LOS ANGELES: At the Grammys’ annual charity gala on Friday, Bob Dylan stole the show without singing a single note.
In a wide-ranging 35-minute speech that had the 3,000 or so music executives and stars in the audience hanging on his every word, Mr. Dylan touched on the roots of his songwriting, the musicians who inspired him, and the naysaying of critics and others along the way.
It was an extremely rare and revealing speech from Mr. Dylan, 73, but in his usual fashion it was anything but straightforward. Reading from a thick cache of papers, he spoke in what at times was a kind of rhapsodic, canny prose-poetry, like one of his lyrics or an outtake from his 2004 memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One.”
“These songs of mine,” he said, “they’re like mystery plays, the kind Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now.”
Mr. Dylan was accepting the person of the year award from MusiCares, a charity affiliated with the Grammys that supports musicians in financial need or in health crises. Since MusiCares began in 1989, it has distributed nearly $40 million in aid, according to the group, and the event on Friday, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, raised a record $7 million through sales of tickets and memorabilia.
The night was packed with performances of Mr. Dylan’s songs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen; Neil Young; Norah Jones; Sheryl Crow; Willie Nelson; Jack White; Tom Jones; and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The award to Mr. Dylan was presented by former President Jimmy Carter, who said that Mr. Dylan’s “words on peace and human rights are much more incisive, much more powerful and much more permanent than those of any president of the United States.”
Mr. Dylan began with thanks to people who helped his career early on, like John Hammond, the storied talent scout who signed him to Columbia Records, and Peter, Paul and Mary, whose version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” gave Mr. Dylan his first big hit, in 1963. He paid tribute to Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash, and also thanked the Byrds, the Turtles and Sonny and Cher, whose covers brought him more pop hits, even if, he said, he never wanted to be a pop songwriter.
“Their versions of songs were like commercials,” he said. “But I didn’t really mind that, because 50 years later my songs were used for commercials. So that was good too.”
He gave a lesson in the folk-inspired songwriting process, saying that “my songs didn’t just come out of thin air — I didn’t just make them up.” Giving numerous examples, Mr. Dylan showed how the traditional songs he sang in his youth inspired his own writing “subliminally and unconsciously.”
“If you sang ‘John Henry’ as many times as me — ‘John Henry was steel-driving man, driving with a hammer in his hand, John Henry said a man ain’t nothing but a man,’ ” he said. “If you sang that song as many times as I did, you would have written ‘How many roads must a man walk down,’ too.”
Mr. Dylan took jabs at music icons like the songwriters Leiber and Stoller (“Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me”), saying that he didn’t care that they didn’t like his songs, because he didn’t like theirs either. Nashville wasn’t spared. In barely diplomatic terms, Mr. Dylan mocked the country songwriter Tom T. Hall, saying that his sentimental 1973 song “I Love” (“I love baby ducks, old pickup trucks”) was “a little overcooked,” and implying that Mr. Hall was part of an old guard that was bemused and left behind by the musical revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s.
But he saved most of his bile for critics, clearly showing that he has read enough of his reviews over the years to let them get under his skin. “Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day 1,” he said. “Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog.” He paused, as nervous giggles spread through the crowd. “Why don’t critics say the same thing about Tom Waits?” (Well, actually, they do.)
Mr. Dylan wound up his speech with tender comments about his friend Billy Lee Riley, a 1950s rockabilly singer on Sun Records, the original home of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Known to collectors for his 1957 song “Red Hot,” Mr. Riley never made it big. When he got sick, Mr. Dylan said, MusiCares helped pay Mr. Riley’s medical bills and mortgage, to help make his life “at least comfortable, tolerable, to the end, and that is something that can’t be repaid.” Mr. Riley died in 2009.
Usually the annual MusiCares concerts, which in the past have featured stars like Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Mr. Springsteen, end with a performance by the honoree, but after a few quick photos from the stage Mr. Dylan was off, and Mr. Young ended the night with a haunting “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As the high-heeled and tuxedoed crowd filtered out, few seemed to complain.