Bob Dylan Explains His Roots, As Only He Can, With Nobel Lecture

Jun 5, 2017
Originally published on June 6, 2017 2:27 pm

Two months and change after he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in a small ceremony in Stockholm, Bob Dylan has delivered his Nobel Lecture, required of all laureates in order to finalize the award. "Now that the lecture has been delivered and made public, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close," writes Sara Danius, permanent secretary for the Swedish Academy, in a blog post.

The lecture, 26-and-a-half minutes long, finds Dylan contemplating the literary roots of his work and the nature of it, and of song, more elementally. "When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature," opens Dylan. "I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I'm gonna try and articulate it to you — and most likely it will go in a roundabout way."

He opens — as slow, thoughtful, Sesame Street-style piano plinks softly in the background, his paper rustling here and there — with some thoughts on Buddy Holly, who he says looms the largest in his life. "I felt a kin ... like he was an older brother. "Something about him seemed permanent." Dylan says Holly looked him straight in the eye, and claims that a day or two after that, Holly died. Through Holly and Leadbelly, he was exposed to the raw nerve and roots of American music. "I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads in country blues ... but everything else I had to learn from scratch," the last word pronounced 'scrats.'

"You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man, and that Frankie was a good girl, you know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek and you're pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums, the fifes that played lowly, you've seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen."

Dylan then examines his literary development by looking, through a refracted lens, at the three works that had the biggest impact on him personally and artistically — Moby-Dick, All Quiet On the Western Front and The Odyssey. He penetrates each in a near-breathless examination of the themes and plot points and contours and shapes and colors of each work, much as he does in that kaleidoscopic folk music family tree. "And that's it — that's the whole story," Dylan says of Moby-Dick, after an impressionistic monologue that could have been ripped from Finnegan's Wake.

"So what does it all mean," he wonders, concluding a pointillistic breakdown of The Odyssey. "[The themes] could mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that's all that's important. I don't have to know what a song means. I've written all kinds of things into my songs, and I'm not gonna worry about it — what it all means.

"Songs are unlike literature," he continues, softly contradicting the Academy. "They're meant to be sung, not read. The words of Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage, just as the lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get to listen to some of these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert, or on record, or however people are listening to songs these days."

Dylan closes with a quote from Homer: "Sing in me, oh muse / And through me, tell the story."

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