The 2016 Nobel Prize Ceremony took place on Saturday, December 10. Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature though he wasn’t present. Patti Smith performed in his honor and chose one of his classics to sing: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Of the song’s meaning, Dylan himself once said, “Every line in it, is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
It’s an incredibly moving song. The lines don’t always seem to go together, though it all works. I have found over the years that Bob Dylan is an acquired taste. I love him. “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” got me through a painful breakup. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” gives me courage to stay the course when change is necessary in church, in life. I could go on and on. Even though critics called into question Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the first place, I was beyond thrilled! Dylan’s lyrics have helped me to mourn, and given me strength and courage.
After the Nobel Prize Ceremony, I read headlines about Patti Smith’s performance:
- “Bob Dylan Nobel prize: singer is a no-show, Patti Smith forgets lyrics.” (CBS News)
- “Patti Smith forgets Bob Dylan lyrics during Nobel tribute” (The Irish Times)
- “Patti Smith Stumbles Midway through Nobel Prize performance” (CBC News)
When I watched the video, phone in hand, crying—those headlines made me so angry. I didn’t see someone who just forgot lyrics or stumbled midway through a performance. I saw someone who was nervous, was profoundly feeling the lyrics as she sang, and then got back up to deliver a stunning performance to an intimidating audience of brilliant people literally winning Nobel Prizes. I saw someone with humility—who made a mistake, apologized, named her feelings (“I’m so nervous”), and then received warm applause and understanding from that intimidating audience.
The performance was vulnerable and beautiful. And after that encouragement, Patti Smith absolutely soared. Her performance was transcendent. It’s like few performances I’ve ever seen. It was moving and raw and emotional and it brought people to tears.
Patti Smith herself wrote a piece in The New Yorker reflecting on her experience and said, “When I arose the next morning, it was snowing. In the breakfast room, I was greeted by many of the Nobel scientists. They showed appreciation for my very public struggle. They told me I did a good job. I wish I would have done better, I said. No, no, they replied, none of us wish that. For us, your performance seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.”
It’s so easy to criticize from the sidelines.
It’s so easy to fall down in our lives and to just stay there.
It takes courage beyond measure to get back up.
To fight on.
To keep singing.
Patti Smith reminded us to keep going, and that overcoming struggles makes us human and makes life worth living.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
 Spencer Kornhaber “Bob Dylan’s Subversively Humble Nobel Speech,” The Atlantic, December 12, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/speech-bob-dylan-nobel-prize/510332/
 Patti Smith, “How Does It Feel,” The New Yorker, December 14, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony?mbid=social_facebook