NET 2016 Part 3: A New Art Form? Enter the Nobel Laureate

An index to the Never Ending Tour series can be found here.

By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)

“When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to literature,” Bob Dylan.

“If people in the literary world groan, one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing,” Swedish Academy’s award speech.

Because of the ever-diminishing number of songs Dylan was performing, even with the addition of a handful of American Standards, and the rigidity of the Setlist, I can barely scrape together enough performances for a third post on 2016. I thought, therefore, that I would take a little space to make a comment on Dylan receiving the ultimate prize for any writer – the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The story of how in October 2016, the Award was announced, how Dylan was silent for the following two weeks and how he didn’t make it to the Award ceremony, has been told many times and this is not the place to go back over all that. What interests me here is the comment made by the Swedish Nobel Award committee.

The prize was given ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.’ That is true. I am tempted to go a step further and say that Dylan created a new art form, or revived an ancient one, in the fusion of song and poetry. Dylan’s songs are not poems, but are something more than songs.

This is where I think the Nobel Award Committee gets it wrong when they say, ‘He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition.’ No; Dylan can’t just be read, he needs to be listened to, and it’s that belief that has compelled me through these articles on the Never Ending Tour. His ‘songs’ can look flat on the page; they are performance pieces; they need voice to give them body.

Not only that, Dylan’s songs have no final form, they are constantly in a process of evolution both lyrically and musically; we catch them on the fly. There is no definitive version to which we can defer. Album, studio versions are just another performance caught at a particular time. The lyrics put up by Dylan’s official website,, are often not what he actually sings, and different websites have differing versions of the lyrics. That’s not a result of confusion so much as indicative of the nature of Dylan’s art. His songs must be inhabited, given voice, performed, and they exist only in the moment of that performance. Written versions alone are empty husks (unless you have Dylan’s voice in your head when you’re reading them).

This reminds me of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was similarly suspicious of the printed word, had no interest in seeing his poems published, and believed they only came alive in performance.

We could go deeper into this and consider attitudes to permanence and impermanence, a fixed versus a shapeshifting view of reality and how that might affect the construction of the lyrics themselves, but that will have to wait for another occasion. For the moment let’s turn to some final performances from 2016, starting with what I have called a deadly little ballad ‘Soon After Midnight,’ a fixture in the Setlist that would remain through to 2019. It was usually played towards the end of the concert. Another brilliant performance from the Durham concert.

Soon After Midnight


‘Early Roman Kings,’ also from Tempest, is another fixture on the Setlist. It has a rousing quality which makes it a solid performance piece. The enigmatic ‘kings,’ arbiters of our fate, have a decidedly sinister aspect to them. The generic blues riff on which it’s built anchors the song firmly in the blues tradition of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. (Tokyo, April 23rd)

Early Roman Kings



In anticipation of Triplicate in 2017, a 30 song collection of American Standards, Dylan performed two new songs from that collection, ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ and ‘That Old Feeling.’ ‘How Deep is the Ocean’ is an Irving Berlin song from 1932, performed by Sinatra in 1960. Here’s Dylan’s first performance of the song in Toledo, June 29th.

How Deep is the Ocean


Here’s the first performance of ‘That Old Feeling’ from Portland, July 16th. Written by Sammy Fain, with lyrics by Lew Brown, it was published in 1937 and was a hit for Sinatra in 1960. Nostalgia has seldom been done with such lush indulgence.

That Old Feeling

By this time, ‘Blowing In The Wind’ had replaced ‘All Along The Watchtower’ as the final song of the night. Being the only surviving song from Dylan’s acoustic, protest period, the others having all fallen by the way, even such stalwarts as ‘Hard Rain,’ its performance will be saturated with nostalgia. Here, right at the end, a tantalizing glimpse of the old protest singer, the skinny kid with a guitar and an attitude. He’s back from Scarlet Town to sing an old song before disappearing into the night. The audience greets him ecstatically.

Here’s how it sounded in Durham…

Blowing in the Wind (A)

And here’s how it sounded in Paducah (Oct 30th)

Blowing in the Wind (B)


But it would not be the end of the concert. When called back to do an encore, Dylan invariably sang ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’ It strikes me as an odd trajectory from ‘Things Have Changed’ at the beginning to ‘Why Try To Change Me Now?’ to finish. The crooner gets the last word. (Durham)

Why Try To Change Me Now?

We have seen that 2016 is a worthy successor to 2015 as Dylan continues to be inspired by American Standards, revolutionising his vocals and his approach to his own songs. Next up, 2017, and we’ll see what delights await us there.

In the meantime

Kia Ora


Mike Johnson is fiction writer and poet little known outside of his country New Zealand/Aotearoa. His eleventh novel, Driftdead, a dark fantasy, has been critically well-received.

Driftdead is as canny a book about the uncanny as you would want to read. Past and future stream; our catastrophic present is registered with hallucinatory clarity; haunting characters from a small Aotearoan town speak the rhapsodies of their passing from a dreamland where beauty and horror orbit each other in the eye of an incorrigibly domestic storm. It is disturbing and salutary in equal measure; philosophically astute; a slow burn which generates terrific suspense. Mike Johnson has written a classic.’ Martin Edmond

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