Bob Dylan wins Nobel Literature Prize

October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan has been honoured by the Nobel committee "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition"

Bob Dylan has been honoured by the Nobel committee “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (AFP Photo/Kevin Winter)
 

Stockholm (AFP) – US music legend Bob Dylan, whose songs have influenced generations of fans, won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday, the first songwriter to win the prestigious award in a decision that stunned prize watchers.

The 75-year-old was honoured “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” the Swedish Academy said.

The choice was met by gasps and a long round of applause from journalists attending the prize announcement. The folk rock singer has been mentioned in Nobel speculation in past years, but was never seen as a serious contender.

The Academy’s permanent secretary Sara Danius said Dylan’s songs were “poetry for the ears.”

“Bob Dylan is a great poet in the large English-language tradition, from William Blake onwards,” Danius told Swedish news agency TT, calling him a “sampler of literature”.

Embodying both “the intellectual and popular tradition”, he has been influenced by the Delta blues, folk music from the Appalachians and French surrealists like Arthur Rimbaud, she said.

“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound,” the Academy wrote in biographical notes about the famously private singer.

The Nobel is the latest accolade for a singer who has come a long way from his humble beginnings as Robert Allen Zimmerman, born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, who taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and piano.

Captivated by the music of folksinger Woody Guthrie, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan — reportedly after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas — and began performing in local nightclubs.

– Civil rights campaigner –

After dropping out of college he moved to New York in 1960. His first album contained only two original songs, but the 1963 breakthrough “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” featured a slew of his own work including the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Armed with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Dylan confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner — and recording an astonishing 300 songs in his first three years.

Dylan’s first British tour was captured in the classic documentary “Don’t Look Back” in 1965 — the same year he outraged his traditionalist folk fans by using an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island.

The following albums, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” won rave reviews, but Dylan’s career was interrupted in 1966 when he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, and his recording output slowed in the 1970s.

By the early 1980s his music reflected the performer’s born-again Christianity, although this was tempered in successive albums, with many fans seeing a resurgence of his explosive early-career talent in the 1990s.

– ‘A class of his own’ –

Since the turn of millennium, as well as his regular recording output and touring, Dylan has also found time to host a regular radio show, the Theme Time Radio Hour, and published a well-received book “Chronicles,” in 2004.

He was the focus of at least two more films, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 “No Direction Home” and “I’m not There” in 2007 starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett.

Over the years Dylan has won 11 Grammy awards, as well as one Golden Globe and even an Oscar in 2001, for best original song “Things have Changed” in the movie “Wonder Boys.”

The choice stunned Stockholm’s literary circles and prize watchers. Most were approving, though some critical voices were heard.

The Academy has in the past been known to push the limits of the definition of literature. Late British prime minister Winston Churchill for example won the 1953 prize for his wartime speeches.

Swedish music journalist Stefan Wermelin compared the choice of the pop culture icon to that of American author John Steinbeck, who won the 1962 literature prize.

“At the time there were a lot of people who wrinkled their noses because he was a ‘light writer’, which of course is not true. He was a brilliant writer. The Academy needs to vary its choices. Sometimes it’s someone unknown whom few have read, and sometimes they pick someone who has popular appeal,” he said.

“But this is the first time the prize has gone to a musical form of expression and in that genre Dylan is totally in a class of his own.”

But Per Svensson, culture writer at Swedish regional daily Sydsvenskan, called this year’s choice “incredibly depressing” and a “Trumpification” of the prestigious prize to appeal to the masses.

Dylan will take home the eight million kronor ($906,000 or 822,000 euros) prize.

The literature prize caps the 2016 Nobel season, following more than a week of announcements for the awards for medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and peace, with the latter going to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to end a half-century war with the FARC rebels.

The laureates will receive their awards — a gold medal and a diploma — at formal ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death of prize creator Alfred Nobel.