Not only are Bob Dylan’s songs loved by millions around the world, but his skills as a songwriter within the great American song tradition have also long been recognized. When this recognition culminated in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, however, some were left wondering whether praise for Dylan as a wordsmith had gone a step too far. Here, we will take a look at Dylan’s background and discography before weighing up both sides of the argument over whether he deserved to be made a Nobel laureate or whether he was unfairly privileged over other writers.
Who is Bob Dylan?
Though internationally famous as Bob Dylan, Robert Allan Zimmerman was born on May 24th, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, before moving to Hibbing, Minnesota when he was six and where he spent the rest of his childhood. He adopted the stage name Dylan after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who performed legendary poetry readings in the US and significantly influenced such American countercultural movements as the Beat Generation. And, in turn, the influence of Allan Ginsburg (the Beat Generation’s most notable poet) can be detected in the free-association lyrics of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.
While a student at Hibbing High School, Dylan performed in various school bands, performing covers of rock and roll songs by the likes of Elvis Presley and Little Richard. In 1959, however, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he first encountered American folk music. Here, he soon began performing on the folk music circuit under the name Bob Dylan.
His time in Minneapolis was brief; however, dropping out of university at the end of his first year in 1960. He moved to New York, where his career took off. In 1962, he released his debut album, Bob Dylan, which, though he would later be famed for his songwriting, contained only two original compositions.
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His next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), in contrast, featured political protest songs penned by Dylan himself, including “Oxford Town” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” while the song “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” seemed eerily to predict the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The political element to Dylan’s songwriting and public persona was also reflected in his third album, The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964), and in his involvement in the US Civil Rights Movement. (In 1971, he would release the song “George Jackson” in tribute to the assassinated Black Panther leader).
As his adoption of a stage name might suggest, Dylan not only has a genius for self-invention but a knack for continually reinventing himself throughout his career. His next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, was a lighter, more impressionistic offering, marking a break from his earlier work. Since then (Dylan continues to make music to this day), he has continually adapted his music, ranging widely among styles and genres and sampling electric, blues, country, rock, and American folk.
Outrage among the Literati
When it was announced on October 13th, 2016 that Bob Dylan would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that year, many were outraged by the Swedish Academy’s decision to privilege a singer-songwriter and musician over a more conventional literary writer. Unsurprisingly perhaps, some of this outrage was expressed by writers, who took to Twitter to vent their displeasure.
The novelist Rabih Alameddine, for example, compared Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to “Mrs. Fields being awarded three Michelin stars” and said that it was “almost as silly as Winston Churchill” being awarded the coveted and prestigious prize in 1953 for his biographical and historical writings, as well as his oratory. Popular novelist Jodie Picoult stated that she was “happy for Dylan,” though she followed up this remark with the rather sarcastic question, “#ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?”
In a similar vein, Jason Pinter drolly asked whether Dylan’s Nobel Prize meant that Stephen King “could get elected to the Rock N’ Roll hall of fame.” Despite being a self-confessed fan of Dylan’s work, Irvine Welsh did not mince his words, dismissing Dylan’s Nobel as “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”
And Hari Kunzru declared it “the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush,” arguing that while the Nobel Prize could have been awarded “to [Javier] Marias or Ngugi [sic] [wa Thiong’o] or Yan Lianke or [Dag] Solstad or [Dubravka] Ugresic [sic]” and so introduced their work to a wider readership, it had instead been given to someone who’s work with which we were all already familiar. Kunzru’s line of argument, however, raises the question: is the purpose of the Nobel Prize in Literature primarily to reward writerly excellence, or is it to raise the profiles of its recipients?
Rebuttal: Musicians & Writers Rally Round Dylan
Other writers, however, were more supportive of Dylan’s 2016 honor. Stephen King declared himself “ecstatic,” while Joyce Carol Oates deemed it an “inspired & original choice.” In addition, novelist Salman Rushdie praised both the Nobel Academy and Dylan, stating that “the frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognizes that.” He also tweeted that “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” arguing that the line between song and poetic verse has always been blurred.
Rushdie’s sentiments were echoed by the late Sara Danius, the first woman ever to lead the Swedish Academy, who awarded Dylan the Nobel “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Danius cited the ancient Greek poets Homer and Sappho, both of whom composed “poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, they were meant to be performed, often together with instruments.” Just as “we still read Homer and Sappho,” Danius claimed that Dylan’s work “can be read, and should be read,” heralding him as “a great poet in the English tradition, in the grand English poetic tradition.” She cited his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde as an exemplification of both Dylan’s formal brilliance and his “pictorial thinking.”
It should also be noted, of course, that Dylan has published memoirs and a poetry collection. In addition, the 2017 Nobel Laureate, Kazuo Ishiguro, is an avowed Bob Dylan fan who wrote songs before turning his considerable talents to prose fiction.
And, of course, fellow musicians were delighted by the news. British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, for example, congratulated Dylan on his win and his artistic contribution. Moreover, singer-songwriter, poet, and memoirist Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at Dylan’s award ceremony, which he did not attend.
Bob Dylan’s Response
Awarding Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was bound to be controversial, and Dylan remained silent for a few days following the announcement. He finally broke that silence after being directly questioned by the music journalist Edna Gundersen. He described the honor as “amazing” and “incredible,” before stating (somewhat bemusedly, perhaps), “It’s hard to believe … Whoever dreams about something like that?”
As mentioned earlier, however, Dylan did not attend the award ceremony in person due to “pre-existing commitments.” On April 2nd, 2017, Danius confirmed that Dylan had met with the Swedish Academy in a private ceremony to accept his gold medal and diploma. On June 5th, 2017, he gave his Nobel lecture, in which he quoted Homer’s Odyssey:
“Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. […] I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.’”
Dylan echoes Danius’ comments on Homer and Sappho but seems to diverge from Danius’ thinking on songs as literature. While Danius sought to situate Dylan within a poetic tradition, Dylan states that “songs are unlike literature” insofar as they are intended for performance. But that is equally true of Shakespeare’s plays, as Dylan states, yet surely this does not debar them from being classed as works of literature, just as no one could accuse Shakespeare’s works of lacking literary merit. If anyone had been hoping for Dylan to make a case for songs as a form of literature, Dylan instead seemed intent on further muddying the waters.
Bob Dylan being made a Nobel laureate was certainly not the most surprising nor destabilizing election choice made in 2016, a fact to which Stephen King presumably was referring when he deemed Dylan’s win a “great and good thing in a season of sleaze and sadness.” And nor is he (politically or morally speaking, at least) the most controversial Nobel laureate, following Peter Handke’s win in 2019.
When asked whether Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Sara Danius’s reply was simple: “Well, of course he does. He just got it.” And yet the furor surrounding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature suggests that his worthiness is not so self-evident as Danius would care to imply, and instead begs the question: did he deserve this highest of literary honors? Can counterculture compete with or be equated with high culture?
The Swedish Academy has a history of being criticized for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to less-deserving candidates, and not every Nobel laureate will be to everyone’s taste. The question as to whether Dylan is a deserving Nobel laureate or not, therefore, is ultimately for each individual to decide for themselves.