Bob Dylan: Our Local Laureate

Photographers Elliott Landy and John Scheele share their thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Nobel literature honor, and the time he took to acknowledge it

This year’s Nobel Prize ceremony, at which the literature prize is to be bestowed upon Bob Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” is planned for December 10 in Stockholm, but the newly minted laureate at first appeared hesitant to acknowledge the honor. 

The Nobel committee announced its recognition of Dylan, who turned 75 this year, on October 13. A mention of it —“Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature” — appeared on his official website soon after the prize was unveiled, but disappeared within 24 hours.  Finally, on October 29, the songwriter acknowledged it during an interview with the Telegraph, calling the honor “amazing, incredible.” When asked why he didn’t immediately respond to the Nobel committee, he playfully said, “Well, I’m right here.”

A considerable portion of Dylan’s most prolific period is intertwined with the Hudson Valley. The Minnesota native and New York transplant resided in Woodstock in the mid-1960s, and, after a mysterious motorcycle crash there in 1966, largely disappeared from public view for several years. While in semi-seclusion in Woodstock, Dylan spent time with The Band playing and recording songs in the basement of a house in West Saugerties that eventually became known as “Big Pink.” 

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Photographer John Scheele experienced Dylan from behind a camera lens.

“In 1975, the group was finally ready to release The Basement Tapes, but needed an album cover,” Scheele recalls. “No cameras were ever allowed back in 1967, when Bob began recording those timeless songs with a group of musicians that became The Band.”

In 1968, the Saturday Evening Post commissioned a photo shoot at Dylan’s Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock. When photographer Elliott Landy showed up, Dylan picked up a guitar and started strumming.

So they set out to re-create that energy for the cover shot.

“They made a conscious effort to evoke the spirit of the earlier sessions in Big Pink on that day,” Scheele remembers. “I saw a mischievous side of Bob Dylan — how he could put on a hat or costume and assume a new identity. In hindsight, that’s a hallmark of his songs and creative work: He was like quicksilver — a fluid and malleable genius, with a wicked sense of humor.”

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Scheele says Dylan’s reaction, or lack of one at first, is not unusual.

“It’s no surprise that he was slow to respond to his Nobel Prize in a more normal way: Bob has never taken the road most traveled,” Scheele observes. “But I’m sure the recognition means a great deal to him personally, and that he will travel to Stockholm to receive his honor humbly and with grace.”

Photographer Elliott Landy, who captured a rare smiling Dylan for the iconic Nashville Skyline album cover, offers his own interpretation:

“When you’re an artist, which means you’re a person who does art because you have to do it — not because you want to do it, not because you want it to do something for you — the most important thing is getting it done. It’s more important than any accolades, money, or recognition.

“Why judge him? He’s certainly entitled to do whatever the heck he wants to do,” Landy adds. “He’s done enough for the planet, enough for the culture, enough for people’s consciousness, enough for people’s joy. Whatever he does is cool. It’s up to him.”

UPDATE: The Swedish Academy (Svenska Akademien), which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, announced on November 16 that Dylan sent them a letter saying he would not be able to travel to Stockholm in December, and therefore will not attend the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Read more here.

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