The times, they are surely a-changin’ when the august Nobel Prize committee bestows its annual prize for literature on an American folk-rock singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. Changing for the better, we’d add. The author of lyrics so poignant that they are seared in the memories of millions richly deserves Nobel recognition as a poet as well as a popular music star.
Minnesotans take particular pride in seeing the “Bard of Hibbing” receive a prize that has been given such luminaries of literature as Saul Bellow (1976), John Steinbeck (1962), Ernest Hemingway (1954) and William Faulkner (1949). Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth in 1941 and spent his formative years in Hibbing and, briefly, Dinkytown. Lyrics to songs including “North Country Blues” and “Highway 61 Revisited” reveal the inspiration Dylan drew from his home state.
But appreciation for Dylan reaches far beyond Minnesota. He built an international following as a balladeer of the social and antiwar movements of the 1960s. His “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” became the soundtracks of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. His influence on other popular performers has been substantial through a half-century of near-continuous creativity.
Nevertheless, the Swedish Academy’s choice was unexpected. In recent years, its literature award has tended to go to writers less familiar to popular audiences. Until Thursday, no American had won the literature prize since Toni Morrison took it in 1993. Seldom, if ever, has a writer known primarily for popular song lyrics been the honoree.
It may be that choosing Dylan was the Swedish Academy’s tacit acknowledgment that popular art and high art are not mutually exclusive and that artists who speak to a mass audience are worthy of encouragement. One might say that the waters around the Nobel Prize have grown. That’s a welcome, democratizing change.