RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Swedish Academy took the world by surprise this morning when it awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime. Didn't you?
MONTAGNE: The Academy honored Dylan for, quote, "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." And, indeed, he did. And NPR's Lynn Neary joins us now to talk more about this. Good morning.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: How unusual is this to give a songwriter a Nobel for literature?
NEARY: Pretty darn unusual, I would say, Renee. Dylan has been on the list of favorites for a number of years now. In fact, this year the British betting agency Ladbrokes had him at 16 to 1 odds, but no one really expected him to win. You know, the Academy, number one, is more inclined to choose a European and often a writer who is not well-known, at least in this country. So I think in the years that I've been covering the Nobels, Bob Dylan is the most famous person who has ever been honored with the award. Though, of course, he is more famous as a singer and a musician than as a poet. I should remind you, however, that he took the name Dylan after the poet Dylan Thomas, so I think he himself certainly had some poetic aspirations. And he's always been known for a very complex and interesting lyrics I think.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. You know, talking about that, you know people are listening right now saying, great lyrics, love Bob Dylan, but poetry? But I will say Dylan was highly aware of this. I believe last year he compared his songs to the mystery plays that Shakespeare saw when Shakespeare was growing up, as Dylan put it plays on the fringes that sounded like they were, quote, "traveling on hard ground." So he thought he kind of got that.
NEARY: Yeah. And there was a very interesting interview after the official announcement with the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy Sara Danius. She was asked about whether he was really a poet, and she called him a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. She cited poets like Homer and Sappho who she said wrote poetry that was meant to be listened to and was often accompanied by music and that Dylan, she said, is part of this tradition.
Of course, you know, of course, poetry - there's a great oral tradition with poetry. She also mentioned that Homer and Sappho are still being read and that Dylan's work can also be read as literature. Let's listen to some of his music, especially his early work where I think you can really hear very complex, intellectually-challenging lyrics. This is "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A HARD RAIN'S A-GONNA FALL")
DYLAN: (Singing) Where black is the color, where none is the number. And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it. And reflect...
NEARY: Well, that sounds like poetry to me I think (laughter). And I think when that song came out, no one had heard anything like that before. It was a time of great social change, and Dylan immediately was seen as a protest singer, though he rejected that mantle. But, you know, the Swedish Academy tends to honor those who use their work to challenge the political status quo in their country, so that might be another reason why he was chosen.
MONTAGNE: And what about his later work?
NEARY: Well, think about this, Renee. It was only 1969 when he released "Nashville Skyline" which was a country rock album, much simpler lyrics, not as much anger or protest - songs like "Lay Lady Lay." And in 1979, he converted to Christianity and the following year won a Grammy for the song "Gotta Serve Somebody." So as the Swedish Academy noted, he was constantly reinventing himself as well.
He did continue to write very challenging and at times politically-charged lyrics throughout his career. I should also mention he's been honored before with a Pulitzer in 2008. He got the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and none other than Allen Ginsberg once called him the greatest poet of the second half of the century.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much. That's NPR's Lynn Neary on the Nobel Prize in Literature this morning. It was announced has gone to Bob Dylan. Thanks very much.
NEARY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.