Bob Dylan is an American songwriter and singer who has sold over a hundred million records with influences from civil rights to philosophy. Now, he has once again been recognized for his five decades of work. In December 2016, the Nobel Committee awarded him with a Nobel Prize for Literature, making him one of the most controversial Nobel Laureates. The public was divided over whether a songwriter was eligible for a literary award.
The committee explained that Bob Dylan was selected for “creat[ing] new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” but many critics and novelists denounced the supposed cheapening of the Nobel Prize. Dylan further agitated the public by maintaining silence for two weeks after the announcement while the committee grew increasingly agitated. Finally, he accepted the prize but stated that he was unable to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Instead, he sent a speech that was read aloud by Azita Raji, an American ambassador.
In it, Dylan expressed his humble thanks and the honor to be among the literary greats. He addresses the debate of lyrics and literature by comparing his situation to that of William Shakespeare. What was going through Shakespeare’s mind while writing Hamlet? Perhaps: “ ‘Are there enough good seats for my patrons?’ ‘Where am I going to get a human skull?’” Bob Dylan states, “The farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’… Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’”
Professor and Nobel Committee member Horace Engdahl asked in his speech, “What matter the rank of a work when its beauty is of the highest rank?” …That is the straight answer to the question of how Bob Dylan belongs in literature: as the beauty of his songs is of the highest rank.” Engdahl continued on, proclaiming Bob Dylan “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greeks’ ἀοιδόι, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the Blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards.”
Bob Dylan is truly a step forward for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his works will have a lasting influence on music culture.