For more than six decades he has remained a mythical force in music, his gravelly voice and poetic lyrics musing over war, heartbreak, betrayal, death and moral faithlessness in songs that brought beauty to life’s greatest tragedies.
But Bob Dylan’s place as one of the world’s greatest artistic figures was elevated further on Thursday when he was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
After the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice and said it had “not been a difficult decision”.
“We hoped the news would be received with joy, but you never know,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter to the works of Homer and Sappho.
She added: “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize. He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onwards. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist, in a highly original way. Not just the written tradition, but also the oral one; not just high literature, but also low literature.”
Though Dylan is considered by many to be a musician, not a writer, Danius said the artistic reach of his lyrics and poetry could not be put in a single box. “I came to realise that we still read Homer and Sappho from ancient Greece, and they were writing 2,500 years ago,” she said. “They were meant to be performed, often together with instruments, but they have survived, and survived incredibly well, on the book page. We enjoy [their] poetry, and I think Bob Dylan deserves to be read as a poet.”
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941, Dylan got his first guitar at the age of 14 and performed in rock’n’roll bands in high school. He adopted the name Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas, and, drawn to the music of Woody Guthrie, began to perform folk music.
He moved to New York in 1961, and began performing in the clubs and cafés of Greenwich Village. His first album, Bob Dylan, was released in 1962, and he followed it up with a host of albums now regarded as masterpieces, including Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and Blood on the Tracks in 1975.
He is regarded as one of the most influential figures in contemporary popular culture, though his music has always proved divisive. Speaking last year, Dylan complained: “Critics have been giving me a hard time since day one.”
Dylan’s own response to receiving the prize is unknown. He rarely gives interviews, and has a troubled relationship with the fame attached to his decades of popularity. However, he has toured almost non-stop since 1988 and last weekend he played the inaugural Desert Trip festival in California, alongside other giants of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Paul McCartney and Neil Young.
Among the musical, literary and even academic communities, respected figures expressed their delight at Dylan’s Nobel prize. Speaking to the Guardian, Salman Rushdie said he was delighted by Dylan’s win and said his lyrics had been “an inspiration to me all my life ever since I first heard a Dylan album at school”.
“The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that,” said Rushdie. “I intend to spend the day playing Mr Tambourine Man, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Like a Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind, Jokerman, Tangled Up in Blue and It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.
He was echoed by Jarvis Cocker, who said it was a “great choice” and highlighted 1963 track Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright as a personal favourite. “It’s a great break-up song: he’s making light of it but one or two little digs show that he is actually a bit upset,” said Cocker. “I think Dylan’s sense of humour is often overlooked.”
Prof Seamus Perry, chair of the English faculty at Oxford University, compared Dylan’s talent to poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, calling the songwriter “representative and yet wholly individual, humane, angry, funny, and tender by turn; really, wholly himself, one of the greats”.
Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the prize was “a wonderful acknowledgement of Dylan’s genius. For 50 and some years he has bent, coaxed, teased and persuaded words into lyric and narrative shapes that are at once extraordinary and inevitable.”
Author Joyce Carol Oates said there should be no question about Dylan’s work being considered literature, calling him an “inspired and original choice”. “His haunting music and lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, literary,” she said.
Will Self, however, called on Dylan to follow French philospher Jean Paul Sartre’s example and turn down the prize.
“My only caveat about the award is that it cheapens Dylan to be associated at all with a prize founded on an explosives and armaments fortune, and more often awarded to a Buggins whose turn it is than a world-class creative artist,” said Self. “Really, it’s a bit like when Sartre was awarded the Nobel – he was primarily a philosopher, and had the nous to refuse it. Hopefully Bob will follow his lead.”
Not everyone was overjoyed by the announcement, however. Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, said though he was a Bob Dylan fan “this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies”.
British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru was equally sceptical. “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush,” he said.
The winner of the Nobel prize for literature is chosen by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, who are looking for “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, according to Alfred Nobel’s will.
The prize was expected to be announced last week, in the same week as the science medals, and the delay prompted speculation that the panel could not agree on a winner – though this was rebuffed by Danius.
Danius advised those unfamiliar with the work of Dylan to start with the 1966 album Blonde on Blonde.
“It’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming, putting together refrains, and his pictorial way of thinking,” she said. When she was young, she admitted, she was “not really” a Dylan fan, preferring the works of David Bowie. “Perhaps it’s a question of generation – today I’m a lover of Bob Dylan,” she said.
Major writers believed to have been in the running for the award included the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the American Don DeLillo and the Japanese Haruki Murakami.
At Ladbrokes, where the singer was at 16/1 from 50/1 when betting was suspended, spokesman Alex Donohue said that “a lot of people scoffed when his odds came in to 10/1 from 100/1 in 2011. Looks like there was something blowin’ in the wind after all”.
Dylan is the first American to win the Nobel prize for literature since Toni Morrison took the prize in 1993. His triumph follows comments in 2008 from Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, that “the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature … That ignorance is restraining.”
Today, a jury now headed by Engdahl’s successor have obviously changed their mind.