The singer and songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in the words of the Swedish Academy.
He is the first American to win since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, came as something of a surprise. Although Mr. Dylan, 75, has been mentioned often as having an outside shot at the prize, his work does not fit into the literary canons of novels, poetry and short stories that the prize has traditionally recognized.
“Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience,” the former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman wrote in a 2013 Op-Ed essay in The New York Times arguing for Mr. Dylan to get the award. “His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
Dylan’s music has been influenced by his Jewish heritage. From the Jerusalem Post:
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman and raised Jewish in Wisconsin, Dylan has maintained Israel ties throughout his life. He visited the country several times in the late 1960s and 1970s and even took steps toward joining a kibbutz. He played three shows in Israel in 1987, 1993 and 2011. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement pressed him to cancel his most recent performance — to no avail.
Even more recently, Israelis can thank Dylan for the 2014 Rolling Stones concert in Tel Aviv, the band’s first visit to the country. According to Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, Dylan gave them the idea.
And from Jeffrey Salkin’s Religion News story on Dylan’s 75th birthday earlier this year:
Consider this verse [from “With God on our Side,” on the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’]:
When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.
Today, American culture is filled with Holocaust references.
But, “With God On Our Side” came out in 1964.
At that point in American cultural history, references to the Holocaust were rare. Yes, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in the early 1950s. Yes, Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” published in 1960…
…Dylan was one of the first figures in American culture to mention the Holocaust.
In so doing, he actually helped American Judaism find its voice.
Top photo: Bob Dylan performing in Toronto, 1980, by Jean-Luc Ourlin – originally posted to Flickr as Bob Dylan, CC BY-SA 2.0
Lower photo: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, by Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain