Bob Dylan has become the first songwriter to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The 75-year-old American, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, received the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, the Swedish Academy, the body responsible for awarding the prizes, said.
Dylan had long been tipped as a potential Nobel recipient but few experts expected the academy to extend the prestigious award to a folk musician. The choice was met by gasps and a long round of applause from journalists attending the prize announcement.
Dylan taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and piano and began his musical career in 1959, playing in coffee houses in Minnesota. Much of his best-known work dates from the 1960s,including Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are A-Changin’, which were set against the backdrop of the anti-war and civil rights movements.
Dylan’s many albums include Highway 61 Revisited in 1965, Blonde on Blonde in 1966 and Blood on the Tracks in 1975.
Since the late 1980s he has toured persistently, an undertaking he has dubbed the “Never-Ending Tour”.
Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, described Dylan’s songs as “poetry for the ears” and said she hoped the academy would not be criticised for its choice. “Of course he deserves it: he’s got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet, a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. For 54 years he’s been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”
Musicians and writers praised the choice on social media.
The British singer-songwriter singer Billy Bragg praised the award for Bob Dylan, quoting a line from the song Mr Tambourine Man: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.”
“For this alone Bob Dylan deserves the Nobel prize,” Bragg tweeted.
Mick Hucknall, lead singer of the band Simply Red, praised Dylan as “greatest living poet”. He added on Twitter that “There is no musical artist on this earth that merits a #NobelPrize more than Bob Dylan. His poetry and melody changed society.”
The British fantasy writer Philip Pullman also welcomed the award, saying he hoped that as a result the Nobel committee might in the future look at a wider range of writing.
“One result might be to open the prize to genre fiction as well as the ‘literary’ sort,” he said on Twitter.
Gordon Ball, an English professor specialising in American literature and the Beat Generation, nominated the singer-songwriter for the award 15 years in a row beginning in 1996. “There’s an enormous, almost a kind of unbelievability, that it finally happened,” he said. “People thought I was crazy or really out of line.” But he notes that the committee has recognised a “wide latitude in terms of medium,” such as Winston Churchill’s oratory.
“With songs like Blowin’ in the Wind on behalf of the civil rights movement, Dylan made a difference,” he added. “In short, he has changed the world for the better.”
The award will be presented alongside this year’s other five Nobel prizes on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of Alfred Nobel, who founded the prize.
Last year’s literature prize went to the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, for her documentary-style narratives based on witness testimonies from the 1986 nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl and the Soviet-Afghan war.
The literature award, which caps the 2016 Nobel season, follows more than a week of announcements for the prizes for medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and peace. The peace prize went to Colombia’s President Santos for his efforts to end a half-century war with the Farc rebels.