What is a Bard and Why is Bob Dylan One?

When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, it came as a shock to many, even to the folk hero himself.

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Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” became the first songwriter to be awarded such an honor. However, many criticized the artist’s Nobel victory and argued that lyrics are not literature.

A member of the Nobel Committee, Horace Engdahl, came to Dylan’s defense, calling him “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.

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“If people in the literary world groan,” he continued, “one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing.”

So What is a Bard?

Not solely from Engdahl, “bard” is a word that has been thrown around in reference to the artist throughout his six-decade-long career. But what is a bard?

Put plainly, a bard is a musical poet, storytelling set to a tune. Since antiquity, bards have been the source of lyrical, epic verses, heralding the grand deeds of great heroes.

It is by no means a modern descriptor—casting faint images of lyres, lutes, jesters in kings’ courts—and, when used today, is a distinction doled out sparingly. It was a name given to 16th century playwright-poet William Shakespeare, a master of the narrative verse, and few have warranted the brand since.

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Why is Bob Dylan One?

While he doesn’t wield a lute, Dylan, like the bards of old, performed for the ear and not the page.

His songs are epic poems, telling stories of raging wars, corrupt leaders, widespread injustice, and the browbeaten who rise up in the name of change. Steeped in vivid imagery, powerful metaphors, and deep symbolism, his near-prophetic lyrics have enlightened minds and penetrated perceptions.

His music was never anchored to a certain time or place, and as the world continues to change, so will the meanings of his words. Bob Dylan is a bard for the modern age, not one who lilts of white knights and high kings, but one whose lyrics soundtrack movements and incite change.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

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