century ago. You just have to go find it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.