Bob Dylan's Nobel Literature Prize Literature starts off with the following paragraph:

When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I'm going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.

He does, in fact, go about it in a rather roundabout way, describing various books and their influence on him and his music.

He concludes with the following paragraphs:

So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that's all that's important. I don't have to know what a song means. I've written all kinds of things into my songs. And I'm not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don't think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.


When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. "I just died, that's all." There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.

That's what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They're meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare's plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, "Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story."

Is he making the argument that song lyrics can be literature (in spite of being primarily a performance literature) in the same way that Shakespeare is literature in spite of being intended to be performance?

What can we infer about Bob Dylan's definition of literature from this lecture?

  • 2
    Looks to me more like he's completely dodging the definitional question entirely (but in a very well-written way).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 23:33

1 Answer 1


If I read Dylan correctly, he, a contrarian if ever there was one, is actually arguing that his songs are not "literature" as the term is commonly understood.

Of course, this also implies his award is a mistake. Not many people would deliver a Nobel Prize lecture suggesting that their award was an error, but again, this is Bob Dylan we're talking about.

Once we let go of the assumption that he clearly must be defending his suitability for the award, the piece reads much more naturally as a defense against his songs being primarily considered as literature (rather than as living works that must be performed to truly be appreciated).

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