Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday for work that the Swedish Academy described as "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
He is the first American to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, and a ground-breaking choice by the Nobel committee to select the first literature laureate whose career has primarily been as a musician.
Although long rumored as a contender for the prize, Dylan was far down the list of predicted winners, which included such renown writers as Haruki Murakami and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o.
This is the second year in a row that the academy has turned away from fiction writers for the literature prize. And it's possibly the first year that the prize has gone to someone who is primarily a musician, not a writer.
The permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, made the announcement in Stockholm. In a televised interview afterward, Danius said that Dylan "embodies the tradition. And for 54 years, he's been at it, reinventing himself, creating a new identity." She suggested that people unfamiliar with his work start with "Blonde on Blonde," his album from 1966.
"Bob Dylan writes poetry for the ear," she said. "But it's perfectly fine to read his works as poetry."
She draw parallels between Dylan's work and poets as far back as Greek antiquity.
"It's an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming and his pictorial thinking," Danius added. "If you look back, far back, you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed. It's the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho. He can be read and should be read. He is a great poet in the grand English tradition. I know the music, and I've started to appreciate him much more now. Today, I'm a lover of Bob Dylan.
Dylan will receive an 18-karat gold medal and a check for about $$925,000.
Dylan, a Minnesota appliance store owner's son, began as a folk singer but soon established himself as one of the voices of political protest and cultural reshaping in the 1960s.
Dylan's songs – driven by his distinctive nasal-twang vocals – are often seen as dense prose poems packed with flamboyant, surreal images. Rolling Stone once called him "the most influential American musician rock and roll has ever produced."
His first gained notice with ringing protest songs that served as anthems for the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements with such songs as "Masters of War," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."
Then he moved on to feverish rock-and-roll drenched in stream-of-consciousness lyrics that evoked the hallucinatory visions of William Blake, the romanticism of Shelley and Keats and the postmodern pessimism of Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets.
Dylan recalled listening to country music each evening from distant Midwestern stations and taking up the guitar himself at age 10.
He briefly attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where folk music, rather than rock-and-roll, was the abiding musical idiom.
"Picasso had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open," Dylan once wrote. "He was revolutionary. I wanted to be like that."
Dylan sang at the 1963 March on Washington, the massive civil rights procession presided over by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Later, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he stunned many fans – and began a new musical direction – by putting aside his acoustic guitar and playing a Fender sunburst Stratocaster electric guitar.
His next albums – "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" – ventured further into the surreal long-form songs and dizzying array of characters that were now his trademark. They are considered by many critics to be his creative peak.
In the late 1970s he stunned admirers again by declaring himself a Christian and releasing three albums of religiously-inspired songs. The singing and musicianship were passionate and professional – Dylan earned his first Grammy Award, for best rock male vocal performance – but the harsh, born-again lyrics puzzled and alienated many of his longtime fans.
In 2005, he released a long-awaited memoir, "Chronicles Vol. 1," which won him more accolades for its candor and originality. He also appeared in director Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home," a documentary that summed up the triumphs and turmoil of his early years as a performer. In 2008, he was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, "marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."