Bob Dylan was named the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, in a stunning announcement that for the first time bestowed the prestigious award to someone primarily seen as a musician.
The Swedish Academy cited the American musician for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dylan, 75, had been mentioned in Nobel speculation for years, but few experts expected the academy to extend the prestigious award to a genre such as pop music.
The literature award was the last of this year’s Nobel prizes to be announced. The six awards will be handed out on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 13, 2016
Robert Allen Zimmerman was born on May 24, 1941, to a Jewish family in small-town Minnesota. Both sets of his grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. As a boy, he was obsessed with the blues and folk that came through his family’s staticky radio. He played in garage bands throughout high school, and when he ventured off to big-city Minneapolis for college, he joined the local folk circuit and began referring to himself as Bob Dylan.
The name, Dylan has acknowledged, is a nod to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, as well as a desire to break free from the bounds that held his parents and grandparents in place.
“You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free,” he said in an interview with CBS News in 2004.
Dylan has maintained strong ties to Israel throughout his life. He visited the country several times in the late 1960s and 1970s and even took steps toward joining a kibbutz. He played three shows in Israel: in 1987, 1993 and 2011. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement pressed him to cancel his most recent performance — to no avail.
Even more recently, Israelis can thank Dylan for the 2014 Rolling Stones concert in Tel Aviv, the band’s first visit to the country. According to Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, Dylan gave them the idea.
“He was coming off stage and said, ‘We’re going to Tel Aviv,’” Wood told Israel’s Channel 2 at the time. “He had a big smile on his face and said he loved it there.”
Poetry for the ears
The Swedish Academy’s choice of Dylan was met by gasps and a long round of applause from journalists attending the prize announcement.
The Academy’s permanent secretary Sara Danius said Dylan’s songs were “poetry for the ears.”
“Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound,” it wrote in biographical notes about the famously private singer.
Last year, the prize went to Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich, for her documentary-style narratives based on witness testimonies.
Dylan will take home the eight million kronor ($906,000 or 822,000 euros) prize sum.
The Nobel is the latest accolade for a singer who has come a long way from his humble beginnings.
Captivated by the music of folksinger Woody Guthrie, the self-taught musician began performing in local nightclubs. After dropping out of college he moved to New York in 1960. His first album contained only two original songs, but the 1963 breakthrough “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” featured a slew of his own work including the classic “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Armed with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Dylan confronted social injustice, war and racism, quickly becoming a prominent civil rights campaigner — and recording an astonishing 300 songs in his first three years.
In 1965 Dylan’s first British tour was captured in the classic documentary “Don’t Look Back” — the same year he outraged his folk fans by using an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island.
The following albums, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde,” won rave reviews, but Dylan’s career was interrupted in 1966 when he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident, and his recording output slowed in the 1970s.
By the early 1980s his music was reflecting the performer’s born-again Christianity, although this was tempered in successive albums, with many fans seeing a resurgence of his explosive early-career talent in the 1990s.
Since the turn of millennium, as well as his regular recording output and touring, Dylan has also found time to host a regular radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, and published a well-received book “Chronicles,” in 2004.
He was the focus of at least two more films, Martin Scorsese’s 2005 “No Direction Home” and “I’m not There” in 2007 starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett.
Over the years Dylan has won 11 Grammy awards, as well as one Golden Globe and even an Oscar in 2001, for best original song “Things have Changed” in the movie “Wonder Boys.”