“Advertising signs that con/You into thinking you’re the one/That can do what’s never been done/That can win what’s never been won/Meantime life outside goes on/All around you”―such are the words of songwriting legend Bob Dylan’s 1965 protest anthem, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
Fifty years later, at a gritty 75-years old, Dylan has won what no musician’s ever won—the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature—and done what’s never been done: respond to the Royal Swedish Academy after two weeks of radio silence.
“If I accept the prize? Of course,” Dylan replied to Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, when he called the institution in late October. He added that he’d been left “speechless” by the October 13 announcement that he had been awarded the $904,000 accolade for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
Dylan, notorious for his reclusive lifestyle and enigmatic antics, has also created a tradition out of repelling prying eyes and personal questions over the years—so the artist’s silent treatment is nothing new.
During a famed 1965 interview with Time Magazine, Dylan backed his interrogator into a corner berating him for taking his job seriously when “we all think we know things, alright, but we really know nothing. You’re gonna die and you’re gonna go off the earth. It could be in 20 years it could be tomorrow, anytime, so am I—The world is gonna go on without us.”
And throughout the folk-rock-pop-country-classic-gospel singer-songwriter’s over 57-year career, Dylan has cycled through more public personas than a spy on the run.
The musician has scoffed at reporters who called him a folk singer and a poet (he says his style is “mathematical music”), proclaimed that he was a “born-again Christian” (to later renounce his faith), and scattered classic texts throughout a half-fabricated autobiography (critics pinion it as plagiarism, fans praise it as a “Da Vinci’s code” of folk tradition)— among other media-dodging feints. Until the announcement of the Nobel prize, Dylan had not spoken with a journalist for two years despite consistent performances on the “Never Ending Tour” since 1988.
Some simply dismiss Dylan as the anti-social icon he’s always been. Others, like Academy member Per Wastberg, called him “impolite and arrogant.” However, Dylan revealed in an interview with The Telegraph—his first since replying to the Academy—that he had actually been thrilled by the win.
“Isn’t that something,” he mused, adding that when he first heard the news, it was “amazing, incredible. Whoever dreams about something like that?” Dylan also confirmed that yes, he would attend the ceremony “if it’s at all possible.”
Like most chapters of Dylan-lore, the Nobel win is still shrouded in controversy. Many writers feel slighted that Dylan—a gifted songwriter but a musician all the same—is the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1993’s winner, novelist Toni Morrison.
Fans and literary scholars alike feel that Dylan is due his reward. They back their claims with Danius’s comparisons between Dylan and the classical poets of Greece and Rome:
“If you look back, far back, you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho. He can be read and should be read. He is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”
Perhaps Dylan’s initial ambivalence is just an acknowledgement that this honor is yet another scenario where—as penned in “It’s Alright Ma”— “somebody thinks they really found you.” But, when it’s Dylan, who can tell?