Bob Dylan & the Nobel Prize — Song for a Sunday

The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.

Finally, this week, Dylan forked over his speech—not in person but in an audio recording. The Academy described the speech as “extraordinary” and “eloquent.”

Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.

Bob DylanNot that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.

Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:

“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”

And that’s it.

That’s it?

That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.

Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel

I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:

“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”

Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.

Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)

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Winston Churchill, standup comedian

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

For the record—no, Winston Churchill was not actually a standup comedian. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II and again in the 1950s. A great writer as well as a great leader, his stirring oratory helped insWinston Churchill, not a standup comedianpire his people to survive the darkest days of the war. Later, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In other words, Sir Winston Churchill knew his way around a sentence. I don’t know when he said the sentence at the beginning of this post—some sources suggest it’s a false attribution—but he died in 1965, so it’s at least half a century old.

Old Winnie probably got a big laugh when he compared a speech to a woman’s skirt. His listeners probably enjoyed the opportunity to think, even for a moment, about the delights of the “subject” a skirt covers.

Oh, those jolly Mad Men days. They didn’t have a monopoly on sexist behavior in the 1960s, but at least they had the decency to veil it in innuendo. Makes today’s political discourse seem like teatime at the convent. But I digress.

Winston Churchill in the 21st Century

Churchill’s quip came to my attention recently when someone I know wrote about it. She’d heard it delivered from the stage (without attribution) last week.

Do I need to add that this happened at a tech conference?

Or that the person writing about it was one of the very few women at the event?

Churchill’s audience probably had a similar composition. Back then, society hadn’t yet embraced the presence or the talents of its female members. (Although one of its female members became Queen during Churchill’s second stint as Prime Minister.) But today is different. Or should be different.

Yet when I Googled the quotation, I found that many editors and aggregators still think it’s relevant and useful. You can find it on a site called “” and in an article called “5 of the Smartest Things Ever Said About Public Speaking.” The author of that article? A woman!

[Shaking my head.]

[Nope, still shaking my head.]

Do I need to explain “humor” to you?

Humor remains an important element for any speech. But make sure it’s relevant to the topic. No one-liners. And do not insult, stereotype, or objectify anyone or any group. Ever. Whether or not you think your audience is 100% free of members of that group. Because speakers should lift people up, not pull them down.

During World War II, Churchill rallied his country not by trash-talking the Nazis, but by celebrating the great, courageous character of his people. That’s the kind of stuff that won him the Nobel Prize, folks—not his sexist “joke” about short skirts.

And one other thing: Speeches only need to be short if they’re boring. Write a good one, deliver it well, and you can keep your audience’s attention. Even without making them think about sex.