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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basil fawllty basil fawllty 11/1/2016 01:07
I read two "Nobel Prize" books and it was not a rewarding experience. I went to a concert of Dylan, and I did not understand any of the lyrics because he was screaming the whole time. "The Nobel Prize for literature is awarded to books that nobody reads" is something I heard Rush Limbaugh say. Strange world!
Chris in St Maur Chris in St Maur 10/31/2016 04:19
It's a nice story about Maynard Solomon not wanting to sign Dylan.


If Joan Baez said Vanguard should sign Dylan, she was out of her skull.

Dylan was not available to be signed - he had a cast-iron 5 year contract with CBS who treated him well & he had no reason to try to break it.

Maynard Solomon knew that Bob Dylan was not available for at least a couple of years, & Vanguard didn't have the financial or legal muscle to induce Dylan to break his contract with CBS, which was a far bigger company. So no, not signing Dylan wasn't something Solomon regretted. If he'd tried to, he'd have found himself on the losing end of a very expensive lawsuit for poaching another company's artist.

Dylan by 1964 was highly successful - he had performed at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his I have a dream speech, his 2nd, 3rd & 4th LPs had charted, even the Beatles had sat up & taken notice, & lots of people recorded his songs, which brought him a lot more in royalties than recording them himself ever would. (Songwriters earn a lot more than performers, which is why Jagger & Richards were a lot richer than the other Stones, & Lennon & McCartney than George & Ringo.)
roysteele roysteele 10/30/2016 09:23
"His answers must have been satisfactory as they dated for a few months thereafter." ... That sly, silver-tongued devil.
fons fons 10/29/2016 08:10
@ koko48: Broadening the definition of literature is a slippery slope. Is text sprayed on a wall as graffiti also literature? If every piece of text becomes literature, then the term loses all meaning.

There are awards for poets, there are awards for literature, there are awards for songwriters. There are reasons for the distinctions.

Not that I care too much about all these awards, that's just my opinion. ;)
fons fons 10/29/2016 08:00
PS: Experts on literature will argue that his lyrics -just on their own- are pretty banal most of the time. That's OK. They're not meant to be read just on their own, they're meant to be listened to, as a song.
koko48 koko48 10/29/2016 07:52
As someone who worked in book publishing and mingled in some literary circles in New York, I can attest (as I'm sure many others can) that there are few artistic or cultural fields with as much snobbery and pretentious high-mindedness, as the 'literary' world.

There are many in those circles who take it upon themselves to classify writers as 'literary' or 'not literary', meaningful or meaningless, substantive or shallow. Of course these standards are usually subjective, and the standards are set by 'literary lions' - either self proclaimed (editors, critics), or writers proclaimed by the self proclaimed.

I find it interesting that most of the writers saying Dylan's work is not 'literary' enough, do not have a fraction of Dylan's writing talent or way with words....Those who can't do, critique.

Dylan's words were powerful, poetic, meaningful, compelling, and relevant...As relevant today as they were fifty years ago, which is the objective standard for timelessness in literature. Dylan's words and music will outlast most of the 'important' literary works of Dylan's critics.

By any objective standard, Dylan's poetry and bardic style are literary. They are also meaningful, substantive, and have stood the test of time.

And I agree with TambourineMan Mr. Silver, the story of your mother and Bob Dylan is a very interesting one. Perhaps she should write a book, if she hasn't already? Clearly you come from excellent stock and you have a very interesting family story. Your mother was apparently as beautiful as she was talented, it's easy to see why Bob Dylan was interested in meeting her
fons fons 10/29/2016 07:50
You don't give the oscar for best movie to a photographer. Etc.

Give him an award for best songwriter, yes. Not some award for literature. If he wanted awards for literature, he should have written books, not songs.

Awards for art are stupid anyway. Art is not a competition.
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 10/29/2016 11:32
This article Albert might not contain so much chess but if this story about Rosana Maria Martins aint noticed and writen down in books about Bob you have a big story. I mostly listen to his song, but have read some books about Bob and this one I havent come over yet or as usual my memory dont serv me well...
Mr TambourineMan Mr TambourineMan 10/29/2016 11:19
Yep koko48 Bobby talked to Bob on phone as you described. 5.000 dollar it cost, for 15 min and that one was Bobby won the Wch. I have Always imagin that in the song I Shall Be Free, from 67, it aint President Kennedy thats Calling him up, its Bob Calling Bobby:

