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Bob Dylan lyrics as literature: First songwriter to win a Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan: The legendary folk singer and songwriter won the Nobel Prize in Literature, receiving recognition for his poetic lyrics.

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Bob Dylan performs in Los Angeles in 2012. Dylan awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, in a stunning announcement that for the first time bestowed the prestigious award to someone seen primarily as a musician.

Chris Pizzello/AP/File

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The Swedish Academy made an unexpected selection for the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature: songwriter Bob Dylan.

Mr. Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” the academy announced Thursday in Stockholm. He became the first songwriter to take home the honor, which has traditionally gone to authors of poems, short stories, and novels.

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But the academy compared his work to that of ancient Greek poets, which were written primarily to be performed rather than read.

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“If you look far back, 5000 years, you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts which were meant to be performed, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan,” Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, said. “We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it.”

“Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear,” she added. “But it’s perfectly fine to read his works as poetry.”

The recognition comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, the equivalent of $900,000. Rather than giving the honor for a specific piece of work, the academy awards the literature prize as a lifetime achievement.

Several people have floated the 75-year-old songwriter’s name as an unconventional choice for the prize, but many did not believe the academy would push the award’s criteria by selecting him.

“If the academy doesn’t recognize Bob Dylan – a bard who embodied the most significant cultural upheaval of the second half of the last century – it will squander its best chance to honor a pop poet,” former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2013. “With his superstar peers either silent or content to collect the big bucks playing ingratiating stadium shows, this artist, iconoclastic and still vital, demands that we take the product of his muse on his own terms, and refuses to go so gently.”

It’s also not often that the prize goes to an American, as only eight before him have won the honor in its 115-year history. Toni Morrison was the last American to win, taking the prize in 1993.

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Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Dylan grew up in a Jewish family in Minnesota. As a young man, he moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village and began playing original folk music in local cafes. In the past 50 years, Dylan has released 37 studio albums and toured incessantly.

His work has touched on religion, love, the human condition, and politics, all topics also explored by more traditional winners of the literature prize. In 2008, Dylan became the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his career contributions to American music and culture. His nearly six decade-long career has influenced generations of other musicians, writers, and artists. 

“Dylan has the status of an icon,” the academy wrote in an announcement. “His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.