Bob Dylan: star, chess player, Nobel Prize laureate

by Albert Silver
10/27/2016 – To say that 2016 has been an unusual year, would be an understatement, and that would be true even without making any mention of US politics. The most recent and startling announcement was without a doubt when just two weeks ago, the famous Folk Rock singer, Bob Dylan, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan’s work has spanned decades and was the voice of a generation, and he was also a well-known chess fan. Here is a look at the icon with some tales you may not know.

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Bob Dylan was known to be a keen chess player, and played often

There is no question Bob Dylan is more than just an icon of music of the last 50-plus years, he revolutionized it in so many ways.  His recording career, spanning more than 50 years, has explored the traditions in American song—from folk, blues, and country to gospel, rock and roll, and rockabilly to English, Scottish, and Irish folk music, embracing even jazz and the Great American Songbook. While his accomplishments as a recording artist and performer have been central to his career, songwriting is considered his greatest contribution.

While it might seem hard to believe in hindsight, Dylan actually had trouble gaining widespread acceptance even in the 60s, a period where several of his songs became anthems of the American civil rights and anti-war movements.

For example, his early legendary song “Blowin’ in the Wind”, recorded by himself in late 1962, was then recorded almost immediately by many others such as the Bee Gees, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It is somewhat ironic that it was the version covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, who were represented by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, that became a smash hit, completely overshadowing, at the time, his own original, selling a phenomenal 300,000 copies for the single in the first week alone.


Blowin' in the Wind, sung by Bob Dylan

The rough edge of Dylan's singing was unsettling to some but an attraction to others. Joyce Carol Oates wrote: "When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying." Many early songs reached the public through more palatable versions by other performers, such as Joan Baez, who became Dylan's advocate and was influential in bringing Dylan to prominence by recording several of his early songs and inviting him on stage during her concerts.

Dylan with Joan Baez during the civil rights "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", August 28, 1963

This brings about a funny tale shared by this author’s mother, Rosana Maria Martins. At the time, she was one of the great musical prodigies… as a classical music pianist. Having won international piano competitions in South America and then in Europe, she had moved abroad as a teenager to study with the most prominent piano teachers around. This led her to establish herself in London for several years, and at the age of 16, in 1964, she moved to New York City.

As a young and beautiful Brazilian musician with immaculate credentials, she was promptly invited to all manner of social gatherings, including one by Seymour Solomon, the founder of Vanguard Records. Vanguard Records had started as a classical label, but soon expanded its catalogue to include jazz and folk music, of which their most famous artist of the time was none other than Joan Baez.

Rosana Maria Martins at age 21, in 1969, on the cover of a recording of Mozart

That night, Joan brought in Bob Dylan and tried to convince Solomon to sign him on. She took out her guitar and sang one of his songs, but the executive remained unconvinced. A year later, after Dylan had struck gold with his incredible single “Like a Rolling Stone”, a six-minute song that would be voted by Rolling Stone magazine as the no.1 in their list, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, Solomon would be kicking himself for his lack of foresight.


The Times They are a Changin' (1964)

Dylan also asked Rosana for her number, which she gave, but after the gathering, she did not hear from him for weeks, and soon forgot about it. The reason for his silence was because of his tour engagements, but once back in the city, he did actually call her for a date. The Brazilian was quite happy to go out with him, but he soon found out the next hurdle he had yet to leap over: the grandmother.

Coming from an very traditional South American family, she was accompanied and chaperoned by her grandmother, in the absence of the parents who could not leave the country as they both worked in order to support her. She describes Bob as extremely sweet, who patiently went through a thorough questioning by the matriarch… in Portuguese as she could not speak a word of English, translated by the young lady. His answers must have been satisfactory as they dated for a few months thereafter.

As a classical musician with a vastly different perception of music she asked him about his music, the simplicity of it. He told her that the music itself was almost unimportant, and that it was the lyrics that mattered. She has often noted that one thing she always found odd is that Dylan told her that he was also deeply influenced by Bach (as in the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach), but never saw any mention of it elsewhere.


Knockin' on Heaven's Door (1973) performed by Bob Dylan live in 1995 on MTV Unplugged

His focus on his songwriting and more specifically the lyrics have long been his trademark, and compared to poetry of the highest level. While many music critics agree that Dylan is among the most profound songwriters in modern music, his repeated nomination for the Nobel Prize has raised a vexing question among literary authorities: Should song lyrics qualify for literature's most prestigious award?


Rare 1966 recording of live performance by Bob Dylan of "Like a Rolling Stone" in Newcastle, England

"His is an art of a mixed medium," says Christopher Ricks, co-director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University and author of highly regarded works of literary criticism as well as books on T.S. Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson and John Keats. "I think the question would not be whether he deserves (the Nobel Prize) as an honor to his art. The question would be whether his art can be described as literature."

The Nobel Prize in literature is given out annually by the 18 lifetime members of the 218-year-old Swedish Academy. Candidates can be nominated by members of other literary academies and institutions, literature professors and Nobel laureates. Each year, the Swedish Academy receives about 350 nominations for about 200 different candidates, which is narrowed down to about five finalists.

Gordon Ball, an author and literature professor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. — has nominated Dylan every year since 1996. Ball said he first nominated Dylan after the writer Allen Ginsberg urged him to do so. Ginsberg, a Beat poet whose literary circle included Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, nominated Dylan in 1996.

20 years of nominations, and 20 years of nothing, might seem to suggest that the stodgier intelligentsia didn’t agree, but this was not universally so.

The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2008 awarded him a special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." Perhaps this gave weight to his repeated nomination, or perhaps it was simply recognition of it, and in 2016, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan in honor of his songwriting.


Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications, and the content creator of the YouTube channel, Chess & Tech.


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