2016 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature was accepted on his behalf by the musician Patti Smith
« Patti Smith was accompanied by the Philharmonic performing a spare and gentle arrangement of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” orchestrated by Hans Ek, a Swedish conductor. She looked so striking: elegant and calm in a navy blazer and a white collared shirt, her long, silver hair hanging in loose waves, hugging her cheekbones. I started crying almost immediately. She forgot the words to the second verse—or at least became too overwhelmed to voice them—and asked to begin the section again. I cried more. “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith admitted. The orchestra obliged. The entire performance felt like a fierce and instantaneous corrective to “times like these”—a reiteration of the deep, overwhelming, and practical utility of art to combat pain. In that moment, the mission of the Nobel transcended any of its individual recipients. How plainly glorious to celebrate this work.
The second verse, the one Smith paused on, describes a dystopian nightmare state, a landscape ravaged by a surreal despair:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Dylan wrote the song in the summer of 1962, for his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” He has said it was inspired, structurally, by seventeenth-century balladry: a question is posed, and answers stack up, though none are particularly comforting. It’s the questioning, though—and, moreover, the accounting it inspires—that seems essential. Who hasn’t, in a moment of true desperation or fear, surveyed our world and found only ugliness? Dylan’s intelligence is often antagonistic—his instinct is to seethe—but here, he seems to be encouraging his listeners to shore each other up, to acknowledge the darkness and to bear it.
Smith finished singing, and received a standing ovation. There was no speech.
That Dylan ultimately accepted the Nobel with a folk song (and this specific folk song, performed by a surrogate, a peer) seemed to communicate something significant about how and what he considers his own work (musical, chiefly), and the fluid, unsteady nature of balladry itself—both the ways in which old songs are fairly reclaimed by new performers, and how their meanings change with time. Before Smith took the stage, Horace Engdahl, a literary historian and critic, dismissed any controversy over Dylan’s win, saying the decision “seemed daring only beforehand, and already seems obvious.” He spoke of Dylan’s “sweet nothings and cruel jokes,” and his capacity for fusing “the languages of the streets and the Bible.” In the past, he reminded us, all poetry was song.
Has Dylan conferred great benefit to mankind? Listening to Smith sing his song—and watching as audience members, dressed in their finest, wiped their eyes, blindly reached for each other, seemed unable to exhale—the answer felt obvious. The answer was on their faces. »
Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker