Nobel honors Bob Dylan, bard for a changing world

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U.S. musician Bob Dylan performs during on day 2 of The Hop Festival in Paddock Wood, Kent, June 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ki Price/File Photo - RTSS2AY

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JUDY WOODRUFF: It was by far the most unusual Nobel award in recent times. Bob Dylan was given the prize in literature today. He’s long been considered a legend for his work and lyrics in folk and rock music.

Today, his work was recognized for its poetry.

Jeffrey Brown has an appreciation and more on that decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: He led a folk revival in the early 1960s, took it into new and epoch-making territory through his use of language and imagery, famously went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and, for decades since, to this day, has continued to perform, record, impress and sometimes confound millions of fans worldwide.

By any measure, Bob Dylan is one of the most important and influential popular songwriters of his era, and now he is also a Nobel laureate in literature. The announcement came this morning in Stockholm.

SARA DANIUS, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy: The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

JEFFREY BROWN: Though his name had been fancifully raised for the Nobel in recent years, the choice still came as a surprise, and his selection ends a long drought for Americans. The last was novelist Toni Morrison in 1993.

Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941. He changed his name and came to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961. And his debut album came a year later. He gives few interviews and doesn’t talk much about his writing. But he did speak in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on “American Masters,” “No Direction Home.”

BOB DYLAN, Musician: Words have their own meaning, or they have different meanings. And then all — and words change their meaning. Words that were — meant something 10 years ago don’t mean that now. They mean something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he said this about the life of an artist:

BOB DYLAN: An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in the state of becoming, you know? And as long as you can stay in that realm, you will sort of be all right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other musicians were listening.

JAMES TAYLOR, Musician: It felt as though it was a voice from a new world and that we were part of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: This afternoon, another great songwriter, James Taylor, told me via Skype of the influence Dylan had on him and others.

JAMES TAYLOR: It was the musical form that you could approach and you could try it on for yourself. And that’s sort of what folk music was about.

And then he kept changing it up. You know, he throwing you a curve. He kept us guessing. And it does engage you on many different levels. So, there is a sort of deceptive simplicity about it, an availability, approachability. And then there is just the depth of the stuff as — lyrically, which is really what is being acknowledged in this Nobel Prize.

So, that’s — it’s a big deal. It’s huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Hajdu, author of the books “Positively Fourth Street” and the brand-new “Love For Sale: Pop Music in America,” says Dylan contains multitudes.

DAVID HAJDU, Author, “Positively Fourth Street”: Most of the history of American popular music is contained in his work, from the blues, through country, to early rock ‘n’ roll, including gospel, because he drew really freely, liberally, from all those traditions, and also from other traditions, from literary traditions, from poetry, from other novels, and pulled it all together to make this very creative, original stew.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among many honors, Dylan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, a songwriter as Nobel laureate for literature?

Today, novelist Gary Shteyngart poked fun, tweeting: “I totally get the Nobel Committee. Reading books is hard,” while Salman Rushdie wrote, “From Orpheus to Faiz, song & poetry have been closely linked. Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition. Great choice.”

James Taylor has no doubt at all.

JAMES TAYLOR: I think it was world-changing stuff, or at least it chronicled the world as it changed. It helps you navigate and negotiate the world. And I think so many of his songs were so important that way.

I think it’s entirely appropriate that he get the Nobel Prize for Literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: Music writer David Hajdu adds this:

DAVID HAJDU: In a way, the Nobel is a validation, Bob Dylan is a validation of a whole kind of literature that is different from words on the page.

And I think his singing is inseparable from the kind of art that he made, his nobby, gnarly singing, the irascibility of his presentation, his persona, the convoluted, complicated, poetic lyrics and hard-driving music. All that came together to make a unique kind of art that we could see as literature now.

JEFFREY BROWN: A Nobel Prize, and still on the road. Bob Dylan was silent about the prize today. But, tonight, he performs in Las Vegas, continuing a national tour.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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