Bob Dylan performing at the Hollywood Palladium in 2012. Credit Christopher Polk/Getty Images
LONDON — The singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in the words of the Swedish Academy.
He is the first American to win since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, came as something of a surprise. Although Mr. Dylan, 75, has been mentioned often as having an outside shot at the prize, his work does not fit into the literary canons of novels, poetry and short stories that the prize has traditionally recognized.
“Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience,” the former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman wrote in a 2013 Op-Ed essay in The New York Times arguing for Mr. Dylan to get the award. “His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
Mr. Dylan was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn., and grew up in Hibbing. He played in bands as a teenager, influenced by the folk musician Woody Guthrie, the authors of the Beat Generation and modernist poets.
He moved to New York in 1961 and began to perform in clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village. The following year, he signed a contract with the record producer John Hammond for his debut album, “Bob Dylan” (1962). His many other albums, which the Swedish Academy described as having “a tremendous impact on popular music,” include “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Blonde On Blonde” (1966) and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997) and “Modern Times” (2006).
“Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love,” the Swedish Academy said in a biographical note accompanying the announcement. “The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title ‘Lyrics.’ As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter.”
The academy added: “Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured persistently, an undertaking called the ‘Never-Ending Tour.’ Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
Mr. Dylan, whose original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, joins a number of American Jews who have been awarded the prize. Unlike Mr. Dylan, they were born abroad: Saul Bellow, born in Canada, won in 1976; Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland and wrote in Yiddish, won in 1978; Joseph Brodsky, born in the Soviet Union, won in 1987. The American-born novelist Philip Roth has been frequently mentioned as a possible recipient.
The Nobel, one of the world’s most prestigious and financially generous awards, comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $900,000. The literature prize is given for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.
Lynn Neary NPR
Bob Dylan performs in Chicago in 1978. He is the first American to claim the Nobel Prize in Literature since Toni Morrison won in 1993.
Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. In doing so, the prolific musician became the first American to win the prize in more than two decades. Not since novelist Toni Morrison won in 1993 has an American claimed the prize.
Dylan won the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the citation by the Swedish Academy, the committee that annually decides the recipient of the Nobel Prize. The academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, announced the news Thursday.
The win comes as something of a shock. As usual, the Swedish Academy did not announce a shortlist of nominees, leaving the betting markets to their best guesses. And while Dylan has enjoyed perennial favor as an outside shot for the award, few expected that the musician would be the first to break the Americans’ long dry spell — not least because he made his career foremost on the stage, not the printed page.
Yet few would argue Dylan has been anything but influential, both in the U.S. and beyond its borders. The prolific singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has produced dozens of albums, including The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited and Blood on the Tracks. His track “Like a Rolling Stone” has taken on mythic standing in the decades since its release; many, including Dylan himself, have pointed to it as emblematic of a sea change in American music.
“Tin Pan Alley is gone,” Dylan proclaimed in 1985, referring the dominant conventions established by music publishers of the early 20th century. “I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.”
Dylan, who was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941, “has the status of an icon,” the Swedish Academy wrote in a biographical note. “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
In an interview following the announcement, Danius elaborated on the Swedish Academy’s decision: “He is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition, and he is a wonderful sampler — a very original sampler,” Danius explained. “For 54 years now he has been at it and reinventing himself, constantly creating a new identity.”
And for that, he has been duly rewarded by critical community.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded since 1901 to writers who have produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” In that time, 109 prizes have been distributed to 113 writers. This year, the prize carries with it a purse of approximately $900,000 and, as usual, inclusion on literature’s most illustrious list — the pantheon of Nobel winners.
The 75-year-old artist will receive his award in Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 10.
God is a colossal joker, isn’t She?
We went to bed last night having learned that the Man Who Will Not Go Away was, according to the Times, no mere purveyor of “locker-room talk”; no, he has been, in fact, true to his own boasts, a man of vile action. The Times report was the latest detail, the latest brushstroke, in the ever-darkening portrait of an American grotesque.
Then came the news, early this morning, that Bob Dylan, one of the best among us, a glory of the country and of the language, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ring them bells! What an astonishing and unambiguously wonderful thing! There are novelists who still should win (yes, Mr. Roth, that list begins with you), and there are many others who should have won (Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Auden, Levi, Achebe, Borges, Baldwin . . . where to stop?), but, for all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.
And please: let’s not torture ourselves with any gyrations about genre and the holy notion of literature to justify the choice of Dylan; there’s no need to remind anyone that, oh, yes, he has also written books, proper ones (the wild and elusive “Tarantula,” the superb memoir “Chronicles: Volume One”). The songs—an immense and still-evolving collected work—are the thing, and Dylan’s lexicon, his primary influence, is the history of song, from the Greeks to the psalmists, from the Elizabethans to the varied traditions of the United States and beyond: the blues; hillbilly music; the American Songbook of Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter; folk songs; early rock and roll. Over time, Dylan has been a spiritual seeker—and his well-known excursions into various religious traditions, from evangelical Christianity to Chabad, are in his work as well—but his foundation is song, lyric combined with music, and the Nobel committee was right to discount the objections to that tradition as literature. Sappho and Homer would approve.
To keep dull explanation at bay and to maintain the distance of mystery, Dylan has spent six decades giving interviews that often deflect more than they explain—it’s part of the allure, the fun of Dylan fandom to follow this stuff—but there have been many other times when he has spoken for himself in the clearest way possible. He did so last year when accepting an award from MusiCares, a charity that helps musicians in need:
These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.
The first record I ever purchased was a compilation called “The Best of ’66.” I must have bought it for “Help!” and “Cloudy,” but the song that stuck was “I Want You”:
The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you . . .
I want you, I want you . . .
How those lyrics and the Nashville-inflected music of that record—“that wild mercury sound,” Dylan called the recordings, on “Blonde on Blonde”—must have struck a seven-year-old is something that I would rather not contemplate. Who can remember? All I can tell you is that song was all I had to hear and that I was lost, and remain happily lost, in Dylan’s musical and lyrical world. It gave me most of everything: a connection to something magical and mysterious and human, connections to countless other artists. Somewhere along the way, if you’re very young and lucky, something, or someone, maybe an artist, points you in some direction, gives you a hint of where things are to be found and seen and listened to. Dylan’s records led me to so many other things of value: the Modernists and the Beats, the early music he incorporated into his own, a general sense of freedom and possibility. It has been that way for millions of others, and that’s part of what the Nobel honors.