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Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of the rock era, whose body of work has influenced generations of songwriters and been densely analyzed by fans, critics and academics, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

It is the first time the honor has gone to a musician. In its citation, the Swedish Academy credited Mr. Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The choice of Mr. Dylan for the world’s top literary honor came as something of a surprise and was widely viewed as an expansion of the academy’s traditional notions of art. Mr. Dylan, 75, joins a pantheon that includes T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Samuel Beckett and Toni Morrison — the last American to claim the award, in 1993.

“The old categories of high and low art, they’ve been collapsing for a long time,” said David Hajdu, a music critic for The Nation who has written extensively about Mr. Dylan and his contemporaries, ”but this is it being made official.”

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In choosing a popular musician for one of the most coveted prizes in the literary world, the Swedish Academy dramatically redefined the boundaries of literature, setting off a debate about whether song lyrics have the same artistic value as poetry or novels.

“Most song lyrics don’t really hold up without the music, and they aren’t supposed to,” the poet Billy Collins said. “Bob Dylan is in the 2 percent club of songwriters whose lyrics are interesting on the page, even without the harmonica and the guitar and his very distinctive voice. I think he does qualify as poetry.”

In previous years, writers and publishers have grumbled that the academy seems to favor obscure writers with clear political messages over more popular figures — last year’s prize went to the the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, whose deeply reported narratives draw on oral history. But in choosing someone so well known and commercially successful, and so far outside of established literary traditions, the academy seems to have swung far into the other direction.

Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Dylan “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally. Asked if the decision to award the prize to a musician signaled a broadening in the definition of literature, Ms. Danius responded, “The times they are a-changing, perhaps,” referencing one of Mr. Dylan’s songs.

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The choice was hailed across the cultural and political spectrum. Rosanne Cash, the songwriter and daughter of Johnny Cash, wrote simply: “Holy mother of god. Bob Dylan wins the Nobel Prize.”

In the literary world, Mr. Dylan’s choice brought out a crosscurrent of dissent.

On Twitter, Salman Rushdie called Mr. Dylan “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” adding, “Great choice.” But others, including the novelists Laila Lalami and Rabih Alameddine, took the academy to task for its choice. “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars,” Mr. Alameddine wrote on Twitter. “This is almost as silly as Winston Churchill.”

Others said the academy’s decision smacked of baby boomer nostalgia.

“I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies,” the Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh wrote on Twitter.

In some ways, it was a typical response to Mr. Dylan’s work, who throughout his career has been hailed as a brilliant stylist and innovator and yet faced occasional bafflement from critics.

Mr. Dylan emerged on the New York music scene in 1961 as an artist in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, singing protest songs and strumming an acoustic guitar in clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village. But from the start, Mr. Dylan stood out for dazzling lyrics and an oblique songwriting style that made him a source of fascination for artists and critics. In 1963, the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart with a version of his song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” with ambiguous refrains that evoked Ecclesiastes.

Within a few years, Mr. Dylan was confounding the very notion of folk music, with ever more complex songs and moves toward a more rock ’n’ roll sound. In 1965, he played with an electric rock band at the Newport Folk Festival, provoking a backlash from folk purists who accused him of selling out.

After reports of a motorcycle accident in 1966 near his home in Woodstock, N.Y., Mr. Dylan withdrew further from public life but remained intensely fertile as a songwriter. His voluminous archives, showing his working process through thousands of pages of songwriting drafts, were acquired this year by institutions in Tulsa, Okla.

His 1975 album “Blood on the Tracks” was interpreted as a supremely powerful account of the breakdown of a relationship, but just four years later the Christian themes of “Slow Train Coming” divided critics. His most recent two albums were chestnuts of traditional pop that had been associated with Frank Sinatra.

Since 1988, Mr. Dylan has toured almost constantly, inspiring an unofficial name for his itinerary, the Never Ending Tour. Last weekend, he played the first of two performances at Desert Trip, a festival in Indio, Calif., that also featured the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and other stars of the 1960s.

Mr. Dylan, whose original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn., and grew up in nearby Hibbing. He played in bands as a teenager, influenced by the folk musician Woody Guthrie, the authors of the Beat Generation and modernist poets.

In 1962, soon after arriving in New York, Mr. Dylan signed a contract with Columbia Records for his debut album, “Bob Dylan.” He was only 22 when he performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, singing “When the Ship Comes In,” with Joan Baez, and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a retelling of the murder of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“As the ’60s wore on,” Giles Harvey wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2010, “Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu.” He “began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.”

Mr. Dylan’s many albums, which the Swedish Academy described as having “a tremendous impact on popular music,” include “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Blonde on Blonde” (1966), “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006).

The academy added: “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”

Mr. Dylan’s many honors include Grammy, Academy and Golden Globe awards; he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. The Nobel comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $900,000. The literature prize is given for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.

“Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude,’’ President Obama said at the Medal of Honor ceremony. “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth. And I have to say that I am a really big fan.”

Source : www.nytimes.com

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