When news of Bob Dylan being honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature broke a few months ago, the Swedish Academy responsible for the award acknowledged that it might appear to be an inappropriate choice. Dylan, as a musician, might not be thought of as an author so much as a composer. “If you look back,” permanent secretary Sara Danius told the press, “you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to … But we still read Homer and Sappho…and we enjoy it, and same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read, and should be read.”
Those who protested Princeton University’s decision to give Dylan an honorary Doctorate of Music in 1970 might find the controversy over the 2016 literary award somewhat ironic. In 1970, Arthur Mendel wrote to Princeton president Robert Goheen to suggest that Dylan should have been given a different honorary degree—for writing, not for music. Mendel believed Dylan’s achievements weren’t really musical, so much as literary. “The words he sings find a responsive echo in innumerable young hearts, and he has doubtless contributed greatly to the mobilization of his generation in protest against many evils of society,” Mendel said. “But Dylan’s music…is simply the vehicle of his words. … It has been proved over and over again that no music—not Bob Dylan’s, and not Beethoven’s—in itself expresses such concepts.”
Goheen’s response to Mendel was that it might be true that Dylan “is a bad or mediocre musician, and his power with words obscures the fact for the multitudes,” but if so, “he seems to me remarkably expressive in this mode.” Meanwhile, just as Danius did recently, some supporters appealed to Homer: “We might point out that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written to be sung,” wrote a professor from the University of Pennsylvania.
For Dylan’s part, his time at Princeton inspired him poetically and musically, and it is his experience at Commencement in 1970 to which the lyrics of “Day of the Locusts” refer. It was a hot day and the noise of the 17-year cicadas was drowning out the words spoken to introduce him. Regarding his time at Princeton, Dylan later wrote, “I put down my robe, picked up my diploma/Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive/Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota/Sure was glad to get out of there alive.”
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Honorary Degree Records (AC106)
Office of the Secretary Records (AC190)