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Opinion: Bob Dylan, the first rapper

Sproeer Susanne Kommentarbild App
Susanne Spröer
October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature - and it was about time he did, says DW's Susanne Spröer, who congratulates the man who wrote the soundtrack of her youth.

Bob Dylan
Image: picture alliance/Invision/C.Pizzello

I was 13, head over heels in love and sitting on a ragged second-hand sofa. My first love was fiddling with the record player. Finally the needle scratched on the vinyl. After some guitar riffs, a nasal, coarse voice started singing: "The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind." It immediately spoke to my heart - even if I didn't understand more than a few words.

That was my first encounter with Bob Dylan. My first love left - but my affection for Dylan's music always remained.

Sproeer Susanne Kommentarbild App
DW's Susanne Spröer heads the online culture department

That's why I think it's great that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016. He has been a potential candidate for about 20 years; now the Swedish Academy has finally selected him, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

His songs, filled with vivid pictures, characters and literary references, were my best English teacher. I wanted to understand more than just the chorus of his songs.

His lyrics opened a whole new world to me: his mysterious, contradictory and (at least to me) unknown home country, the United States. I grew up in a small village in Germany and, just like most of my friends, I was dreaming of getting away. Bob Dylan's music expressed this longing perfectly.

His lyrics described a land which was very different from the country we could discover through popular movies and TV shows in Germany, such as the musical "Grease," "Bonanza" or "The Streets of San Francisco."  Dylan's songs were about the minorities, the marginalized, and criticized the typical American way of life.

USA Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Joan Baez was initially more famous than Bob DylanImage: picture alliance/AP Images

Through Dylan, I discovered the great Joan Baez (who was initially a lot more famous than he was) and loved her interpretations of Dylan's songs. I listened to Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and the Austrian songwriter Wolfgang Ambros, who sang Dylan's songs in German (or more precisely: Austrian, which I learned to understand as well).

The soundtrack of my youth

What a contrast to the music my parents played at home! They would usually tune into a pop station on the radio, and the most successful song of 1979 was from a German singer called Peter Maffay: "So bist du" (That's how you are).

Dylan and his fellow protest songwriters were with us when we demonstrated against the NATO Double-Track Decision in 1979, which aimed to station cruise missiles in western Europe. We sang them while demonstrating against the extension of the Frankfurt Airport. 

I tried to play "I Shall Be Released" on the guitar - but didn't get further than the second (!) chord. I loved to open the window on a quiet Sunday morning and let "All Along the Watchtower" play at full volume. It made me feel young and wild. I'm guessing the neighbors didn't smile as much as I did then.

Through Dylan's songs, I started to learn about the Vietnam War, which had ended a few years earlier. I became interested in politics and history - whereas at school, I found those subjects boring. Dylan's words made me become a politically interested person. They were the soundtrack of my youth.

The first rapper

What about today's youth? In an editorial meeting before Bob Dylan's 75th birthday on May 24 2016, we were discussing if young Germans were still interested in Bob Dylan - and if they even knew him.

Back home, I asked that question to my 20-year-old son. "Of course I like Bob Dylan!," he answered. "He was the first rapper." So that confirmed what I had been wondering about:  He actually was listening to "Hey Mr. Tambourine Man" on his cell phone.

Congratulations for the Nobel Prize, Bob Dylan!

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