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I've been arguing his case for the past 50 years, so I feel vindicated at last

By John Wilson Foster

Published 14/10/2016

That Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature would once have read like a joke bulletin on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Dylan, who from the get-go expressed a premature world weariness, has had the last uncharacteristic laugh.

Yet after all, this is the singer who said: "It ain't the melodies that are important, man - it's the words".

And what words! So many of them tumbling and squabbling down a torrent of songs for over a half-century. And not just in songs - Dylan's own early liner notes, his poetry-prose book Tarantula (1966) and his autobiography Chronicles (2004) proved the man didn't need a guitar to get lost, and found, in words.

His cause with the Nobel Committee would have been well served by the fact that literary critics have been stalking him for the past decade. Professor Sir Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin (2003) was reviewed by the Poet Laureate. Neil Corcoran published Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors in 2010. There's grist for the critical mill, all right, with Dylan's evolving body of work, like Picasso's, rich enough to have periods - the Woody Guthrie period, the protest period, the rock period, the country and western period, the Christian period and so on.

All in all, I feel a 50-year-old vindication coming on. For as a budding undergraduate literary critic at Queen's University, I stalked Dylan a long time ago.

On the night of January 12, 1963, I watched a live BBC drama called The Madhouse on Castle Street. Set in a bleak English boarding house, it had one character who had no lines, but who crouched on the stairs and sang a mournful song about a dying swan and, as the credits rolled, sang about answers to heavy questions blowing in the wind.

I'd never heard songs like these, and I'd never heard of Dylan, who was the staircase troubadour. Neither had the assistant in the Gramophone Shop, but she procured for me Bob Dylan (1962), the first album and the most important of my life.

Not only did I listen until the tracks disappeared, but I was inspired to get a second-hand guitar and new Echo harmonica from Matchetts, and impersonate the instant youthful Master.

I introduced his songs to the Queen's Folk Society, then in its glory hootenanny days when everything was possible, including a new Ireland. The mouth organ in a metal harness made for me by a garage mechanic for 20 Gallaher's Blues, fitting like a medieval torture instrument, drew a laugh.

I also began to write songs in the Master's style, but though Judy Collins, "imperial jointress" of Folk with Joan Baez, had Elektra Records procure the rights to two, I ignored Yogi Berra's advice: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." I didn't and settled for literary criticism. Magnificent Dylan took the fork and sang literature into being.

I knew it, and for a new little magazine at Queen's produced in 1965 by the New Ireland Society, I wrote an analysis of Dylan's songs. That issue of Eremon is now in my archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and is the only copy the library can find anywhere.

Appearing in it is the first published story by Bernard MacLaverty, then a Queen's lab tech. In my essay I spoke of Dylan's artistry, praising him for joining folksong and literature.

I was privileged to know Seamus Heaney, and I once told him that I felt blessed to have travelled through life with three contemporaries - Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, and himself. Crinkle-eyed, the Nobel laureate replied, "Have you met Muhammad Ali?" As if! He had, and counted it an honour. What he thought of Dylan and whether he met him, I don't know. But meet on the page, and in the Nobel annals, they do.

John Wilson Foster is an honorary research professor at Queen's University

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