STOCKHOLM — American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday, a stunning announcement that for the first time bestowed the prestigious award on a musician.
The Swedish Academy cited Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Reporters and others gathered for the announcement at the academy’s headquarters in Stockholm’s Old Town reacted with a loud cheer as his name was read out.
Dylan had been mentioned in the Nobel speculation for years, but few experts expected the academy to extend the prestigious award to a genre such as popular music.
The academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, said that while Dylan performs his poetry in the form of songs, that’s no different from the ancient Greeks, whose works were often performed to music.
“Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear,” she said. “But it’s perfectly fine to read his works as poetry.”
Dylan’s Nobel recognition is “vindication” for Gordon Ball, an English professor who nominated the singer-songwriter for the award 15 years in a row beginning in 1996. Ball, who specializes in American literature and the Beat Generation, retired from Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, two years ago and now teaches at Washington and Lee University.
“There’s an enormous, almost a kind of unbelievability, that it finally happened,” Ball said by telephone early Thursday. “People thought I was crazy or really out of line” to suggest that Dylan should be awarded such a prize. But he notes that the committee has recognized a “wide latitude in terms of medium,” such as Winston Churchill’s oratory, and there’s a compelling argument that Dylan has had a good effect on the world.
With songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” on behalf of the civil rights movement, Dylan made a difference, Ball said.
“In short, he has changed the world for the better, I feel,” he said.
The governor of Bob Dylan’s home state said he is pleased that Minnesota native Dylan has won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Gov. Mark Dayton called the award “fantastic” and said he will issue a proclamation honoring Dylan, who was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing.
In Duluth, Mayor Emily Larson said she’s “super excited” and plans to issue a proclamation in honor of both Dylan’s prize and a local all-Dylan radio show on FM. Duluth honors Dylan with an annual Dylan Fest every spring.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which frequently chimes in on pop culture, wrote a brief article about Thursday’s award. The article noted some of Bob Dylan’s lyrics are beautiful, the work of a true artist who influenced entire generations. But it also stated he’s just a songwriter and that “real” writers who know what it takes to produce a book might not be happy with this year’s choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It said the Nobel committee certainly recognized Dylan’s “great talent.” But it said many of the artists inspired by Dylan’s beautiful songs subsequently wrote “truly boring” lyrics. And it said the Nobel decision certainly “must not have pleased real writers, such as potential winners Don De Lillo, Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami, who know the enormous work that goes into writing a novel.” The paper did praise Dylan for having steered clear of all the trappings of celebrity culture, saying he followed “an invitation to not conform, and think with his own mind.”
Dylan was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota. He grew up in a Jewish middle-class family. He’s the first American winner of the Nobel literature prize since Toni Morrison in 1992.
By his early 20s, he had taken the folk music world by storm. “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” became anthems for the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. Dylan was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his contributions to music and American culture.
President Barack Obama offered his congratulations to Bob Dylan for being awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Tweeting from his official POTUS account, Obama said: “Congratulations to one of my favorite poets, Bob Dylan, on a well-deserved Nobel.”
The literature award was the last of this year’s Nobel Prizes to be announced. The six awards will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.