Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

Bob Dylan (born 1941) in 2017
Bob Dylan (born 1941) in 2017

On April 1, 2017 – 7 years ago today – Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, 1941) was awarded his Nobel Prize in Literature in a private ceremony held at an undisclosed location in Stockholm, Sweden.  At the ceremony, Dylan received his gold Nobel Prize medal and his Nobel diploma. The cash prize of eight million Swedish kronor (837,000 euros, or $891,000) was not handed over to Dylan at the time, as he was required to give a lecture before receiving the cash. That lecture was recorded and then released some 9 weeks later, on June 5, 2017. 

The private award ceremony was attended by twelve members of the Swedish Academy, that organization tasked with choosing the recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature.  According to Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, a good time was had by all:

“Spirits were high. Champagne was had.”

Sara Danius in 2017
Sara Danius in 2017

Ms. Danius went on to describe the occasion in a bit more detail:

“Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: ‘Inventas vitam iuvat excoluisse per artes,’ loosely translated as ‘And they who bettered life on earth by their newly found mastery’.”

We would observe that the announcement of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize was made nearly six months before, on October 16, 2016.  Dylan, who was performing in Las Vegas, was immediately informed.  However, in the days that followed, he failed to return any of the phone calls he received from the Swedish Academy.  Neither did Dylan make any public comment or statement about the prize to the press.  No one knew if he intended to attend the award ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, where prize winners were to receive their awards from Swedish King Carl XVI and where they were then expected to give a speech.  

In reference to not hearing even a peep from Bob Dylan, a member of the Swedish Academy, the writer Per Wastberg, said on Swedish television:

“This is an unprecedented situation.”

He then criticized Dylan as being:

“Impolite and arrogant.”

We don’t imagine Per Wastberg’s opinion changed much when, after over a week, Dylan’s people finally communicated with the Swedish Academy, informing them that he could not attend the award ceremony on December 10 due to “previous commitments,” as if he’d been invited to play a round of golf. 

When Dylan finally did show up to accept his award, on April 1, 2017 – seven years ago today – he honored those champagne-swilling academy members by showing up in a hoodie under a leather jacket.  And lest you think he ventured to Stockholm specifically to receive his prize, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Rather, Stockholm was the first stop on a long-planned European concert tour, so a visit to the Swedish Academy was conveniently booked between the first and second concerts of the tour.  …

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