From tambourine man to literary genius

Times a-changin’: 30 years ago Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize award would have been unthinkable.

Yesterday the American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, the world’s most exalted prize for a writer. Now a storm rages: has this demeaned the Nobel?

Rudyard Kipling. WB Yeats. George Bernard Shaw. TS Eliot. William Faulkner. Ernest Hemingway. Boris Pasternak. John Steinbeck. Samuel Beckett. Saul Bellow. William Golding. Seamus Heaney. Harold Pinter. Nadine Gordimer. Alice Munro.

All of them are among the Nobel prize winners honoured during the 115-year history of the world’s most august award for literature. Men and women whose genius with words, sensitivity and learning have shone a light into the innermost recesses of the human soul.

Yesterday a new name joined the list. Bob Dylan, the 75-year-old songwriter, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, who began his musical career playing in coffee houses in Minnesota and who since the late 1980s has been roaming the world almost without interruption in what has been called the ‘Never-Ending Tour’.

Much of his best-known work dates from the 1960s, when he was adopted as an informal historian for the anti-Vietnam War and America’s civil rights movements with songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A-Changin’.

The judges said he was being honoured for ‘creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. ‘He is probably the greatest living poet,’ said one.

The Nobel committee permanent secretary Sara Danius compared him to Homer and Sappho, classical Greek writers whose work was also meant to be performed with instruments. ‘For 54 years now he’s been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity,’ she said. She cited the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde with ‘its brilliant way of rhyming, and his pictorial thinking’.

Hardly were the words out yesterday when the furious backlash began. There were three main lines of attack: (i) a song is not literature because the latter you read whereas a song has to be sung to be any good (ii) literary prizes should be for literary achievement and Dylan is a musician (iii) the Nobel is partly there to reward unsung genius and Dylan does not need it because he already has a host of awards including 11 Grammys and an Oscar.

Another Keats?

This is a cheap move by the Swedish Nobel committee to appear less elitist, say some. A culture that gives Bob Dylan a literature prize is a culture that nominates Donald Trump for president. It is a culture uninterested in quality and concerned only with satisfying raw emotional need.

Nonsense! says Boston professor Christopher Ricks who has written a 500-page book about Dylan’s greatest hits concluding he is among the finest poets of all time, on the same level as Milton, Keats, and Tennyson. ‘From Orpheus to Faiz, song and poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,’ said Salman Rushdie yesterday.

You Decide

  1. Is the fact that no women won any Nobel prizes this year, the bigger story?
  2. Dylan writes pop. And pop is the highest art form. Do you agree?


  1. Choose a short poem and set it to music.
  2. Read the lyrics to Dylan’s song Tempest. List all the literary references you can find. What is the song about?

Some People Say...

“I totally get the Nobel prize committee. Reading books is hard.”

Gary Shteyngart

What do you think?

Q & A

I hardly know who Bob Dylan is!
Don’t be embarrassed about that. Though he is one of the greatest songwriters on the planet, the height of his fame was well before you were born. His music isn’t really easy either. His voice is famously gravelly and difficult to decipher. But listen to Like a Rolling Stone to hear him at his brilliant best and see what you think.
Like it. But why the fuss? Is he really that great?
His enormous output of songs and recordings has a permanence and a scale of achievement far superior to those of most other popular artists.
Will it change the Nobel prize?
The decision elevates song lyrics to being on a par with literature, poetry and playwriting. It’s a big step away from the self-perpetuating intellectualism and elitism for which the award was known.

Word Watch

Bob Dylan
Moving to New York in 1961 he helped popularise the ‘folk music boom’. His second LP (1963) secured his fame as a songwriter when other artists had big hits with his songs like Blowin’ in the Wind; while A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall exemplified his poetical language.
Never-Ending Tour
Since beginning the ‘NET’ in 1988 Dylan has played about 100 shows a year all around the world, taking his songs to as many countries and towns as possible.
Once saying ‘you name it I’ll protest about it’; Dylan has not seen himself as a political activist.
Two controversial instances: ‘going electric’ in 1965 Dylan was accused of ‘selling out’ folk music; in 1979-81 he released three strongly evangelical Christian albums — to the dismay of some secular fans.
Greatest hits
Ricks’ book Dylan’s Visions of Sin (Penguin 2003) treats Dylan’s lyrics in three groups – sins, virtues, graces.
As in Homeric epic poetry, bards were professional storytellers in verse and music. Some Dylan songs have strong narrative elements, others are in more lyrical style comparable to Keats.


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