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Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan Is A Literary 'Alchemist'

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Bob Dylan performs on July 4, 1978 at the Pavillon de Paris.

The Nobel committee made a bit of a surprising announcement Thursday morning: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for, according to the Swedish Academy, "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Dylan has written more than 900 pages of lyrics, but the Nobel Prize is primarily awarded to essayists, novelists and playwrights. Princeton University professor and historian Sean Wilentz says that Dylan fits right in with that crowd. Wilentz, the author of the book Bob Dylan In America, joined NPR's Audie Cornish to discuss the news. Read an edited transcript of their conversation below and hear the full interview at the audio link.

Audie Cornish: As a longtime scholar of Dylan, what's your reaction to today?

Sean Wilentz: Oh, I'm delighted. It's funny, the first thing I thought about was a film clip from the mid-1980s in a perfectly terrible film that he was in called Hearts Of Fire. And there's one little clip where he says, "I never thought I was gonna be one of those rock 'n' roll stars to win a Nobel Prize." He was saying this in a kind of dismissive way. I mean, Dylan's relationship to prizes — to authority in general — is, shall we say, cagey. He is a great anti-authoritarian in many ways, yet he perfectly appreciates the laurels that have headed his way. I'm sure he's appreciating this today. I certainly appreciate it and I was thrilled.

If we're talking about Bob Dylan as a writer and lyricist, how should we think about his style in the context of literature, the way that this prize does?

Bob Dylan, like many if not most literary greats, is an alchemist. He manages to take materials from here and there and to turn them into something different — to make them larger, to make them his own. And Dylan started out working in the American folk song tradition, which is actually the Anglo-American folk tradition, and he took songs that had been sung for hundreds of years and turned them into different works of art.

He's continued in that vein — Dylan's career is a series of breaks. I mean, he's not a person who's done the same thing throughout and improved on it — he's rather diverged quite sharply from period to period, but always bringing it together into something that's a vision very much his own.

The song "Highway 61 Revisited," the title track from the album released in August 1965 — what do we know from this period in terms of his style?

Well, it's the Book of Genesis, right? It's the story of Abraham and Isaac and he's turning it into something that's very, very new. He's talking about Highway 61 ... a highway that runs right through the middle of America, all the way from Minnesota down to the Deep South. So, starting with the Bible. You know, this terrifying story of Abraham — who happens to be his father's name too, so when he's talking about "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,'" yikes, it gets a little personal maybe, too. But he is telling a whole song about what's going on in America in his time through the idiom of the Bible. Rock 'n' roll, folk, it's all there.

Without the music, how do you hear these lyrics or describe them? What are the words you use to describe his work when people can't hear it?

Well, there's a lot of different ways. First of all, I don't think you should read the lyrics without the song, without the music. They go together. That said, his lyrical style varies tremendously — he can be cutting, he can be whimsical, he can be tragic, really in the space of a single stanza sometimes. So he has all of the moods and all of the techniques of any great literary artist. And they're all there on the page.

You said that you don't believe it should be divorced from the music. But I was thinking of the song "Mr. Tambourine Man," and seeing the verse on paper — "Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind / Down the foggy ruins of time / Far past the frozen leaves / The haunted, frightened trees" — it does feel as though these lyrics can stand without the song. Why do you think they can't be divorced?

Well, I think that the experience of them is much richer with the song, with the music. And it's also his voice, you see. I mean, other people can sing Dylan songs, but I truly believe that his voice is very special. You put all of those things together in any phase of his career and you come with a consummate work of art. I don't mean to say that the lyrics cannot be read on paper as poetry. I think they can.

To your mind, is this just about Dylan, or does this award in some way open the door to songwriters to be thought of in the way that you're talking about?

Well, I would hope that after this, songwriters, serious songwriters — Leonard Cohen's name comes to mind — would be taken seriously as writers as well. Because they are writers. And it's really that simple. There's been this artificial — what do we say, snobbism? — about what literature is and what literature isn't. I hope that, as much as Bob Dylan has broken down these barriers for his entire career — I hope that this award will help break down those barriers for songwriting generally.

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