Can song lyrics be considered as literature? Bob Dylan tackles issue in Nobel lecture

Bob Dylan 2016 Nobel Lecture in Literature.VIDEO: NOBEL PRIZE ORGANIZATION
Bob Dylan at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala.
Bob Dylan at the 25th anniversary MusiCares 2015 Person Of The Year Gala.PHOTO: AFP

STOCKHOLM (NYT) - After Bob Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature last October, the question arose: 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?

On Monday, the Nobel Foundation released Dylan's lecture, a requirement for receiving the award. In the speech, Dylan shows that he has been thinking about the question too.

He gave a defence detailing his literary and musical influences.

He begins with Buddy Holly, a hero that may surprise the professors but will be familiar to any Dylan fan.

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."

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.

The theme "works its way into more than a few of my songs", he wrote.

Dylan argues that songs both are and are not literature.

"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".