The Swedish Academy announced today that it will award the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The announcement breaks with convention, as past recipients of the prize have composed primarily in one or more of the traditional genres of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, or drama. According to the New York Times story by Altar, Chan, and Sisario, “the Nobel comes with a prize of eight million Swedish kronor, or just over $900,000. The literature prize is given for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.” Dylan is the first American to receive the honor since Toni Morrison in 1993.
Dylan is widely recognized as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, having been inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, while receiving twelve Grammy awards, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a special citation from the Pulitzer prize committee, Kennedy Center honors, a National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom along the way. With this capstone achievement, Dylan has indubitably fulfilled the destiny many of his fellow musicians ascribed to him long ago. As Jerry Garcia had it, “Dylan gave rock n’ roll the thing I’d wished it had when I was a kid—respectability, some authority. He took it out of the realm of ignorant guys banging away on electric instruments and put it somewhere else altogether.” Though Garcia did not live to see it, we now know that ‘somewhere else altogether’ is to be among the planet’s foremost creators and thinkers in the annals of the Swedish Academy.
Bob Dylan was born as Robert Allen Zimmerman May 24, 1941 in Duluth, MN, and was subsequently raised in nearby Hibbing, MN. At the age of nineteen, he cut out for Greenwich Village with a few songs and a guitar, a wannabe folk singer following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie. It was during this time, while performing at coffeehouses like the Gaslight Café and the Café Wha? that he honed his songwriting talent, cultivated his creative persona, and whetted his deft delivery to a razor-sharp edge. With the help of famed producer John Hammond, he released his eponymous debut in 1962. Its follow-up, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan came out in 1963, and when the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded the timeless single “Blowin’ in the Wind,” it skyrocketed to number two on the Billboard charts, thus catapulting Bob Dylan into the American consciousness. In August of 1963, at the age of twenty-two, Dylan, accompanied by Joan Baez, performed “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only a Pawn In Their Game” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Over the course of his decades-long career, Dylan has confounded audiences at every turn. In 1965 he took the Newport Folk Festival by storm, toppling the acoustic expectations of the folk enthusiasts in a blaze of electric guitar-driven guerrilla rock heretofore unknown, declaring “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” and taking the whole of pop music with him. In 1966, during the height of a hugely successful foray into electric rock, which saw the release of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, following a devastating motorcycle crash, he disappeared from the scene altogether, holing up with The Band in Woodstock, NY to work on The Basement Tapes in secrecy, which would not be released until 1975. Of this period, Allen Ginsberg said, “He was writing shorter lines, with every line meaning something. Each line had to advance the story, bring the song forward…There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath.”