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Does Bob Dylan Deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature?

The biographies of the literary greats tells us many things about these authors and the times in which they wrote.

Dylan performing at the Azkema Rock Festival in Vitoria, Spain in 2010

Dylan performing at the Azkema Rock Festival in Vitoria, Spain in 2010

Bob Dylan's Nobel Award

On October 15, 2016, the Nobel Committee announced that the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to the American troubadour and folksinger, Bob Dylan. Dylan earned this award by developing a strong lyrical content in his music recordings that date back to the early 1960s.

At first, Bob was not available for comment, but eventually, it became known that he would accept the prize and likely attend the awards ceremony that occurred on December 10th in Sweden.

Reactions to the News About Dylan's Nobel Prize

The reaction to the Dylan choice has been swift and varied. Many well-known authors such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, President Obama, Salman Rushdie, and Al Gore responded with praise and admiration.

"I am ecstatic that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel. A great and good thing in a season of sleaze and sadness." —Stephen King

"Congratulations to one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel." —President Obama

As expected not all reactions have been appreciative.

Amy King and Danniel Schoonebeek, two writers active with PEN, asked that Dylan turn down the award like Jean-Paul Sartre did in 1964. Schoonebeck explained it this way: “Everyone already knows his records front to back, he’s already a household name all over the world, does this award do anything to effect any change whatsoever?”

Dylan Responds:

"The news about the Nobel Prize left me speechless. I appreciate the honor so much."

Does a book of Dylan's complete lyrics validate his receiving the prestigious award?

Does a book of Dylan's complete lyrics validate his receiving the prestigious award?

Dylan Did Not Attend the Awards Ceremony

On November 16th, 2016, Bob Dylan announced that he would not attend the awards ceremony, though he still accepted the award and the large monetary sum that goes with the prize. According to the Academy, Bob wished "he could receive the prize personally, but other commitments make it unfortunately impossible."

Naturally, the prize committee was disappointed that Bob Dylan would not attend the December 10th gala in person, but nonetheless, they were quick to remind the popular singer that he has one obligation to fulfill in regards to accepting the $900,000 award:

"We are looking forward to Bob Dylan's Nobel lecture, which he must hold, according to the requirements, within six months' from December 10."

I imagine that the Swedish Academy were not the only ones eagerly awaiting a Dylan lecture, for the Minnesota native still has many fans and followers around the world and a Dylan lecture would be, as far as I know, a first of its kind.

Dylan's (aka Robert Allen Zimmerman's) Biography

Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941, as Robert Allen Zimmerman. After his father came down with polio at age six, the family moved to Hibbing, Minnesota, located not far from Duluth. After completing high school, Bob attended the University of Minnesota for a year. Then he dropped out, moved to NYC, where he began his music career by performing folk songs in a variety of Manhattan music venues. In March 1962, he recorded and released his first album, simply entitled Bob Dylan.

Despite some opposition from his recording company, Dylan released his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in May of 1963. This landmark album, which included such hits as "Blowin' In the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," launched Dylan's career.

A major turning point in Dylan's life occurred in 1966, when he was involved in a motorcycle accident in Woodstock, NY. This happened right after he had hooked up with members of the Band and gone electric. Recovery from the accident took months and required seclusion from the public. This may have been just what the songwriter/performer needed because, after the accident, Dylan continued to produce many wonderful ballads and songs, but at a more reasonable and manageable pace.

Bob Dylan has recorded over three dozen albums and done countless numbers of live concerts around the world. Even today, Dylan still tours.

Why Bob Dylan Won the Nobel Prize

China Responds

The response to the announcement of Dylan's Nobel was wide, varied, and mostly positive. It even drew comments from such far-off places as China. Zhang Yiwu a professor at Peking University had this to say about Bob Dylan and the award:

“This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was a complete surprise, an unexpectedly novel approach—a Black Swan, even. . . . But it’s a bold move for a prize that has been a staid presence in the literary landscape for so many years. It’s certainly innovative. In the age of the internet, anything’s possible.”

As expected, not everybody behind the Great Wall agreed with the choice. One writer, Zhu Yue chimed in to say, "Personally I think it should have gone to Murakami."

Dylan: A Modern-Day Homer

Members of the Nobel committee defended their groundbreaking decision by comparing Dylan's lyrics to the collected works of Homer (approx. 700 to 800 B.C.), the blind Greek storyteller, who traveled the countryside telling tales from the Trojan Wars accompanied by a stringed musical instrument called the lyre.

Sara Danils, permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, backed the choice in this way: "if you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it."

Other defenders of the Dylan choice have pointed out that Shakespeare didn't publish his plays or didn't even keep written records. It was only after the great bard's death that his works were published, and even in this regard, Shakespeare's contemporaries had to search far and wide to retrieve the text of all the performances.

Patti Smith Performed a Dylan Song at the Nobel Gala

In a December 5th article at Rolling Stone online, it was announced that Patti Smith would attend the Nobel Awards ceremony, where she would acknowledge Dylan's award and also perform "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." Smith had already agreed to perform at the event even before Bob Dylan had been publicly announced as the Literature recipient. After that news, instead of singing one of her own songs, she decided to render one of Dylan's classic numbers.

Dylan Releases Nobel Speech

June 4, 2017, Bob Dylan officially released his official Nobel speech, the one he was required to deliver if he were to receive his $900,000 award. The short, 27-minute spiel with a background of piano music that sounds like it came from the Holiday Inn, was released online and is available to anyone who cares to listen (see below).

Frankly, it is well worth the time invested, especially for anyone who truly relishes the songs and ballads of the great Minnesota-born bard. In the short 27 minutes that it takes to listen, Bob discusses the important influences that lead to his unique musical style of expression. These include the onstage style of Buddy Holly, the musical recordings of Leadbelly, along with three great pieces of literature, Moby Dick, All Quiet On the Western Front, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.

Dylan's Nobel Speech

Dylan's Lyrical Masterpieces

Top Ten Dylan Songs

My Take

My first reaction was one of surprise and disbelief. Since the awards began over a hundred years ago, the literature prize has always been presented to a writer, who has put his (or her) words on paper, so that they can be read and pondered by an audience that values the written word. Even though I greatly admire Mr. Dylan for his great contributions to popular culture, I'm not sure I want to see the literature award given to a folksinger/songwriter.

On second thought, I have grown to be much more appreciative of giving the award to Bob Dylan. The main rational here is that since the Nobel Prize is strictly limited through the will of Alfred Nobel, (awards are given only in literature, chemistry, medicine, physics and peace) flexibility in defining each category is a positive development. Besides, it is highly likely that the words of Dylan will be available in print for many generations to come....and I guess that is what ultimately defines great literature.

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