Is Bob Dylan a rapper? My hippie father thinks he is

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 - 4:29pm

Bob Dylan

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On almost every road trip I’ve taken with my dad, whether it was a 20-minute drive to a soccer game, or a ten-hour trip from Ann Arbor to Philly, I can always recall listening to Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. The six-set edition sat on the floor of my dad’s CRV, always an arms length away. Without looking, my dad would deliberately tell me which CD to put in and which track to play, as if he memorized the set list. The moment the pluck of Dylan’s guitar rung the speakers of the CRV, my dad would be singing along.

I would sit in the passenger seat, staring out the window, listening to Dylan sing the words to “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Quite frankly, I never thought much of it. 

“Now this is the original rap … not like that rap crap your generation listens to now,” my hippie father would tell me with a chuckle. I knew his words were earnest. I questioned how this white dude from the ’60s could be considered a “rapper,” but the words of love, advocacy, protest and peace rattled in the car, and I was genuinely intrigued by Dylan’s music.

Little did I know, this “white dude from the ’60s” would be the first ever songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

If I had only known how influential Dylan would be in both the music world and the literature world, I would have paid more attention during the makeshift studio sessions in our CRV. But with Dylan winning this award and, of course, me being more mature, I could not help but go back and genuinely listen to his lyrics.

Recently, I sat on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom. Noah played “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” on his speaker –– a song I have not heard since I was riding in the car with my dad. The nostalgic words became meditative as Noah and I sat there in silence. We listened to Dylan preach an introduction in his rough singing voice:

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.

These lyrics might not resonate with everyone. However, from a writer’s perspective, these words sunk into my ears as if I were at a poetry reading. They lingered, provoking intuitive thought, meaning and feeling.

Since the announcement of the award, I have been listening to Dylan on repeat, not just because I enjoy his sound, but also because I hear his lyrics as prose. I think of those car rides with my dad and how insignificant they felt at the time. But now, as an aspiring writer and an avid music listener, Dylan’s style has begun to shape the way I see the cross pollination of musical lyrics and literature.

Regardless of my dad’s notion that Dylan is a rapper, there is no doubt in my mind that Dylan is a writer. Yet, I question: If his lyrics can be considered a premature style of rap, then can we conclude that rap is a form of poetry? And does this apply to all forms of rap, meaning that rap is a form of literature?

Maybe that theory is a stretch, but looking at Dylan through this lens opens up a brand new outlook on musical lyrics. Early folk artists like Simon & Garfunkel or Woody Guthrie created music that might also be seen as some style of prose storytelling, but where does that leave contemporary musical artists?

The argument with my dad over rap could continue, with me telling him that there are actually great rappers and artists nowadays including some of my favorites: J. Cole, Frank Ocean and Kanye West. But the generation gap between my dad’s music era and mine will probably never unite.

The real answer here lies within how we define literature and whether or not musical lyrics, despite the genre, can be defined as literature. At the end of the day, my dad and I could definitely put Dylan as an early marker for original poetic composition, even if he wasn’t a rapper. But what I have found most profound are the barriers that Dylan broke, the controversy that will reside with his Nobel Prize and the outlook on future awards for literature and songwriting.