Bob Dylan delivers his Nobel Prize Lecture

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Via YouTube of course.

For the record I’ve seen Bob Dylan perform several times and even met him once, at an 11-day music festival called Summerfest in Milwaukee, WI, where he was headlining one day nearly 30 years ago. I wrote about music back then, full of knowledge about everything, but not enough knowledge to be an expert on anything or anyone, least of all Bob Dylan. But I acted as if … From what I’ve witnessed in my years, Bob Dylan has never “acted as if …” about anything. Lesson learned.

  • Dylan is appearing at Summerfest again this year with Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and others.

Last year Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. No really, he did. Literature. It makes perfect sense … I guess.

But, Bob declined the notoriety of showing up for the ceremony in December, picking up a prize, giving a speech — he’s a musician/poet and actor so long ago. To be sure, Dylan has written six books and authored seven more focused on his visual art. But the Nobel Prize was awarded for his music, for “…having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

So Bob Dylan quietly declined the invitation to appear in Stockholm, Sweden for the yearly celebration and the chance to deliver a speech, a lecture, as the Nobel Committee calls it, to the people.

The U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, the honorable Azita Raji, delivered Bob’s initial acceptance speech during the December celebration. In it Bob said, “If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.” Patti Smith performed “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Most of us forgot about Dylan’s Nobel Prize after a while, reminded every few months by the few who never forget even the remotest of Dylan trivia, that Bob Dylan is a Nobel Laureate.

So it was with some surprise that on Monday (June 5, 2017) we got the message from the Nobel Foundation that Bob had recorded his Nobel Lecture on Literature in Los Angeles, after quietly picking up the prize while on tour in Europe a few months earlier.

In his lecture, Dylan began with, “When I first received this 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 going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

“If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. 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 ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand.”

He then went on to explain how Buddy Holly led him to other folk music, like Leadbelly, who led Dylan to other blues musicians.

He talks about singing to small groups (he calls them small crowds) of “four or five people” in small bars or on street corners, sometimes intimately, sometimes shouting to be heard above the din of the audience.

And he had to have a vast repertoire of songs to appeal to as many people as possible. “You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details,” he said in his lecture.

In his lecture Dylan speaks of his “… principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. 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 that 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.”

He then goes on to relate how three of those books he read in his youth relate to his music: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front (which he calls a horror story) and The Odyssey. Three books from vastly different times in human history, but three books that for Bob Dylan helped develop his principles and shape his view of the world and the people in it.

It’s a great lecture, about 4,100 words and 27 minutes long, but it’s worth listening to if you click on the video below. YouTube — It’s no surprise a man of the people would deliver his lecture on a platform free to the people.

At the end of the lecture Dylan says, “But songs are unlike literature. They’re 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.’ ”

You can find the transcript online at the Nobel Prize website, but it’s best consumed hearing it in that voice we’ve come to know so well — Bob Dylan. It makes perfect sense.