There have been Nobel Prize-winning chemists, economists, physicists and even one novelist from Minnesota. About time a rock ’n’ roll legend gets added to that list.
Sixty years after the principal at Hibbing High School pulled the curtain on him during a talent show, Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. The prestigious honor was announced Thursday morning in Stockholm, Sweden, where his name drew cheers outside the Swedish Academy headquarters.
Still an occasional Minnesota resident at his farm property in western Hennepin County, the 75-year-old music icon was given the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dylan is the first American winner of the Nobel literature prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. He is not the first Minnesota native to win it, though. Sinclair Lewis, the “Main Street” novelist from Sauk Centre, was awarded the prize in 1930.
This might be the most noble of the long list of awards already given to the singer/songwriter born Robert Zimmerman on May 24, 1941, in Duluth.
That list also includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), a Pulitzer Prize (2008), an Oscar (2001), a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991) and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (1988).
“When you’re talking the many notches on the belt of Bob Dylan, I think this is the notch that completes his belt,” said Alex Lubet, a music professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches classes on the school’s most famous dropout.
“He really was a long shot” for the prize, added Lubet, who has studied Dylan’s chances of winning since he was first mentioned as a candidate for the literature prize several years ago.
“They don’t favor lyricists. They don’t favor Americans. And they really don’t favor people who are popular. Even the fact that Toni Morrison won was a surprise.”
News of the prize spread fast Thursday morning around Duluth, Dylan’s birthplace and home until age 6, and in Hibbing, where he lived through high school.
Duluth’s new mayor, Emily Larson, said a local event would likely be put together soon to celebrate the news.
“We look for any excuse to celebrate Dylan here now, and this is a pretty good one,” said Larson, who believes this particular award is a strong reflection of its recipient’s roots in northern Minnesota. “One of the things I personally like about Bob’s words is he see things very plainly, but he also sees so many of the nuances. I think that’s a very Minnesotan thing.”
Both of Dylan’s Minnesota hometowns have come around in recognizing their native son over the past decade or so, with festivals around his birthday. This summer, Duluth unveiled a historical plaque outside his childhood home and hosted a museum exhibit about him.
“I think this could be an impetus for more recognition,” said Joe Keyes, a Hibbing resident who has helped organize the city’s Dylan Days festivals, which have been on hold the past two years. “This could help get things rolling again.”
Keyes thought the prize is also an honor to Dylan’s high school English teacher, B.J. Rolfzen, a beloved fixture in Hibbing who died in 2009. Dylan stayed in touch with Rolfzen and frequently thanked him for helping to spark his creative pursuits.
“I think B.J. would really be smiling over this one, because it truly recognizes the poetry of Bob’s words,” Keyes said.
A fellow singer/songwriter and avid Dylan fan who grew up in nearby Virginia, Minn., Paul Metsa also singled out Rolfzen after the prize was announced. “I think B.J. and the entire St. Louis County school system — which has stayed strong in thick and thin — can take pride in this,” he said.
Citing the “love-hate relationship” the Iron Range has had over the decades with the rock legend — who used to say he “couldn’t wait to get out” of the area — Metsa added, “To those on the Iron Range that still might not appreciate Dylan, they should know that the Nobel Prize is the Stanley Cup of literature.”
‘Poetry for the ear’
Although Dylan has also been widely heralded for his innovative blending of music genres over the years — adding blues, rock, country and gospel to his original sound as a Woody Guthrie-inspired folk singer — lyrics have always been seen as his breakaway talent.
Such landmark songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and “Like a Rolling Stone” have influenced just about everybody in rock ’n’ roll, including the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and fellow Minnesota native Prince.
Although he had been mentioned in Nobel speculation for years, many experts had ruled him out, thinking the academy wouldn’t extend its award — first given in 1901 — to the world of music.
They were wrong. The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, said while Dylan performs his poetry in the form of songs, that’s no different from the ancient Greeks, whose works were often performed to music.
“Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear,” she said. “But it’s perfectly fine to read his works as poetry.”
Danius told the Associated Press that a “great majority” on the 18-member Nobel panel voted for Dylan. She said her personal favorites among Dylan’s songs include “Chimes of Freedom” and “Visions of Johanna,” and suggested that people unfamiliar with Dylan’s music start by listening to his 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.”
Writers, musicians and even heads of state commented on the Nobel academy’s choice on Twitter. British author Salman Rushdie, whose name is often mentioned in Nobel speculation, called Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet congratulated Dylan, saying “many fond memories from my adolescence are associated with his music.”
Dylan is the most unorthodox Nobel literature prize winner since 1997, when the award went to Italian playwright Dario Fo, whose works some say also need to be performed to be fully appreciated. By a sad coincidence, Fo died Thursday at age 90.
Previous renowned Americans who have won the literature category include William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Svetlana Alexievich, a nonfiction writer and journalist from the former Soviet state of Belarus, won last year’s award. The literature prize completed this year’s Nobel Prize announcements. The six awards, each worth 8 million kronor (about $930,000), will be handed out in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
elite company Among the Americans who earned the Nobel Prize for literature:
1930: Sinclair Lewis
1936: Eugene O’Neill
1938: Pearl S. Buck
1949: William Faulkner
1954: Ernest Hemingway
1962: John Steinbeck
1976: Saul Bellow
1987: Joseph Brodsky
1993: Toni Morrison
2016: Bob Dylan