On 29 May 2012, at the White House, Bob Dylan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honour existing in the US – by President Barack Obama in person. [see: ‘Bob Dylan Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom’, ‘Rolling Stone’, 29 May 2012 – www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bob-dylan-awarded-presidential-medal-of-freedom-20120529].
The full citation text appears at: Mary Bruce, ‘Obama Awards Medals of Freedom’, ABC News site, 29 May 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/05/obama-awards-medals-of-freedom/; and in the Summer 2012 issue (No 43) of the UK Dylan zine THE BRIDGE (www.two-riders.co.uk/) (pp. 105-106).
The citation describes Dylan as ‘one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century’, going on to state: ‘Known for his rich and poetic lyrics, his work had considerable influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has had significant impact on American culture over the past five decades’, and recalling that Dylan has written over 600 songs and that 3000 cover versions of his compositions are in existence’ (THE BRIDGE, pp. 105-106).
Introducing Dylan, President Obama declared: ‘There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music’, describing himself as ‘a really big fan’ and adding: ‘I remember in college, listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up’ (THE BRIDGE, p. 105).
There were a total of 13 recipients of the medal including Dylan, one of them the African-American writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
In her article, Mary Bruce states that the official function of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, according to the White House, is to recognise ‘individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours’.
According to Malcolm Jones (‘The Daily Beast’, 29 May 2012:
www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/29/bob-dylan-s-presidential-medal-of-freedom-says-times-really-have-changed.html), previous musician recipients of the award include Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, gospel singer Marian Anderson, and, believe it or not, country artist Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Concerning the ‘contributions to the … national interests of the United States’ and ‘cultural … [and] significant public … endeavours’ that have won Dylan the medal, it is certainly not every day that an American president praises a living musician in terms like those used by Obama. The citation text strikes a fair balance between Dylan’s career as a whole and his ‘famous’, early protest period. In the circumstances, of course, it is absolutely right to foreground the early 60s Dylan: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ did contribute directly to the whole process which enabled Barack Obama to be president today. And did it cross Dylan’s mind that his country would have a black president in his own lifetime when he wrote ‘OxfordTown’, or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, or ‘The Death of Emmett Till’? Meanwhile, those of us who know ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (a Dylan favourite) may wish to imagining Twain’s Pap Finn, who said he would never vote again in a country that admitted a black college professor, turning in his unquiet grave …