If Bob Dylan was reluctant to give a Nobel lecture, he didn’t show it. On Monday, the Nobel foundation released audio and text of Dylan’s lecture—an impressive, thoughtful and poignant 4000 word reflection on the literary influences that helped shape him.
After winning the Nobel Prize in literature last October, Dylan refused to accept it in person. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge his win with a comment until two weeks after the initial announcement was made. Some interpreted Dylan’s radio silence as a sign that he didn’t want the recognition in the first place.
But as it turns out, Dylan was simply trying to process what it all meant to be the first musician to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Judging by his thoughtful and penetrating speech, it was something Dylan had to make sense of before he could adequately talk about it.
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature,” Dylan said from Los Angeles. “I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.”
Dylan spoke fondly of Buddy Holly, who he said he felt a kinship with from the moment he first heard him. “I felt related, like he was an older brother,” Dylan said. He also cited Leadbelly as a major musical influence, and credited “ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs,” with giving him the arsenal he needed to become one of our most enduring songwriters.
But when it came to explaining how he developed his virtuoso storytelling skills, Dylan credited some of the greatest literary minds the world has ever known, from Herman Melville and “Moby Dick” to Homer and “The Odyssey.”
But despite his ability to connect his own music to the great works of literature, Dylan still seemed to grapple with his place in the literary cannon.
“Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature,” he said. “They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days”
Listen to Bob Dylan eloquently reflect on his life and career below.