Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

There’s been discussion about the Nobel Prize being given to Bob Dylan as not being appropriate. That Dylan does not achieve the heights of great writers and poets. It’s a conservative argument about standards. I don’t reject those arguments as conserving what is great from the past separates us from animals. But having standards doesn’t mean rejecting anything new out of hand.

Dylan himself questions the validity of his receiving the award. This more than anything, more even than his humility in laying out so many others as influential in his development, giving them credit at the table, shows the man’s character and seriousness. It is said, “We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

It is true that Dylan grew out of the pop/folk culture. But he aspired, was influenced by the fine arts; he absorbed some of the lessons of the spectacular achievements of the west.

He mentions as strong influences Moby Dick, John Donne, All Quiet on the Western Front, Homer – his influences are numerous, various and unassailable. There is something modest and touchingly forthright about his references to all those to whom he feels in debt. 

But Dylan doesn’t just refer to high art, but to pop culture as well, because at this period, pop culture has such a huge impact on people as they develop. Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson (the great blues singer), New Lost City Ramblers, Leadbelly.

Dylan says “ I wanted to know all about it and play that kind of music. I still had a feeling for music I’d grown up with, but for right now, I forgot about it…They were different than the radio songs I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn’t matter in the folk world.”

Dylan internalized it. “You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea chanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points and you learn the details.”

Some have questioned whether the obscurity of some of Dylan’s lyric references are meaningless patter. They quote Dylan as saying that, “I don’t know what they [the lyrics] mean.” Of course, Nobel laureate Milosz said the same thing. People would come to Milosz and ask what his poems meant and he would say that is not how it works. That he did not know what they meant. You aren’t illustrating ideas. You are opening a portal of feeling and spirit.

We may not really understand why Van Gogh painted with such crude haste, such un-nuanced explosive images. But the reason Van Gogh persists is that anyone looking at his images without prejudice can see the intensity of feeling, the spirit in struggle. That isn’t a meaning, it is a direct expression sensed from one person to another. It is the bridge between souls which art enables.