The 75-year-old Dylan – who won the prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” – now finds himself in the company of Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann and Rudyard Kipling as Nobel laureates.
Thursday’s announcement was met with gasps in Stockholm’s stately Royal Academy hall, followed – unusually – by some laughter.
Dylan’s songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times They Are a-Changin”, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” captured a spirit of rebellion, dissent and independence.
More than 50 years on, he is still writing songs and is often on tour, performing his dense poetic lyrics, sung in a sometimes rasping voice that has been ridiculed by detractors.
Some lyrics have resonated for decades.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”, written in 1962, was considered one of the most eloquent folk songs of all time. “The Times They Are A-Changin”, in which Dylan told Americans “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”, was an anthem of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests.
Awarding the 8 million Swedish crown ($A1.2 million) prize, the Swedish Academy said: “Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound.”
Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg said: “He is probably the greatest living poet.”
Asked if he thought Dylan’s Nobel lecture – traditionally given by the laureate in Stockholm later in the year – would be a concert, replied: “Let’s hope so.”
Over the years, not everyone has agreed that Dylan is a poet of the first order. Novelist Norman Mailer countered: “If Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player.”
Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, told a news conference there was “great unity” in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize.
Dylan has always been an enigmatic figure. He went into seclusion for months after a motorcycle crash in 1966, leading to stories that he had cracked under the pressure of his new celebrity.
He was born into a Jewish family but in the late 1970s converted to born-again Christianity and later said he followed no organised religion. At another point in his life, Dylan took up boxing.
Dylan’s spokesman, Elliott Mintz, declined immediate comment when reached by phone, citing the early hour in Los Angeles, where it was 3am at the time of the announcement.
Literature was the last of this year’s Nobel prizes to be awarded. The prize is named after dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and has been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.
Some of Dylan’s key lyrics:
From “Blowin’ In The Wind”, 1963: How many years can a mountain exist Before it’s washed to the sea? Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free? Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head Pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind
From “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, 1963: Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son? Who did you meet, my darling young one? I met a young child beside a dead pony, I met a white man who walked a black dog, I met a young woman whose body was burning, I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow, I met one man who was wounded in love, I met another man who was wounded with hatred, And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
From “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, 1964: Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticize What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is rapidly agin’ Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin’
From “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, 1965: Disillusioned words like bullets bark As human gods aim for their mark Make everything from toy guns that spark To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark It’s easy to see without looking too far That not much is really sacred
From “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, 1965: You don’t need a weather man To know which way the wind blows.
From “Like a Rolling Stone”, 1965: When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
From “Lay Lady Lay”, 1969: Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead I long to see you in the morning light I long to reach for you in the night Stay, lady, stay, stay while the night is still ahead
From “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”, 1973: Mama, put my guns in the ground I can’t shoot them anymore. That long black cloud is comin’ down I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
From “Shelter from the Storm”, 1974: I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
From “Blind Willie McTell”, 1983: Well, God is in His heaven And we all want what’s his But power and greed and corruptible seed Seem to be all that there is I’m gazing out the window Of the St. James Hotel And I know no one can sing the blues Like Blind Willie McTell.