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
Anita Ekberg
Sophia Loren”

AND YESTERDAY after this article was published we have BREKING NEWS
A journalist from The Telegraf asked Bob if hi is coming to recive the price the answer was:
Im very happy to recive the price, I will come to Stockholm if thats posible.

notice "if thats posible"
MaxMinus MaxMinus 10/29/2016 08:20
There must be a very influential Bob Dylan fanboy on the Nobel Committee, because there's no way there isn't a more gifted professional writer in the world that deserves the prize more than someone who has written perhaps a handfull of good songs, a truckload of very mediocre ones, and who has been stoned for the last 50 years.
Also there must be a big fanboy of him on Chessbase. Being a chess fan doesn't seem to be enough to write an article about.
koko48 koko48 10/29/2016 12:50
I disagree Dylan doesn't 'deserve' the Nobel....The best lyrics are poetry, which is literature....Also there is a literary bardic tradition of storytelling through music, which Dylan followed and perpetuated in many ways

Dylan was always reclusive and distrusting of the media, and somewhat camera his contemporary Bobby Fischer....Another tale many don't know, is that Dylan idolized Fischer,as did many American chess players at that time....And as a birthday present to Dylan, his manager/friend (forgot his name) paid Fischer for either a phone conversation or game (possibly both) with Dylan
vincero vincero 10/28/2016 06:21
like most great artists dylan was a product of the times.
his ability to translate those times through the lyrics of a song is his genius.
that however does not in itself make him superior to other song writers who were doing the exact same thing.
are his songs or abilities greater than say cole porter?
there is no denying dylan has achieved superior status then others of his ilk and that would obviously be the self evidence of ones argument proving his status.
music however is much more subjective then other human endeavors and i would not lose my mind trying to defend say the opinion of who was better/more important then dylan or....fill in the blank.
ARK_ANGEL ARK_ANGEL 10/28/2016 03:11
Dylan is a gifted musician. That said he doesn't deserve Noble Prize. I am amazed a person like Fedric approves such notions. It's insult to all the professional literates(authors and poets). In 21 century even Nobel price degraded to such lower levels. If there is rational theory behind nobel literature award then very soon it would be won by a screen writer. How sad.....
ChessHulk ChessHulk 10/28/2016 02:10
Not a lot about his Chess "career". If Chessbase ran a story about any famous person that ever played a game of Chess then Chessbase would be the New Yorker!
But no mention of Chess, which then drove me to curiosity or the equivalent in this techno age - googling.

"When Dylan came to play at Dublin Castle in 1984 Bono (U2) interviewed him. Here is an interesting extract.
Bono: Chess, do you play chess? Dylan: Yeah, I play chess. Are you a chess player? Bono: I am a chess player. Dylan: I'm not that good actually. Bono: I'll challenge you to a game of chess. Dylan: I don't have it right now actually, I just don't have one on me, but the next time you see me! Bono: Oh, you can get these little ones you know, that you can carry around. Dylan: Yeah, I take them on tour all the time, but nobody in the band will play me. Bono: Really? Dylan: Yeah, they say it's an ego trip. They say I want to win, I don't want to win, I just like to play. Bono: When you put out a record that causes trouble - is it part of an overall plan, or do you just do it? Dylan: No, I don't ever put out a record to cause trouble - if it causes trouble, it causes trouble, that's apart from me. If it causes trouble, that's other people's problem. It's not my problem. I'm just not going to put out a record that I just feel - you know, if I feel like I'm inspired to make a statement, I'll make that statement. But what happens after I do it, I don't care about that. Bono: What's your opening game? Dylan: My opening game, you mean king's pawn up two - and all that? I don't know. Bono: You just takes it as it comes. Dylan: Yeah. I don't really play that seriously. Bono: Well, I thought I did until I played Adam's brother Sebastian - he was only about 13 years old and he beat me! Dylan: Somebody may have a chess game here. Bono: I'd love to play."

All we really know about Dylan and chess, then, is that he played a bit, admired Bobby Fischer, didn't know any opening theory and would often bash out Dylan fashioned verse about the game.

scoobeedo scoobeedo 10/28/2016 08:13
He is not arrogant. I met him several times and he was always to everybody friendly.

And I ask why it needed 20 years that he get this prize?
sxb103 sxb103 10/28/2016 07:37
He is a little bit aloof. Some have said arrogant in the present context. He did not acknowledge the announcement.