LONDON — The singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, one of the world’s most influential rock musicians, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in the words of the Swedish Academy.
He is the first American to win the prize since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, was a surprise: Although Mr. Dylan, 75, has been mentioned often as having an outside shot at the prize, his work does not fit into the literary canons of novels, poetry and short stories that the prize has traditionally recognized.
“Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience,” Bill Wyman, a journalist, wrote in a 2013 Op-Ed essay in The New York Times arguing for Mr. Dylan to get the award. “His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
Sara Danius, a literary scholar and the permanent secretary of the 18-member Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, called Mr. Dylan “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” and compared him to Homer and Sappho, whose work was delivered orally. Asked if the decision to award the prize to a musician signaled a broadening in the definition of literature, Ms. Danius jokingly responded, “The times they are a changing, perhaps,” referencing one of Mr. Dylan’s songs.
Ms. Danius called Mr. Dylan “a very original sampler,” and added: “For 54 years now, he’s been at it, and reinventing himself constantly, reinventing himself, creating a new identity.”
Mr. Dylan was born on May 24, 1941, in Duluth, Minn., and grew up in Hibbing. He played in bands as a teenager, influenced by the folk musician Woody Guthrie, the authors of the Beat Generation and modernist poets.
Mr. Dylan, whose original name is Robert Allen Zimmerman, identifies as Christian and has released several albums of religiously inspired songs, but he was born into a Jewish family.
The critic Greil Marcus, one of the foremost scholars of Mr. Dylan’s work, has examined the influence on his music of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a 1952 compilation that was pivotal to the folk revival in the United States. Mr. Dylan first heard the anthology in 1959 after he had dropped out of the University of Minnesota.
He moved to New York in 1961 and began to perform in clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village. The following year, he signed a contract with the record producer John Hammond for his debut album, “Bob Dylan” (1962). He was only 22 when he performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, singing “When the Ship Comes In,” with Joan Baez, and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” a retelling of the murder of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“As the ’60s wore on,” Giles Harvey wrote in The New York Review of Booksin 2010, “Dylan grew increasingly frustrated with what he came to regard as the pious sloganeering and doctrinaire leftist politics of the folk milieu.” He “began writing a kind of visionary nonsense verse, in which the rough, ribald, lawless America of the country’s traditional folk music collided with a surreal ensemble of characters from history, literature, legend, the Bible, and many other places besides.”
Mr. Dylan’s many albums, which the Swedish Academy described as having “a tremendous impact on popular music,” include “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), “Blonde On Blonde” (1966) and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), “Oh Mercy” (1989), “Time Out Of Mind” (1997), “Love and Theft” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006).
“Dylan has recorded a large number of albums revolving around topics like the social conditions of man, religion, politics and love,” the Swedish Academy said in a biographical note accompanying the announcement. “The lyrics have continuously been published in new editions, under the title ‘Lyrics.’ As an artist, he is strikingly versatile; he has been active as painter, actor and scriptwriter.”
The academy added: “Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured persistently, an undertaking called the ‘Never-Ending Tour.’ Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound, and he is the object of a steady stream of secondary literature.”
Along with his albums, Mr. Dylan has produced experimental work like “Tarantula,” a 1971 collection of prose poetry, and “Writings and Drawings,” a 1973 compilation. The first volume of his autobiography, “Chronicles,” published in 2004, recounts his early years in New York, where he moved at age 19.
Mr. Dylan’s many honors include Grammy, Academy and Golden Globe awards; he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. “By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power, was redefining not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel,” President Obama said at the White House ceremony. “Today, everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude. There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he’s still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth. And I have to say that I am a really big fan.”
The Nobel comes with a prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or just over $900,000. The literature prize is given for a lifetime of writing rather than for a single work.
The prize announcement came hours after news of the death at age 90 of Dario Fo, the Italian playwright, director and performer whose satirical work was recognized by the 1997 prize.
Previous Nobel laureates in literature have included giants like Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez.
In recent years, the prize has gone to a stylistically and geographically diverse group of writers, among them the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich in 2015, the French novelist Patrick Modiano in 2014, the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro in 2013, the Chinese novelist and short story writer Mo Yan in 2012, and the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer in 2011.
In the weeks before the announcement, speculation about potential winners swirled in the literary world and in betting markets. Some familiar names were bandied about, including the American novelist Don DeLillo, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and the Syrian poet known as Adonis. Other writers seen as having an outside shot at the prize included the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, the Spanish novelist Javier Marías and the South Korean poet Ko Un. Very few observers, including bookmakers, had given Mr. Dylan much of a shot.
Other 2016 winners
■ Yoshinori Ohsumi, a Japanese cell biologist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 3 for his discoveries on how cells recycle their content, a process known as autophagy, a Greek term for “self-eating.”
■ David J. Thouless, F. Duncan M. Haldane and J. Michael Kosterlitzshared the Nobel Prize in Physics on Oct. 4 for their research into the bizarre properties of matter in extreme states.
■ Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Oct. 5 for development of molecular machines, the world’s smallest mechanical devices.
■ President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for pursuing a deal to end 52 years of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the longest-running war in the Americas.
■ Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom were awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science on Monday for their work on improving the design of contracts, the deals that bind together employers and their workers, or companies and their customers.
Correction: October 13, 2016
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the author of a 2013 Op-Ed essay arguing that Bob Dylan should receive a Nobel Prize. The author, Bill Wyman, is a journalist, not a former Rolling Stones bassist who has the same name.