“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.”
This seemed to be the central thesis of Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture, which the Nobel Foundation released Monday. Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature last October.
The lecture is a requirement of Nobel prizewinners, who have six months after the awards ceremony to deliver it. Generally, recipients give these lectures at the prize ceremony. But Dylan, ever the dissident, skipped the ceremony entirely.
Instead, he wrote and later recorded his speech in Los Angeles, turning it in to the Swedish Academy many months later. This isn’t entirely without precedent. In 2013, the Nobel lecture in literature was replaced with a prerecorded video conversation with its winner, Alice Munro.
“The speech is extraordinary and, as one might expect, eloquent,” Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said in a blog post. “Now that the Lecture has been delivered, the Dylan adventure is coming to a close.”
Dylan’s lecture appeared to address some of the criticism lobbed at both him and the Swedish Academy by those who believed a musician shouldn’t win a literature award, a debate explored in-depth in The Washington Post.
The speech — clocking in at around 4,000 words in text or about 27 minutes in an accompanying video in which he delivered the speech over jazz piano riffs — showcased Dylan at his most reflective. It was essentially a thesis on his influences, both in literature and music.
“When I first received this Nobel Prize for literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature,” he began. “ … 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.”
Indeed, the lecture featured a mixture of specificity and vagueness, connecting influences as seemingly disparate as “Moby Dick” and Charlie Poole, the country banjo player. In that way, it brought to mind some of Dylan’s longer and most enduring works of storytelling, such as “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” or “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
The speech began with one of the fathers of rock-and-roll, Buddy Holly.
“Buddy died when I was about 18 and he was 22,” Dylan said. “From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother.”
Holly “seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction,” but it was a song by Huddie Ledbetter, a blues musician known as Lead Belly, that changed his life.
I think it was a day or two after that that [Holly’s] plane went down. And somebody — somebody I’d never seen before — handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cotton Fields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.
That launched Dylan into the world of folk, rhythm and blues, where he learned a new vernacular through “ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs.”
“You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket,” he said. “Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl.”
But he found his storytelling chops in literature he read “way back in grammar school,” including “Moby-Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Odyssey.”
Herman Melville’s epic tale taught him how to write about several intertwining characters, while Erich Maria Remarque’s story of World War I taught him the purpose of an artist during wartime. Themes from all three books “would work its way into more a few of my songs,” as he said specifically about “Moby-Dick.”
The lecture seemed to fit with the latest leg of Dylan’s long and ever-evolving career. He has arguably never seemed quite as reflective as he does now, at 76 years old.
Dylan’s last three releases have been covers of standards such as “Stormy Weather,” “As Time Goes By” and “The Best is Yet to Come.” His last release, “Triplicate,” was a three-disc megarecord of these tunes.
In advance of that release, he posted to his website a long, revealing and deeply personal interview conducted by Bill Flanagan. In it, he discussed his newfound admiration of the standards.
“These songs,” he said, “are some of the most heartbreaking stuff ever put on record and I wanted to do them justice. Now that I have lived them and lived through them I understand them better.”
Much of his career, according to Dylan, was about doing stories justice, about telling them the right way, about finding the life in them — as he explained in the conclusion of his lecture.
He mentioned Odysseus, who in “The Odyssey” visited Achilles in the underworld. A morose Achilles told Odysseus he would rather be a slave in the world of the living than king of the world of the dead. As Dylan put it, “whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.”
At the end of his lecture, Dylan connected that story with the spirit of songs, in a plea that everyone listen to them, not read them.
Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. 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. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
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