The singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, 75, won the prize on Thursday
Sewell Chan and Ben Sisario
The New York Times
The singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, one of the world’s most influential musicians, 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 the prize since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, was 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,” Bill Wyman, a journalist, 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.”
Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Dylan “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally. Asked if the decision to award the prize to a musician signaled a broadening in the definition of literature, Ms. Danius jokingly responded, “The times they are a changing, perhaps,” referencing one of Mr. Dylan’s songs.
Mr. Dylan emerged on the New York music scene in 1961 as an artist in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, singing protest songs and strumming an acoustic guitar in clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village. But from the start, Mr. Dylan stood out for dazzling lyrics and an oblique songwriting style that made him a source of fascination for artists and critics. In 1963, the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart with a version of his song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with ambiguous refrains that evoked Ecclesiastes.
Within a few years, Mr. Dylan was confounding the very notion of folk music, with ever more complex songs and moves toward a more rock ’n’ roll sound. In 1965, he played with an electric rock band at the Newport Folk Festival, stewing controversy from folk purists who accused him of selling out.
After reports of a motorcycle accident in 1966 near his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Mr. Dylan withdrew further from public life but remained intensely fertile as a songwriter. His career has continued to surprise fans and critics and has led to one of the most densely analyzed bodies of work in the history of pop music.
His 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” was interpreted as a supremely powerful account of the breakdown of a relationship, but just four years later the Christian themes of “Slow Train Coming” divided critics. His most recent two albums were chestnuts of traditional pop that had been associated with Frank Sinatra.
Since 1988, Mr. Dylan has toured almost constantly, inspiring an unofficial name for his itinerary, the Never Ending Tour. Last weekend, he played the first of two performances at Desert Trip, a festival in Indio, Calif., that also featured the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and other stars of the 1960s.
Mr. Dylan was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn., and grew up in Hibbing. He played in bands as a teenager, influenced by the folk musician Woody Guthrie, the authors of the Beat Generation and modernist poets.
Mr. Dylan, whose original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, identifies as Christian and has released several albums of religiously inspired songs, but he was born into a Jewish family.
The critic Greil Marcus, one of the foremost scholars of Mr. Dylan’s work, has examined the influence on his music of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a 1952 compilation that was pivotal to the folk revival in the United States. Mr. Dylan first heard the anthology in 1959 after he had dropped out of the University of Minnesota.
In 1962, Mr. Dylan signed a contract with the record producer John Hammond for his debut album, “Bob Dylan.” He was only 22 when he performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, singing “When the Ship Comes In,” with Joan Baez, and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a retelling of the murder of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“As the ’60s wore on,” Giles Harvey wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2010, “Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu.” He “began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.”
David Hajdu, a music critic for The Nation who has written extensively about Mr. Dylan and his contemporaries, said that the Nobel recognition was long overdue and that it may be intended in part to honor the broader American music movement that Mr. Dylan emerged from.
“It’s partly a recognition of the whole tradition that Bob Dylan represents, so it’s partly a retroactive award for Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and Smokey Robinson and the Beatles,” Mr. Hajdu said in an interview on Thursday. “It should have been taken seriously as an art form a long time ago.”
In giving the literature prize to Mr. Dylan, the Nobel committee may also be recognizing that the gap between high art and more commercial art forms has narrowed.
“It’s literature but it’s music, it’s performance, it’s art, it’s also highly commercial,” Mr. Hajdu said. “The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time, but this is it being made official.”
Mr. Dylan’s many albums, which the Swedish Academy described as having “a tremendous impact on popular music,” include “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Blonde On Blonde” (1966) and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006).
“Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love,” the Swedish Academy said in a biographical note accompanying the announcement. “The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title ‘Lyrics.’ As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter.”
The academy added: “Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured persistently, an undertaking called the ‘Never-Ending Tour.’ Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
Along with his albums, Mr. Dylan has produced experimental work like “Tarantula,” a 1971 collection of prose poetry, and “Writings and Drawings,” a 1973 compilation. The first volume of his autobiography, “Chronicles,” published in 2004, recounts his early years in New York, where he moved at age 19.
Mr. Dylan’s many honors include Grammy, Academy and Golden Globe awards; he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power, was redefining not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel,” President Obama said at the White House ceremony. “Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude. There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth. And I have to say that I am a really big fan.”