The Nobel Academy shocked the world last fall when they announced that the Prize for Literature was being awarded to songwriter, Bob Dylan, the first American to be so honored since Toni Morrison in 1983. That reaction was mild compared to the one that greeted Dylan’s silence following the announcement. After being skewered in both the US and Swedish press for two weeks, Dylan finally released a statement explaining he had simply been rendered speechless and would attend the ceremony to accept the award if possible. But, Patti Smith ended up standing in for him. The saga comes to an end this weekend, as the academy has announced they will hold a small private ceremony with Dylan.
In a rare coup for such a new publication, this blog is able today to report this exclusive behind the scenes story. A set of odd circumstances gave me the opportunity to interview someone with first-hand information about how drastically Bob Dylan’s life has changed since last fall. Speaking on condition of anonymity, because his office is only two doors down from Dylan’s agent, Brian Greenbaum at Creative Artists Agency, and he doesn’t want to lose his job, this person painted a picture of a late life renaissance, a Boomer reborn if you will. (Yes, he was born in ’41, but we gave him honorary status in the 60s.)
The timing of the Nobel announcement was key. “Bob had just received the results from his MyHeritageDNA test.” (Note: my source kept referring to Dylan as Bob, which is mainly what convinced me of the authenticity of the account.) “As a Minnesota native, it should have come as no surprise, but the results indicated he was at least 80% Swedish.” Still, Dylan had spent his entire life believing his family had come from Russia. He was stunned and still processing his newly realized heritage when the Nobel announcement was made.
Although his first impulse had been to question the DNA results, Dylan saw this award as some kind of divine confirmation of his Swedish roots. “How else to explain that he was getting the Nobel Prize for friggin’ Literature?” my source asked reasonably.
Dylan, who was at the end of a tour, immediately went into seclusion to reflect on the revelation. Those close to him were used to this kind of thing, so did not think much of it. The Nobel people, on the other hand were livid. When word of their reaction reached him, Dylan went even deeper into contemplation.
The singer/songwriter is reborn
When he contacted his agent two weeks later, it was with an enthusiasm that had been missing for many years. Dylan had been rereading his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol 1, to review his early life in this new light. One result of this was for him to drop his initial theory that this book was the reason for the Literature prize.
More importantly, though, he now realized his life had been full of foreshadowings pointing to this inevitable cultural rebirth. For example, there was his boyhood best friend who had moved away from Duluth, to the little town of Stockholm, Wisconsin, just east of Minneapolis. He spent many weekends there, and had fond memories of the stacks of paper thin pancakes his friend’s mother made. Also, his early folksinging days in the Village are legendary, but few people realized he lived with friends in a flat across the Brooklyn Bridge on Stockholm Street.
Greenbaum arranged for a private meeting between Dylan and the president of Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minnesota. Dylan proposed that the College, the foremost Swedish language institution in the U.S., immediately begin a project to translate the entire Dylan songbook, nearly 400 songs, into Swedish. In return, the college has received a $10 million contribution to establish the Bob Dylan Chair for Folk/Rock Literature.
There was a brief period when the agency had to push back on their star’s new-found Nordic obsession. Dylan, who refuses to text or use email, had sent them a note, saying he needed to change his name. My source gave me a photocopy, which says:
God dag, Brian. Please have your attorneys start paperwork for a legal name change to Robert Allen Johanneson. You see, I Was Young When I Left Home, and I thought I would be Forever Young. But now I Feel a Change Comin’ On. Who I’ve been up to now, well, It Ain’t Me Babe. Ever since the Nobel Prize, that Simple Twist of Fate, I’ve had the North Country Blues. Then, last week, I was feeling Like a Rolling Stone so I got in my car, man, and it was like Highway 61 Revisted. I drove most the night until I saw the thunderclouds and thought, “Whoa, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It was a sign, like I’m Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. OK man. Thanks. I mean tak. Bob
Turns out this is a thing with Dylan. I suggested the note was probably a kind of joke, since it was mostly composed of his song titles. I was assured it is common and he takes it pretty seriously.
They have been stalling him on the name change, but have not been able to dissuade him from insisting on singing in Swedish from now on. The students at Gustavus Adolphus have several dozen songs completed and Dylan has been using a phonetic version of the translations to rehearse for this weekend’s performance at the small Nobel ceremony.
I expressed doubt that this would go over very well, but my source just laughed. “I’ve heard several of the session recordings,” he said. “Mumbling in Swedish doesn’t really sound much different from mumbling in English!”
I need to post this before someone else gets wind of the story. But, I did do some additional research and found there are some “fake news” versions of Dylan’s foray into all things Swedish. I’ve confirmed, for example, that there is no truth to the rumor that he has had a giant dragon tattooed across his back.
On the other hand, watch for an announcement in the coming days about Bob Dylan’s upcoming tour. Starting sometime in June, he and his band will perform free outdoor concerts throughout 14 northern states in IKEA parking lots.