Jun 07, 2017, 10:51 AM

By Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker

Dylanphiles, breathe easy: our man Bob is a Nobel Laureate at last. As you’ll recall, Bob Dylan won the prize in Literature last October, but, to officially collect the title—plus the roughly nine-hundred-thousand-dollar bundle of cash that comes with it—winners must deliver a lecture within six months of the Swedish Academy’s official awards ceremony in December, which Dylan skipped. That gave him a deadline of June 10th. Dylan, true to form, has played the whole Nobel thing mysteriously, maybe maddeningly, cool. He claimed that he couldn’t attend the ceremony because of “previous commitments,” as if it were a college friend’s wedding. When he finally showed up in Stockholm, during an April tour stop, to receive the Nobel medal, he looked more like a cat burglar than a laureate, sneaking into the private prize hand-off through a service door, wearing a hoodie, leather jacket, and gloves. Dylan was grateful for the Nobel; he said as much in the brief remarks that he submitted to be read in absentia at the December ceremony. But was he grateful enough to actually seal the deal with a lecture? And what would he have to say about literature, and his newly glorified place in it?

Now we know—sort of. Dylan submitted his lecture, four thousand and eight words long, to the Swedes on June 5th. Dylan made a recording of his text, speaking for twenty-seven minutes over a smoky, meditative jazz-piano arrangement. Not for him, the sombre pomp of the podium. He sounds like a lounge singer lost in contemplative patter, just letting the thoughts flow. Pour yourself a whiskey, honey, pull up a chair, and stay awhile.

The lecture’s first revelation is that Dylan has spent the past eight months asking himself the same question as the rest of us. “When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was,” he begins. This seems remarkably humble and honest, considering how many people have been up in arms about Dylan winning the writing prize at the expense of a poet or a novelist. He takes such doubts seriously; clearly, he has some of his own. He’ll try to articulate the connection, he says: “And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.”

Roundabout it is. Dylan starts with the profound influence that Buddy Holly had on his music and lyrics, and mentions a sort of holy anointment that seems to have taken place when he went to see Holly play, a few days before he died: “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.” Then came Dylan’s discovery of Leadbelly, another poet in the guise of a songster, and from Leadbelly it was a hop, skip, and jump to “the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs,” to American music in all its incomparable abundance:

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

“I had all the vernacular all down,” Dylan says. “I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day.” He still can. I doubt that Dylan will be writing a song about the lusty Lord Donald and his knife-stuck wife anytime soon, but what a song it would be. What he is saying is that he learned his consummate literary technique—how to ...