When awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan responded in his traditional, nontraditional way: he gave no comment for two weeks after the announcement, ignored the Academy’s calls, didn’t attend the ceremony, and collected the award in a hoodie four months later. But the Academy stipulates that winners must give a lecture within six months of the ceremony to collect their prize money, and Dylan slipped in a rambling, 27-minute ode to literature just under the wire.
Sounding like a true troubadour over a jazz piano arrangement, he begins with his deep love for Buddy Holly and Lead Belly, two early influences that opened his eyes to the vibrance and power of music that’s written with truth. He devoured early folk artists, picking up on the distinct vernacular of “ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs.” And when he himself started writing, it was on the basis of the folk vocabulary he’d learned through song.
But he brought something else to his songwriting as well. Principles and perspectives he’d learned while reading the classics in school: “Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.” Going on to detail the three books that really stuck with him – Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey – he ends on a quote from Homer: “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Though Dylan has notoriously shied away from any poetic elevation (famously calling himself just “a song and dance man”), his work has long drawn from a variety of literary influences – largely the Romantics, early Southern folklore and the Beats. His songs often reference the work of other writers, to which he’s affirmed that “in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” And heavily influenced by Kerouac & Co, he said, “I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected. It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti… I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic… it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.”
Read on for a list of Bob Dylan’s literary influences, largely poetic, but sprinkled with musician bios and soulful stories of personal transformation. Couple with his smoky 2016 Nobel Lecture, then dip into the reading lists of fellow rock greats David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Patti Smith.
“I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book.” -BD
The Conscience of the Folk Revival: The Writings of Israel “Izzy” Young by Scott Barretta
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch
Stories by Anton Chekhov
Dylan has stated that “Clausewitz in some ways is a prophet” and his writing can make you “take your own thoughts a little less seriously.”
Conrad is featured in the artwork for “Desire” and it’s thought that his novel Victory was an inspiration for “Black Diamond Bay.”
The Anchor Anthology of French Poetry by Angel Flores
Jerry Garcia: The Collected Artwork by Jerry Garcia
Foreword by Dylan.
“Allen doesn’t have to sing ‘Kaddish,’ man. You understand what I mean? He just has to lay it down. He’s the only poet that I know of. I can’t really tell you all my feelings of him because they are just too total. He’s the only person I respect who writes, that just totally writes. He don’t have to do nothing, man. Allen Ginsberg, he’s just holy.” -BD
One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding by Robert Gover
“I got a friend who wrote a book, it’s called ‘One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding,’ it’s about this straight-A college kid, fraternity guy, and a 14-year-old negro prostitute, and it’s got two dialogues in the same book. One chapter is what he’s doing and what he does, and the next chapter is her view of him. It actually comes out and states something that’s actually true… This guy who wrote it, you can’t label him. He’s unlabelable.” -BD
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps by Emmett Grogan
Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie
“I went through it from cover to cover like a hurricane, totally focused on every word, and the book sang out to me like the radio. Guthrie writes like the whirlwind and you get tripped out on the sound of the words along. Pick up the book anywhere, turn to any page and he hits the ground running. ‘Bound for Glory’ is a hell of a book.” -BD
Mexico City Blues by Jack Kerouac
“Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul in 1959. It blew my mind.” -BD
“On the Road speeds by like a freight train. It’s all movement and words and lusty instincts that come alive like you’re riding on a train. Kerouac moves so fast with his words. No ambiguity. It was very emblematic of the time. You grabbed a hold of the train, hopped on and went along with him, hanging on for dear life.” -BD
Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards by Al Kooper
The Land Where the Blues Began by Alan Lomax
Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson
A soulful story woven together from Dylan’s back catalogue.
“Moby Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab—captain of a ship called the Pequod—an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.” -BD
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
“I think he’s the greatest American writer.” -BD
Woody Guthrie: Radical American Patriot by Bill Nowlin
Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta by Robert Palmer
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
“All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.” -BD
A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat by Arthur Rimbaud
“When I read [Rimbaud’s ‘I is someone else’] the bells went off. It made perfect sense. I wished someone would have mentioned that to me earlier.” -BD
The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Lyricsby Eric Sackheim
Confessions of a Yakuza by Junichi Saga
Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues by Arnold Shaw
In high school, Dylan wrote a 22-page essay on the book, to which his teacher gave a “B.”
The Dave Stewart Songbook: The Stories Behind The Songs by Dave Stewart
Foreword by Dylan.
“A narrative which would give you the chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.” -BD
Poems by Henry Timrod
Books by Bob Dylan
If Dogs Run Free (2013)
The Nobel Lecture (2016)