Bob Dylan has delivered an insightful Nobel lecture, just in time to receive the money from the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to him by the Swedish Academy in 2016.
The only requirement to claim the money was for the recipient to deliver a lecture within six months of the prize ceremony. The ceremony was held on December 10, 2016, and so the deadline would have been June 10, 2017. Dylan did not attend the ceremony, but delivered the lecture as an audio file in which he reads the lecture over the tinkling of a piano track.
In announcing the award, the Swedish Academy said that Dylan was honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This inspired controversy over whether Dylan should have received the award for his music and lyrics, when traditionally the prize has been awarded for achievements in the written word.
The lecture seems to be Dylan’s attempt to reconcile that for himself, if not also for the benefit of the listener. He muses on the connection between the great literature that inspired and informed his artistic awakening, and his songwriting. For over half of the lecture, Dylan discusses three novels that greatly influenced his work. It’s reminiscent of a book report, but a superbly well-written book report with insightful synopses of each book and how they each affected him.
Here are some of the best quotes from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Lecture:
Winning the Nobel Prize:
When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m gonna try to articulate that to you and most likely it will go in a round-about way. But I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.
From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved. The music I grew up on. Country western, rock & roll and rhythm & blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs. Songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great. He sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype, everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play and I wasn’t disappointed. He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only 6 feet away, he was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot. His big, black glasses. The eyes behind the glasses. The way he held his guitar. The way he stood. His neat suit, everything about him. He looked older than 22. Something about him seemed permanent and he filled me with conviction. Then out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And he gave me the chills. I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down.
And somebody, somebody I had never seen before handed me a Leadbelly record, with the song ‘Cotton Fields’ on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of a sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.
I hadn’t left home yet, but I couldn’t wait to. I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually I did leave and I did learn to play those songs. They were different from the radio songs that I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards. But that didn’t matter in the folk world. Everything was a hit. All you had to do was be well-versed and be able to play the melody.
When I started writing my own songs the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew and I used it. But I had something else as well. I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I’d had that for awhile. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest. Typical grammar school reading. They gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics and the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard. And these themes were fundamental.
Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you.
All Quiet on the Western Front:
All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare, sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world. And now you’re shooting it to pieces.
In a lot of ways some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you have also felt that ill wind. The wind that blows you no good.
The Meaning of Songwriting:
So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs and I’m not gonna worry about it. What it all means.
Songs versus Literature:
That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They are meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you 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.’