In October, the Nobel Foundation announced that Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Dylan is the 113th person to receive the prestigious award, and created history as the fist musician to become a Nobel Laureate in his respective discipline. The Nobel Foundation’s bestowment of the award upon Dylan places the songwriter and musician among the venerable ranks of Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, and Toni Morrison.
Yesterday, December 10, the Nobel Prize Ceremony was held in Stockholm century, continuing the tradition of hosting the event on the date of Alfred Nobel’s death, and in the ceremony founder’s birthplace. Bob Dylan was not present for the honorific banquet, but penned a characteristically eloquent acceptance speech, which Azita Raji, the United States’ Ambassador to Sweden, delivered on his behalf.
In his speech, Dylan wrote about (among varied other topics), William Shakespeare, the playwright so legendary, his works are among the most revered entries in not only the dramatic canon, but that of literature as well.
“I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things…I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question ‘Is this literature?’”
Dylan wrote of his early motivations, path to success, and saliently remarked that “it is “harder to play for 50 people” than 50,000 because the larger audience manifests “a singular persona,” before comparing his own state of indeterminacy regarding his literary contributions to that of Shakesepeare. In standard Bob Dylan form, he wove his self-inquisitions into a humbled statement of gratitude.
“But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’ Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”
Indeed, music, in its greatest form, transcends artistic boundaries. Bob Dylan’s decades of songwriting, and the poignant profundity of his lyrics are of Shakespeare’s legendary, multifaceted ilk. Though musicians of Bob Dylan’s caliber are of the utmost rarity, we hope that more artists will be inspired to follow in his footsteps to achieve similar degrees of depth.
We extend our congratulations unto you, Mr. Dylan. Your win is well-deserved.
Read the full transcript of Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech below, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation:
Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.
I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: [Rudyard] Kipling, [George Bernard] Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, [Ernest] Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.
I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.
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.
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.
Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.
But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.
But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
My best wishes to you all,
H/T: Pigeons & Planes
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