Many habitants of the literary world were surprised on Oct. 13 when the Nobel Prize committee named famed songwriter Bob Dylan as recipient of its 2016 prize in literature. The prize has traditionally gone to authors of novels, nonfiction and poetry. Songwriting wasn't considered in the same literary realm as those other forms of written expression.
But there was at least one person who saw Dylan's work in a Nobel-worthy light. Gordon Ball '66 first nominated Dylan for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996, and doggedly repeated his appeal more than a dozen times in the following years.
Ball was an English major at Davidson, and earned a doctorate in English at UNC Chapel Hill. He had a long and distinguished career teaching poetry, creative writing, film and "The Literature of the Beat Generation" at Virginia Military Institute. For the past two years he has served as visiting associate professor at Washington and Lee University.
Ball admitted that some people judged him "crazy, or out of line" for his continued efforts to qualify Dylan's work as literature. And even he didn't expect much.
"I thought it was a long shot, and quite likely wouldn't happen," he said. "In all those years of nominating, I only heard back from the selection committee one time--a single brief letter that said simply ‘Thank you for your letter.' But I kept trying."
In an essay in The Washington Post on Oct. 14, Ball recalled his patient efforts on behalf of Dylan's songwriting.
"For decades I've admired the work of Bob Dylan, whom I first saw at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965," he began.
Ball was enrolled in a summer program at Harvard University between his junior and senior years at Davidson. He had no special interest in attending the famed music festival, but a friend bought tickets for the last night, and provided transportation.
They were seated far from the stage when Dylan performed his "scandalous" set with an electric guitar. Ball discerned a stirring of the crowd near the stage, but only later learned of the consternation that Dylan's performance had caused folk purists.
Ball's affinity for Dylan's artistry grew during his senior year at Davidson, particularly with the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home. He recalls the joy he felt on first hearing the jubilant sounds of the latter upon entering a friend's Main Street apartment sanctuary.
As his own academic career developed, Ball developed a deeper and deeper appreciation for Dylan's literary artistry, and he taught his students about the artist. Ball said he was never a Dylan "groupie," and saw him in concert only three times over the years. He did meet Dylan briefly at the wedding celebration of a mutual friend on Long Island, an event depicted in his book East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg.
It was not until August 1996 that Ball first wrote the Nobel Committee, nominating Dylan for its literature prize.
He confessed that the idea originated not with himself, but with two Dylan aficionados in Norway–journalist Reidar Indrebø and attorney Gunnar Lunde. That pair had written Allen Ginsberg about a Nobel for Dylan, but neither they nor Ginsberg qualified as nominators. Nominations were accepted only from professors of literature or linguistics, past laureates, presidents of national writers' groups, or members of the Swedish Academy or similar groups.
As a literary teacher and scholar, Ball did qualify.
He recalled, "Over the next few months several other professors–including Stephen Scobie, Daniel Karlin and Betsy Bowden–endorsed Dylan for the Nobel. I went on to nominate him for the next dozen years!"
The Nobel committee's standards for selection stipulate that works must be "of an idealistic tendency," and must "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." In his nomination letters, Ball explained how he believed Dylan qualified on each count.
He wrote, "Idealism and benefiting humanity often, of course, move hand in hand, and Dylan's idealistic, activist songs have indeed helped change our world.... For a generation raised in conformity, Dylan validated imagination and independence of thought. His work is emblematic of the creativity of the 1960s in the United States, and has affected others across the globe."
In finally selecting Dylan as this year's recipient in literature, the Nobel academy hailed him for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.
The committee's permanent secretary, Sara Danius, confirmed that the committee had adopted a broader definition of literature that would qualify Dylan to become the first-ever songwriter to win the award.
Danius wrote, "...performing poetry in the form of song is no different from the ancient Greeks, whose works were often performed to music. Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear, but it's perfectly fine to read his works as poetry." In his letters Ball had referred to the belief of some scholars that Homer may have accompanied himself on a lyre or phorminx, as well as to the traditions of troubadour and minstrel.
Ball said his colleagues and students have been generous in crediting him with a role in Dylan's Nobel Prize. However, Ball recognizes that there's no way to know what influence–if any–his nominations had in the jury's selection.
"I don't claim that they considered my appeals at all," he said. "But I'd like to think I may have helped prime the pump."
While at Davidson, Ball received the Vereen Bell prize for creative writing, awarded by novelist Reynolds Price. He has since then edited three books with Ginsberg, made award-winning experimental films and published three memoirs.
Dylan has been a prolific writer and performer for more than 50 years, and is the first American winner of the Nobel literature prize since Toni Morrison in 1992. Among nearly countless other accolades, he received the Polar Music Prize in 2000 for his "musical and poetic brilliance," a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his contributions to music and American culture, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from President Barack Obama.
This year's six Nobel Prizes will be presented on Dec. 10 in Stockholm, Sweden.