Patti Smith Forgets Bob Dylan’s Lyrics at Nobel Ceremony

Smith was accepting on behalf of Bob Dylan who did not attend

Those who believe the Nobel Committee misstepped by awarding the Prize for literature to folk musician Bob Dylan may have had the last laugh. At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm on Saturday, Patti Smith, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on behalf of the absent Dylan, forgot his prize-winning lyrics.

Patti Smith brings a unique blend of worldliness and wonderment to all that she does, and this performance was no different. She sang with deep feeling, making the song her own but nodding to Dylan’s famous 1963 recording with vocal intonations that never risked impersonation. When she stumbled over the second verse (are the babies bleeding or was it the hammers?), she apologized to the audience, saying “I’m sorry. I’m so nervous.” Her apology seemed intimate and honest, as if she were in front of a room full of friends, not 1,500 tuxedos. The crowd applauded encouragingly, as if to say, “That’s okay! The words don’t really matter anyway!” Which is ironic during a ceremony bestowing literature’s highest honor upon those very words.

The truth is her moving performance hardly suffered from the bungle. That the exact words don’t really matter is categorically true of folk music, where traditional songs are revised and adapted according the time, place, and musician. And who does remember all the lyrics to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”? We remember the feeling: a prescient warning of deserved doom; a series of observations forecasting biblical punishment. It’s the sentiment of the song, not the exact phrasing, that has remained relevant and gripped our attention for decades.

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