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A Nobel In Literature For Bob Dylan, Whose Words Transcend Form

Oct 15, 2016

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this week. His selection was surprising. He is the first artist to receive the award for a body of work that is almost entirely songs. But while there were critics, there was also a lot of acclaim, even from outstanding longtime novelists, including Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and Salman Rushdie, who called Mr. Dylan, "the brilliant inheritor of the Bardic tradition."

Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, who is a professor of literature, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho, and when asked if the Nobel Committee would now include songs as literature, she replied, "The times they are a changin', perhaps."

Bob Dylan didn't add, "perhaps" when he wrote, "the times they are a changin'," perhaps because perhaps is more difficult to rhyme.

Some of us might have preferred Leonard Cohen or Stephen Sondheim as a songwriter to receive the Nobel. But there's no doubt that Bob Dylan's songs are literature that reach into our souls and have become anthems in the lives of millions.

And his songs have also inspired other performers to deliver their most sensitive interpretations of his words.

For example, William Shatner's "Mr. Tamourine Man."

And Jeremy Irons' rendition of "To Make You Feel My Love."

Or the version Kesha, a truly fine singer, does of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right":

And song stylist Sebastian Cabot's unforgettable "It Ain't Me Babe."

The words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, as you've never heard them before.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature this week. His selection was surprising. He's the first artist to receive the award for a body of work that's almost entirely songs. While there were critics, there was also a lot of acclaim, even from outstanding longtime novelists, including Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and Salman Rushdie, who called Mr. Dylan the brilliant inheritor of the Bardic tradition.

Sara Danius of the Swedish Academy, who is a professor of literature, compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho and when asked if the Nobel committee would now include song as literature, she replied, the times, they are a changin', perhaps. Bob Dylan didn't add perhaps when he wrote, "The Times They Are A Changin'" perhaps because perhaps is more difficult to rhyme. Some of us might have preferred Leonard Cohen or Stephen Sondheim as a songwriter to receive the Nobel. But there's no doubt that Bob Dylan's songs are literature that reach into our souls and have become anthems in the lives of millions.

And his songs have also inspired other performers to deliver their most sensitive interpretation of his words. For example, William Shatner's "Mr. Tambourine Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR.TAMBOURINE MAN")

WILLIAM SHATNER: (Singing) In the jingle jangle morning I'll come following you.

SIMON: And Jeremy Irons' rendition of "To Make You Feel My Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE YOU FEEL MY LOVE")

JEREMY IRONS: (Singing) My little darling, when the rain is blowing in your face.

SIMON: Or the version Kesha, a truly fine singer, does of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T THINK TWICE, IT'S ALL RIGHT")

KESHA: (Singing) I ain't saying that you treated me unkind. You could have done better, but I don't mind.

SIMON: And song stylist Sebastian Cabot's unforgettable "It Ain't Me Babe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T ME BABE")

SEBASTIAN CABOT: (Singing) A love of your life and nothing more. It ain't me, babe. No, no, no, it ain't me, babe. It ain't me you're lookin' for, babe.

SIMON: The words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan as you've never heard them before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine. I'm on the pavement, thinking about the government. The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off, says he's got bad cough, wants to get it paid off. Look out, kid. It's somethin' you did. God knows when, but you're doing it again. You better duck down the alleyway lookin' for a new friend. The man in the coonskin cap, in the big pen wants $11 bills but you only got 10. Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot, talkin' that the heat put plants in the bed but the phone's tapped anyway. Maggie says that many say they must bust in early May orders from the DA. Look out, kid, don't matter what you did, walk on your tip toes...

SIMON: But BJ Leiderman writes our theme music. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.