When Bob Dylan Won the Nobel Prize for Literature

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Bob Dylan outside his Woodstock home in 1968 © Landy Vision. Used with permission.

Bob Dylan outside his Woodstock home in 1968 (Photo © Elliot Landy; used with permission)

Bob Dylan, often called the spokesman for a generation, was a surprising, but worthy choice, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Two months later, the then-75-year-old singer-songwriter ended up not attending his own ceremony.

Dylan had just played the first of two weekend performances at the Desert Trip festival in California when the announcement was made.

The impact made by Dylan’s song lyrics—including “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” “The Times They Are a-Changin,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone”—for more than 50 years has had a profound impact not only on music but on other forms of literature.

“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound,” the Swedish Academy said upon announcing its choice, awarding Dylan its 8 million Swedish crown ($930,000) prize.

“He is probably the greatest living poet,” Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg said.

So what did the Bard have to say when the announcement was made? It took a while. It wasn’t until Oct. 28—more than two weeks after the news broke – that Dylan made a public comment about it.

It’s “amazing, incredible,” he told journalist Edna Gunderson during an interview for The Telegraph. “It’s hard to believe…Whoever dreams about something like that?” Dylan had been hush on the subject of his win until now, making no public statement and ignoring attempts by the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, to contact him.

Asked by Gunderson if he will attend the ceremony in Stockholm to accept his award, Dylan told her, “Absolutely. If it’s at all possible.” Asked then why he didn’t allow the prize committee to contact him, Dylan, in his usual cryptic way, responded, “Well, I’m right here.”

Bob Dylan and Patti Smith in an undated photo from Smith’s Facebook page

Turns out, he didn’t attend. Dylan had informed the Academy that he had a previous commitment and wouldn’t be in Stockholm to receive the award. Patti Smith did the honors at the event on Dec. 10, choosing a challenging song to represent the Dylan canon: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

She stumbled in her performance. “I apologize… Sorry, I’m so nervous,” she said. And with that, the audience erupted into applause, as they were quick to forgive the rock poetess.

Watch Smith’s performance. Her stumble is just past the two-minute mark

[For the record, Smith faltered again at around the 4:10 mark.]

Dylan composed an acceptance speech, which was read by United States Ambassador to Sweden, Azita Raji, at the Nobel Banquet that evening. Part of the speech noted: “I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming.

“When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind.”

When the Swedish Academy initially made the announcement of Dylan’s selection, Nobel Prize permanent secretary Sara Danius said: “He is a great poet in the English tradition.” Danius told a news conference there was “great unity” in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize. Danius compared Dylan to Ancient Greek poets: “Homer and Sappho wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed with instruments … it’s the same with Bob Dylan. Danius added that Dylan was “a great sampler… and for 54 years he has been at it, reinventing himself.”

Dylan was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since author Toni Morrison in 1993. He was also the first songwriter to receive it. He follows writers including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Alice Munro in receiving the award.

Literature was the last of 2016’s Nobel prizes to be awarded. The prize is named after dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and has been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.

Watch Dylan sing “The Times They Are a-Changin'” at the White House in 2013

Dylan has returned to the stage; tickets are available here and here.

Related: Listings for 100s of classic rock tours

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