When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, there was only one requirement. Dylan didn’t even have to travel to Stockholm (and in fact he missed the public ceremony, though he later stopped by to collect his prize in a private ceremony). He did, though, have to deliver a Nobel Lecture — even if just a taped version.
Dylan’s now submitted that taped lecture, which has been posted publicly by the Swedish Academy, including a transcription. Below you can listen below to the lecture, which unfolds over gentle piano music.
Saying that he’s going to explain the connections between his music and literature, Dylan starts out by reminiscing about seeing Buddy Holly just before the rock legend died. “I had to travel 100 miles to get to see him play,” says Dylan, referring to the trip from Hibbing to Duluth. Dylan describes how Holly looked him straight in the eye, an electric moment.
Dylan goes on to talk about the legacy of folk music and the classic books he read in grammar school in Hibbing. “I took all of that with me when I started composing lyrics,” says Dylan, “and the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs either knowingly or unintentionally.”
He then goes on to specifically talk about three books: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Homer’s The Odyssey. As he describes the books, his speech proceeds in alternately loping and stabbing rhythms that are familiar from spoken-word pieces like his “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” (1963).
Moby Dick, says Dylan, “tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience.” He describes the plot and themes in detail (“On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory! He is risen!”), and mentions some of his favorite lines.
All Quiet on the Western Front, says Dylan, is “a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood.” He describes the bleak world described by the World War I classic: “This is the lower region of hell.” The book is about disillusionment and betrayal, says Dylan — two themes certainly familiar from many of his songs.
The Odyssey has made its way into a lot of ballads, says Dylan, emphasizing how anyone can relate to the hero’s journey.
In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good.
In the lecture’s conclusion, Dylan asks a question that many have longed to ask the songwriter himself: “So what does it all mean?” Dylan says that he hopes we hear his songs as they’re intended to be heard (“in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days”), but we won’t get an answer to that big question.
“I don’t have to know what a song means,” he continues. “I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”