December 12, 2016
Bob Dylan just offered the world a master class in how to accept a Nobel Prize
by Ian Dreiblatt
By now you know that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few months ago. We’ve posted a number of different responses to this news: “whatever.”, “one of the best things that’s ever happened,” “dude, chill,” “but check out the songs,” “let Bob Dylan enjoy the dusk of America in peace,” and, most recently, “quiet, guys, Bob Dylan’s gonna say something!”
Well, and say something he did. This weekend, while he did not fly to Stockholm to receive the prize personally, Bob Dylan did successfully complete his metamorphosis into Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. NLBD had promised he would send an acceptance speech to be read on his behalf, and he did. Here it is now. Spoiler alert: it’s totally fucking fantastic.
Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.
I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.
I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.
If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.
Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.
But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.
But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
My best wishes to you all,
This pretty much speaks for itself, so I’ll just add that Bob Dylan has always been the kind of guy who can sincerely voice humble astonishment at an honor being accorded him in the same breath as he compares himself to Shakespeare, and thank God for that.
The speech is perfect — eloquent, weird, sincere, and good-natured. If it seems immodest, consider the question of who would have been better-served by a speech in which Dylan described himself as unworthy of the prize — the committee that chose to give it to him? The hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been changed by his songs? Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan himself?
Of course not. It is not immodest, on receiving an honor, to express admiration for the magnitude of that honor. That’s just what graciousness looks like. Besides, Bob Dylan’s oeuvre contains some of the most widely-admired artifacts in the history of human art; they’ve changed innumerable lives, brought light to countless many of the caves we lives in. There would have been no value to the world in watching Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan aw-shucks it and pretend to ignorance of his place in the history of song.
Instead we got something much better: we got to watch an old man look back on a career of very hard work and express wonder to have been the vessel through which that work smacked the twentieth century right in its funny, anguished, beautiful heart.
Also terrific was Patti Smith’s performance of Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. Or, like, what’s better than terrific? Besides that it’s a beautiful rendition, sung with a perfect balance of gravel and honey, there’s also the wonderful moment—very true to the spirit of what’s best in NLBD’s career—when she gets overcome with emotion and has to start again. If you’re a human being, let this do something to you pronto:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.