On the Beat

Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize winner? It’s certainly unconventional

A week ago, The New Republic published a preview piece handicapping the odds of who might win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. News editor Alex Shephard considered a wide range of potential winners, but he was unequivocal about at least one person who it wouldn’t be:

Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure … Bob Dylan 100 percent is not going to win. Stop saying Bob Dylan should win the Nobel Prize.”

Well, then, so much for conventional wisdom.

On Thursday morning, the 75-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Oscar winner was able to add “Nobel Laureate” to his resume. Dylan was announced as winner of (yes) the Nobel Prize in Literature for, according to the Nobel committee, “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

“Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing that you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed quite unimaginable in this one,” said Oxford University English faculty chair Seamus Perry in a statement that also likened Dylan to 19th century Great Britain Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Not everyone responded favorably, however. Stories quickly appeared with headlines like, “Bob Dylan: Did he deserve the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature?” And naysayers weighed in across social media, too

One of them was Richard Krawiec, writer/poet and publisher of Durham-based Jacar Press, who noted other writers who had never won the Nobel Prize in a Facebook post. Krawiec called Dylan’s selection “a total farce and disgrace and slap in the face to dozens of writers from dozens of countries who were far more deserving an award for the literary arts,” triggering a lively debate.

Some of Dylan’s local songwriting peers were kinder in their assessments.

“It took me a second to process when I heard,” said Burlington’s Elliott Humphries, leader of the band Be the Moon. “‘Did they just say Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature?’ But I can totally see it. Something like ‘My Back Pages’ or ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘Tangled Up in Blue,’ guys like me would give their pinkie finger to be able to write lyrics like that. It’s good to see the Nobel committee acknowledge something songwriters have known for 50 years.”

Kenny Roby, who leads Triangle-based country-soul band 6 String Drag, also pointed to Dylan’s influence beyond music as a measure of his worthiness.

“Think of all the people doing ‘traditional’ literature or poetry who were influenced by Dylan,” said Roby. “I guarantee there’s no songwriter who’s been quoted more in literature than Dylan, and name me an artist in our lifetime who’s been listened to more by painters or sculptors as they worked. He’s been such a huge influence artistically, culturally, even the way we think politically whether people realize it or not.”

Meanwhile, David Walker of Chapel Hill — who illustrated a recent children’s book based on Dylan’s song “If Not For You” — had a more lighthearted take on it.

“Can it be a coincidence that after an astonishing career spanning decades, Bob Dylan is awarded the Nobel Prize only after his lyrics were paired with my goofy paintings?” Walker asked, tongue firmly in cheek. “I think it would be hard to deny that our recent children’s book collaboration pretty much sealed the deal for him. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Dylan, by the way, will be headed our way to play a Nov. 4 concert at Durham Performing Arts Center.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi