Hear Bob Dylan’s Newly-Released Nobel Lecture: A Meditation on Music, Literature & Lyrics

The furor sur­round­ing Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win in Lit­er­a­ture last Octo­ber now seems sev­er­al ages away. What was all that about again? Could it pos­si­bly have meant, as many a dis­grun­tled writer sug­gest­ed, that “peo­ple don’t care about books any­more”? Was this an “ill-con­ceived nos­tal­gia award,” as Irvine Welsh bit­ter­ly pro­claimed, bestowed by a com­mit­tee of “senile, gib­ber­ing hip­pies”? Even Dylan him­self seemed con­fused and embar­rassed. He remained silent after the announce­ment, ignor­ing the Swedish Academy’s calls and seem­ing to one Acad­e­my mem­ber “impo­lite and arro­gant.”

As any­one who has ever seen a Dylan inter­view from the mid-six­ties can attest, these qual­i­ties once defined his pub­lic per­sona. And yes, he isn’t near­ly as cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant now as he was in those days, when he played the near-untouch­able super­star and mer­cu­r­ial pop cul­ture savant. But the Swedish Acad­e­my vot­ed to cel­e­brate Dylan as a lit­er­ary writer, not a celebri­ty. And while writ­ers may fall in and out of fash­ion, we like to think of lit­er­a­ture as time­less. Many, per­haps most, authors award­ed the Nobel have been “past their prime,” in the sense of hav­ing a lifetime’s worth of work behind them. Dylan is cer­tain­ly no excep­tion.

The ques­tion of whether folk and rock and roll songs can be prop­er­ly con­sid­ered lit­er­a­ture is anoth­er mat­ter, but you’d have to be naïve not to know that all lit­er­a­ture began its life as song. Maybe much of it will return to this pri­mor­dial state in the future. Sens­ing that songcraft need­ed an advo­cate before crit­ics of lit­er­a­ture, when he record­ed his Nobel lecture–with musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment, on June 4th, six months after his win (hear him read it above)–Dylan dis­cussed the inter­de­pen­dence of the two. He point­ed to Homer’s Odyssey, an epic song in verse before it assumed writ­ten form, as the source for not only so much West­ern lit­er­a­ture, but also so much Amer­i­can folk song, includ­ing his own.

The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the bal­lads of a lot of song­writ­ers,” says Dylan, then he con­cedes that “songs are unlike lit­er­a­ture. They’re meant to be sung, not read.” That’s okay. “The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be act­ed on the stage,” not read by groups of stu­dents in uncom­fort­able desks and air­less rooms. No one became furi­ous­ly angry when play­wright Harold Pin­ter won the Nobel Prize in 2005. Should they have? But Dylan doesn’t pur­sue this line of rea­son­ing, and he doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly com­pare him­self to Shake­speare. Not quite.…

He did, how­ev­er, make a sim­i­lar argu­ment in his short accep­tance speech (read it here)—which he wrote and hand­ed to the U.S. Ambas­sador to Swe­den, Azi­ta Raji, to read in his place at the cer­e­mo­ny (see her deliv­er it above)–asking whether Shake­speare, and hence Dylan, should be con­sid­ered lit­er­a­ture: “I would reck­on he thought of him­self as a drama­tist… I would bet that the far­thest thing from Shake­speare’s mind was the ques­tion ‘Is this lit­er­a­ture?’” Like Shake­speare, Dylan writes, he has been busy with the exi­gen­cies of tour­ing, cre­at­ing ensem­bles, and per­form­ing: “not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs lit­er­a­ture?’” (Believe that or not.) He thanks the Swedish Acad­e­my for tak­ing up the ques­tion, and “for pro­vid­ing such a won­der­ful answer.”

In his new­ly-released record­ed lec­ture, at the top, Dylan also doesn’t answer the ques­tion direct­ly. He care­ful­ly con­sid­ers it—“wondering, exact­ly, how my songs relate to lit­er­a­ture.” He con­fess­es need­ing to “reflect on it, and see where the con­nec­tion was.” It is in the influ­ence of The Odyssey, Moby Dick, All Qui­et on the West­ern Front and oth­er great works. It is also, he sug­gests, in the way music par­tic­i­pates in lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, trad­ing sim­i­lar themes and estab­lish­ing sim­i­lar affil­i­a­tions. But he express­es no com­mit­ment to col­laps­ing the dis­tinc­tions between them. “His appar­ent atti­tude through­out the process” of win­ning the Nobel Prize, writes Emi­ly Tem­ple at Lit Hub, “has been… some­thing along the lines of: ‘okay, if you say so.”

“The fact that Bob Dylan doesn’t con­sid­er his songs lit­er­a­ture doesn’t make them not lit­er­a­ture, of course,” writes Tem­ple. We’re free to agree or dis­agree with him, but in either case his lec­ture might make us “con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that they will become lit­er­a­ture, as William Shakespeare’s plays have.” By that time, Shake­speare was long dead. While he still lives, Dylan con­cludes, “I hope some of you will get the chance to lis­ten to these lyrics the way they were intend­ed to be heard: in con­cert or on record or how­ev­er peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the sto­ry.’”

You can read the tran­script of Dylan’s lec­ture here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture for Cre­at­ing “New Poet­ic Expres­sions with­in the Great Amer­i­can Song Tra­di­tion”

Pat­ti Smith Sings Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rains Gonna Fall” at Nobel Prize Cer­e­mo­ny & Gets a Case of the Nerves

Kurt Von­negut on Bob Dylan: He “Is the Worst Poet Alive”

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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