Bob Dylan: Songs are, and are not, literature

Bob Dylan 2016 Nobel Lecture in Literature.VIDEO: NOBEL PRIZE ORGANIZATION
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

STOCKHOLM •After Bob Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature last October, a fundamental question was raised: 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, which is just more than 4,000 words long, Dylan, 76, showed that he has been thinking about the question too.

He began with Buddy Holly, a hero that 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 known as Bobby Zimmerman when he was a teenager.

"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 chronicled the influence of American folk and blues musician 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 described 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 argued that songs both are and are not literature. "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".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Bob Dylan: Songs are, and are not, literature'. Print Edition | Subscribe