Tulsa will soon be home to the complete works of the world’s newest Nobel laureate.
Bob Dylan was announced Thursday morning as the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel committee said Dylan’s work deserved the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”
The Minnesota native is the first American to earn the Nobel Prize in literature since Toni Morrison in 1993, and many saw the announcement from the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize as a surprise because musicians haven’t been featured to the same degree as other poets, novelists and writers in the literature category.
One of those who was surprised was Michael Chaiken, curator of the Bob Dylan Archive, which is making its way to Tulsa over the next couple of years.
“I had no idea,” Chaiken said. “Definitely didn’t see it coming. It was a pleasant surprise considering how apocalyptic this election season has been. It was nice to see how beauty and poetry are still important in the world.”
The Bob Dylan Archive was acquired by the University of Tulsa and the George Kaiser Family Foundation in March and is coming to Tulsa in pieces to be stored and cataloged for future research of the material, most of which was unknown to many scholars before the March announcement. The archive includes more than 6,000 pieces of song lyrics, videos, notebooks and other items going back more than 60 years. It is currently being stored at the Helmerich Center for American Research next to Gilcrease Museum. As the pieces are collected and organized, plans are for a public center to present some of the materials.
Chaiken said the announcement of the Nobel Prize recognizes Dylan’s work as more than just songs, but as poetry worthy of study and critique by scholars and historians. And that recognition helps to elevate the whole folk and American music traditions.
“Bob is absolutely the key figure in that. He turned popular music into something much more literary and something deeper,” Chaiken said.
“Many of his main influences are literary figures, (Allen) Ginsberg and (Jack) Kerouac. That’s what Bob brought to the form: He brought this poetic and literary sensibility to popular song form, on top of his influences from people like Woody Guthrie. He melded that modernist literary sensibility into something different.”
The announcement early Thursday morning local time wasn’t a surprise to everyone, however.
“Not surprised and thought it was about time,” said Steve Ripley, an Oklahoma musician who was a member of Dylan’s band for several years. Ripley also organized the Dylan appreciation show “On a Night Like This” last spring at Cain’s Ballroom, which featured notable local and national musicians performing Dylan songs.
Ripley has seen Dylan at work writing music and knows the depth of many of his songs and their lyrics. What sets Dylan apart as not only a musician but a poet is his ability to take the mantra of Guthrie — “All you can write is what you see,” which is written at the bottom of the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” — and create images, stories and experiences with his words.
“He just absorbs stuff so thoroughly,” Ripley said. “It’s in there, and he churns it out. He and I have talked more than once about how we’re sort of like computers and the guy who puts it out better, he’s the winner, half jokingly. But Bob is the best at that.
“He’s studied it, he’s absorbed it, and that comes out in his poetry.”
Deana McCloud, executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, reacted to the news of Dylan earning the prize with an “of course he did.” One of Dylan’s first recordings on his first album, “A Song to Woody,” talks about the Oklahoma songwriter and his influences on Dylan. Many of the traits of Guthrie’s music can be seen as part of what shaped Dylan’s work.
“The imagery is genius,” McCloud said. “It’s a true artist to capture that imagery. We’re in the moment with him.”
Officials with the Bob Dylan Archive celebrated the news Thursday, saying that the prize solidifies their work to preserve Dylan’s legacy here.
“Clearly Bob Dylan’s impact on our country and the world is well-recognized, and it will last for several generations,” said Ken Levit, executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which purchased the archive with the University of Tulsa this year. “It’s also humbling because it’s going to be a big responsibility for the future. I don’t think we could have a better partner than the University of Tulsa to manage this with us.”
The Nobel Prize is the latest in the long list of awards and accolades given to Dylan that include 11 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame.