I’m only one of many who admire the legend that is Bob Dylan. I’ve loved Dylan since the first time I heard him, around the age of 12. It wasn’t his voice, not always his melody—but his words, that persistently stayed in my head and refused to get out. I never had the chance to see him in person, and yet he was with me in so many moments. From driving to work in ordinary mornings, to dealing with the loss of a loved one—Bob Dylan has always been there.
He was born Robert Allen Zimmerman, on May 24, 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, and started singing protest songs at the age of 20. Since then, he has played thousands of concerts and recorded 38 albums, which have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Now, at 75, he has been rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dylan didn’t attend the Nobel Banquet—the official ceremony held in December in Stockholm, Sweden—citing previous commitments. In his acceptance speech, read by the US Ambassador to Sweden, he recognized he joined the very rare company of “giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones,” and said he was grateful that his songs “seem to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures.”
At Dylan’s request, he received the award at a small, intimate gathering while on tour in Sweden, before his concert on April 1. The Nobel Prize now joins his many awards which include 18 Grammys (1973-2015), an Oscar (2001), a Golden Globe (2001), a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation (2008), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012).
The Swedish Academy’s choice raised the question of how we define literature. While it is understandable, as Dylan is the first musician to win the prestigious prize, some took it as far as to criticize the academy’s choice as “silly,” claiming he’s not a poet and his work is not literature. Well, it’s probably safe to assume there will always be people who look for something to cry about. In his speech, Dylan mentioned Shakespeare, whose “words were written for the stage; meant to be spoken, not read,” much like his own. He assumed that Shakespeare never thought of his writing as literature. Would these critics also deem Shakespeare unworthy of the award? Dylan admitted that not once has he asked himself, “Are my songs literature?” So he thanked the academy both for considering that very question, and for finding that the answer is yes.
So what is it about Dylan that makes him the lyrical genius that he is? The poet that has touched so many across the globe? Trying to figure out the answer, I remembered something Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And Bob Dylan most definitely makes people feel. Whether it’s anger, or lust, or sorrow, or love; whether he writes about relationships, or politics, or society—he makes people feel. And maybe that’s what it’s all about.