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Why did Bob Dylan win a Nobel Prize?


Bob Dylan’s real name is Robert Zimmerman; he named himself Dylan after the famous Welsh writer, Dylan Thomas. The singer’s relationship towards poetry and his identity as a poet has never quite been in question – despite this, there have been some who questioned the authenticity of Dylan’s achievement as the 2016’s Nobel poet laureate.

When folk legend, Bob Dylan, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, many asked why a singer-songwriter who deals in melody and song was awarded a prize that celebrates the written word. In Dylan’s acceptance speech, he brilliantly addressed this question.

“When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how exactly my songs related to literature,” he said. Dylan was always a few steps ahead of everyone because he questioned everything, including himself. 

In his speech he elucidated as well as justified his belief as to why he may have received the award.

Why did Bob Dylan win the Nobel Prize in the first place?

In truth, Bob Dylan was just as surprised as everyone else when he received the award.

Dylan rose to prominence in the early 1960s as a folk singer and his 1963 album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was his second record, but it was his first to give a listener a taste of his artistic sensibilities. He always had a finger on the pulse; ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ posed a series of rhetorical questions about the timeless conditions of man; questions of peace, war, and freedom were answered in the ending of every verse with the refrain of “the answer my friend, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” 

In the Swedish academy’s official statement as to why they awarded the songwriter the award, they said they awarded him the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” 

In response, Dylan stated in his private meeting with the academy near the deadline for when he had to accept the award; “When I started writing my own songs, folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.”

Dylan continued to describe how literature has influenced and informed his understanding of these ‘poetic sensibilities’, explaining: “But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world, and I’d had that for a while. I learned it all in grammar school: Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, A Tale of Two Cities, all the rest.”

What separates Dylan, the songwriter from a writer of literature? From a foundational point of view, it doesn’t seem like there is much of a difference; in other words, he approached his lyric writing in his songs from the same educational background as a literary writer. 

“Typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by,” he continued. “I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics, and the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally.”

Throughout other parts of his speech with the academy that Dylan specifically requested not to have publicised or to invite any media attention to, Dylan describes in detail which three works of literature influenced him specifically. These were Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey.

“He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition,” Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius said in an interview.

Bob Dylan famously won the Nobel Prize in 2016. (Credit: Alamy)

Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize?

The reality, of course, is that some did not quite appreciate or support Dylan in receiving the award. “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars,” novelist, Rabih Alameddine wrote on Twitter, according to The New York Times.

“Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one,” Dylan once said. Dylan is no stranger to opposition. Throughout the ’60s the media has tried to establish Dylan as a caricature of the whimsical hippie who sings protest songs without understanding the nuances of politics. In response, Dylan has always maintained that he has never tried to pretend to be anything else than what he is; a “song and dance man” he once quipped in a press conference that resembled a firing squad.

“I came to realise that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago,” Sara Danius said. 

She added, “They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page. We enjoy [their] poetry, and I think Bob Dylan deserves to be read as a poet.”

The Swedish Academy’s secretary, Danius stated that those willing to look past their biases and to investigate into why Dylan was awarded this prize, should start with his lyric-heavy masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde.

“It’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his pictorial way of thinking,” she said. Blonde on Blonde is considered Dylan’s surrealist period; during this time, Dylan was hanging a lot with the writers associated with the Beat generation, such as, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the latter of which he was really close to.

Bob Dylan jamming with Beat writer Allen Ginsberg. (Credit: Elsa Dorfman)

Is Bob Dylan a poet?

To maintain that literature is bounded by the codex is naive and uneducated. Poetry did exist before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. The original poet was the minstrel – the travelling bard who performed on his lute on the street. Their job was to convey the news of the day through song and poetry. 

Danius continued to say, “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”

In support of this idea, Dylan said in his speech: “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story,” quoting The Odyssey. 

From a young age, Bob Dylan focused heavily on the poetry of his work. (Credit: Alamy)

Why did it take Dylan so long to accept the Nobel Prize Award?

Dylan didn’t go to Sweden to receive his diploma and medal until April, whereas the award ceremony happened on December 10th.

He declined the invitation to attend the traditional Nobel prize banquet in December, claiming that he had other commitments.

As a consequence, Dylan was given six months to fly to Sweden to officially accept the award which was mandatory to receive the monetary part of the award. Tradition maintains that the award recipient delivers a lecture at the official banquet. Since Dylan didn’t go in December, he had until June to record a lecture and meet with the Academy in person.

Dylan prepared an acceptance speech for the December 10th banquet ceremony which the United States Ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji delivered on behalf of the poet.

On that same day, fellow poet and songstress, Patti Smith filled in for Dylan and sung ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. Patti Smith recalled that exceptional day when two different poets were bonded in distance and mystery, in an article she wrote for The New Yorker: “On the morning of the Nobel ceremony, I awoke with some anxiety. It was pouring rain and continued to rain heavily. As I dressed, I went over the song confidently.” 

Struck with unfortunate and rare circumstances, going into the second verse, Smith had forgotten the lines but stayed vigilant and candid and started the song over again.

It is unclear what the specific reasons are as to why Dylan couldn’t show up. Either way, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, as this is fairly typical of Dylan’s behaviour. 

The legendary singer-songwriter has never fully catered to his audience; he has always done what he pleases and fulfils his artistic ambitions and not at the whim of anyone else.

The most obvious example of this was when Dylan went electric during the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, displeasing half the crowd, who were used to Dylan performing his songs on the acoustic guitar.

In typical Bob Dylan style, he was fashionably late when accepting his Nobel Prize. (Credit: Alamy)

What did other writers say about Dylan winning the Nobel Prize?

Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult first said encouragingly, “I’m happy for Dylan,” before asking “#ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?” 

The novelist Rabih Alameddine said, “this is almost as silly as Winston Churchill,” on Twitter. Alameddine was referring to when Winston Churchill won the same award which was similarly shrouded in ambiguity.

The former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who famously and successfully fought against the axis powers during World War II, was awarded the prize in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” 

Like Dylan, Churchill didn’t exactly write literature in the typical sense, but instead, exhibited the same virtues and values as a classic novelist.

More positively, in support of Dylan being the recipient; novelist, Salman Rushdie who wrote the controversial yet groundbreaking The Satanic Verses, said, “The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that.”

He added, “I intend to spend the day playing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Jokerman’, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and ‘It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’.”

Some were not friendly at all. For example, Irvine Welsh, writer of the cult classic book-turned-film, Trainspotting: “This is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

In a different vein, fellow musicians and songwriters were, of course, in support of Dylan winning the award. Roseanne Cash, daughter of the famous country singer Johnny Cash, said: “Holy mother of god. Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize.”

Other works by Bob Dylan

While Bob Dylan remains to this day a prolific songwriter and producer of records, he also published books of poetry and prose. Among these assorted works, include Tarantula, 1971 collection of poetry; Chronicles: Volume One, a memoir published in 2004.

Listen Bob Dylan’s taped lecture for the Nobel Academy: