In October 2016 Bob Dylan became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993. He also became the very first musician to ever be awarded the prize with the Swedish Academy saying he got it “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
The decision was obviously celebrated by his fans, but it was frowned upon by many writers and novelists. Who felt a little cheated by a singer songwriter—even one of Dylan’s stature—robbing them of a prize meant for them.
It’s a controversy that, in his playful, trolling, Dylanesque way, he indirectly addressed in his 27 minute Nobel Lecture in Literature he released on 5 June 2017. The lecture is a requirement if you want to receive the prize money of $900,000 and has to be submitted within six months of being awarded the Nobel. With only days to spare Dylan delivered, and it closes the somewhat strange episode of Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature.
When he was initially given the award it took him more than two weeks to accept it. At first it was met with complete silence by Dylan which caused one academy member to call him “impolite and arrogant.” Then his first response to it when asked by the Telegraph was simply “Isn’t that something…?” He then said he would attend the prize-giving ceremony in December 2016, but didn’t turn up.
It all seems fittingly Dylan, however. And so is this lecture. In it Dylan begins by asking what a lot of people who were irked by his receiving it asked: How is it that his songs are related to literature? “I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was.” Dylan begins, saying he’s going to try and articulate what that connection is—but then admits that it will most likely happen in a roundabout way.
And, in effect, doesn’t really answer the question. But also kind of does. Because what he does is discuss his own relationship to literature, in particular with three classics. Firstly there’s Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they're all whalers.” muses Dylan.
Then there’s Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about World War I All Quiet on the Western Front, “All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story.” notes Dylan. “This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You're stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You're defending yourself from elimination. You're being wiped off the face of the map.” Before concluding, “I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.”
And finally there’s Homer’s Odyssey, “He's always being warned of things to come. Touching things he's told not to.” Dylan drawls. “There's two roads to take, and they're both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve."
He talks about what they’re about and how they influenced him. Some influences are obvious, like in the lyrics for “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream” which state “I was riding on the mayflower when I thought I spied some land I yelled down to captain arab, I'll have ya understand.” Others not so, but by consuming the books, and many others, they fed into his music and lyrics.
Along with literature he also discusses the influence of folk stories and songs, how he absorbed them until they became part of him.
“By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular.” he says. “You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.” continuing, “I had all the vernacular down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries—and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.”
If you’ve ever listened to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, this lecture has a similar tone to its delivery and similar fireside intimacy about it. Like that it has Dylan’s distinctive slow, drawn out voice rambling over a soft piano playing in the background. And it’s equally as insightful and engaging. Have a listen to it below.
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