After Bob Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature last October, the literary commentariat wrestled with a fundamental question: Can song lyrics be literature? For some, the thought carried an unkind implication: Does something from the galaxy of pop music belong anywhere near the almighty pantheon of Great Lit?
This week, the Nobel Foundation released Dylan's lecture, a requirement for receiving the award (and its cash prize of about $900,000). In the speech, which is just over 4,000 words long — and about 27 minutes, in an accompanying recording — Dylan shows that he has been thinking about the question too, and gave a defense detailing his literary and musical influences, and ending on a note that every lit major should know. (Read — and hear — it at http://bit.ly/2rI2xSP.)
He begins with Buddy Holly, a hero who may surprise the professors but will be familiar to any Dylan fan. Holly presented the archetype of a performer who melded country, rock, and rhythm and blues, and gave an early inspiration. Expanding on a brief line when accepting the Grammy for album of the year in 1998, Dylan traced Holly's inspiration to a single glance he received from the musician when he was a teenager known as Bobby Zimmerman.
"He looked me right straight dead in the eye," Dylan wrote. "And he transmitted something. Something I didn't know what. And it gave me the chills." (On the audio recording, Dylan's voice is accompanied throughout by jazzy piano chords.)
He then chronicles the influence of Leadbelly and folk music before turning to several literary war horses that he said he read "way back in grammar school": Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
Moby-Dick, as he describes it, gave Dylan the tool of intertwining character voices and the theme of rebirth through a narrator. "Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave," he writes. But Ishmael survives the shipwreck, "in the sea floating on a coffin." The theme "works its way into more than a few of my songs," he wrote, but gave no examples. (That sound you hear is a dozen dissertations being started.)
All Quiet on the Western Front — which is also admired by President Donald Trump — portrays the hell of war, and the role of an artist to document it and give the world a reason to survive. Finally, Dylan turns to The Odyssey, with its themes of wandering, adventure and danger, and of returning home to a changed place.
What does it all mean? Dylan dodges answering directly. But he argues that songs both are and are not literature, the work of novels and plays and epic poems. "Songs are unlike literature," he wrote. "They're meant to be sung, not read." And he asks people to encounter his lyrics the way they were intended to be heard, "in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days."
But, he added, the granddaddy of Western literature was a singer and a lyric writer, too. "I return once again to Homer," he wrote, "who says, 'Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.' "
Dylan has had a tumultuous relationship with the Swedish Academy since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in the fall. The songwriter greeted the announcement by ignoring it for two weeks, declining to attend the prize ceremony in December and eventually accepting the award in private in March. The Swedish Academy's rules stipulate that to collect the prize's 8 million Swedish krona, winners must deliver a lecture within six months of the official ceremony, which would have made Dylan's deadline this Saturday.
"The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent," Sara Danius, the Swedish Academy's permanent secretary, wrote in a blog post. "Now that the Lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close."
Ben Sisario covers the music industry for the New York Times. He has written about the streaming music wars, Bob Dylan's secret archives, the world of high-tech ticket scalping and the lost pop music of Cambodia, among other subjects.
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