Tuesday afternoon, Bob Dylan became one of the 13 latest recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dylan is one of only two artists singled out this year, the other being Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. With the exceptions of Morrison, John Glenn, and Madeleine Albright, Dylan’s is probably the most famous name on the list.
After that, things start getting a mite strange—but this is Dylan we’re talking about, so what did you expect?
For starters, cast your eye down the list of 29 musicians who have received this honor since it was begun in 1963, and it’s obvious that, here as always, Dylan is the joker in the deck. Unless you want to count Eubie Blake as a singer/songwriter, Dylan is the only person ever honored who fits that description. He is also the only recipient who could be called a folksinger or even a rock musician.
The other musical honorees range from the utterly predictable (Irving Berlin, Mstislov Rostropovich, Marian Anderson) to the utterly weird (Ernest Jennings “Tennessee Ernie” Ford). Most of the names on the list are either classical music icons (Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern, Beverly Sills) or safe-as-milk pop stars (Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Kate Smith, Aretha Franklin).
No medal winner in music, with the exception of Frank Sinatra, carries any notoriety, which may explain the absence of, say, Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis or even Willie Nelson. Tennessee Ernie Ford is the only musician included who could even possibly be called a country musician. And don’t feel too put upon, country fans, because the lone representative from the world of musical theater, a genre invented by Americans, is Meredith Willson, and he received his medal posthumously. For that matter, Aaron Copland is the only classical composer on the list.
No president has ever deemed it worthwhile to so honor Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Bill Monroe, Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mercer, Charles Mingus, Doc Watson, Mary Lou Williams, Miles Davis, Merle Haggard, Richard Rodgers, Maybelle Carter, Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass, Brian Wilson, or Terry Riley, to name a few. Dylan does precisely resemble his fellow honorees in one category: He’s old. If you live past 70 and keep your nose clean, you’ve got a shot.
Even then, you have to jump another couple of hurdles. To get that medal around your neck, it would seem that you must either be a personal favorite of a sitting president, or be a musician that the president thinks represents or appeals to a particular constituency. Or you must be an artist whose career and body of work radically altered the musical landscape. That’s where Dylan belongs, although here again, he’s almost completely by himself, with only Duke Ellington as an artist of equal influence.
You don’t have to like or admire Dylan to admit that he was a game changer. He made folk music hip. He made rock lyrics literate or, put another way, he made his audience pay attention to lyrics because he made them mean something. He blew a hole in the notion that radio hits have to clock in at less than three minutes. He proved that you can stand on a stage with just a guitar and not much of a voice and hold people’s attention for, oh, about five decades. He wrote songs in his 20s that he can still sing today without a trace of embarrassment.
Some people’s songs are associated only with them. Dylan, like Ellington, has written scores of songs that while they may not be in the public domain, are considered public property. In clubs, living rooms, and at backyard barbecues, people perform Dylan’s songs not because they want to “cover” Bob Dylan—indeed, a lot of them decidedly don’t want to sound like him—but because they love his material. And it’s a shared love—Dylan songs get traded back and forth in informal jams because the songs are like a lingua franca—everyone in the room can navigate the changes in “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Tangled Up in Blue.”
The world has changed a lot since 1963, when the first Medals of Freedom were bestowed. That was the year, coincidentally, that John Glenn became the first man to orbit Earth. It’s quite conceivable that Glenn could have received the medal as soon as his space capsule splashed down—who didn’t love an astronaut in 1963? (Indeed, what the hell has taken the White House so long?) Dylan, on the other hand, had only released his first album the year before. Not only that, but the kind of music Dylan was then composing and performing was folk music, which then only reached a broad listening audience through the palliative treatment of bands like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary.
Dylan was distinctly an outsider, and there he remained for quite a while. It’s juvenile fun watching old press conferences when reporters did finally come calling later in the decade. The questions are so dorky. But what you realize is that the national press at that time had almost no one in its ranks that we would recognize as music writers. Most of the reporters sent to interview Dylan were 40-somethings in suits who treated him like Chubby Checker, just another flash in the pan phenom to be indulged. Instead, they found a musician who was the smartest man in any room, and someone who was more than happy to make fun of them (“You walk into the room, with your pencil in your hand …”).
The point is, in the mid-60s there really was an establishment and an anti-establishment (to be upgraded to a counterculture in a couple of years), and no one doubted which side of the line Dylan stood on. Back then, there were bitter fights over high culture and low, insiders and outsiders, and who got to say who was who. In 1965, the Pulitzer board refused to give a prize to Duke Ellington.
Over the years, all of that has more or less collapsed in on itself. Pulp fiction writers are in the American canon. Brian Wilson is understood to be a great American artist and not merely a great pop songwriter. The times did change, and Dylan was in the thick of making it happen.
And then Dylan’s constituency grew up and became whatever passes for the establishment. More important, they didn’t turn their backs on Dylan as they grew up but took his music with them (“Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters' wives …”). It’s cheap and easy to say that Dylan is now a member of the establishment. It’s also wrong, because there is no longer an establishment as we once knew it. And Dylan and his music had everything to do with that.
In the past decade or so, Dylan has made a point of referencing old songs and old artists, such as Charley Patton or Dock Boggs, in his music. He’s showing us the bones that structure his songs, as if to say, this music I’m playing is part of a continuum, a tradition that, in my own idiosyncratic way, I’m carrying on as I stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s the sort of generous gesture that only the greatest, most self-assured artists allow themselves. So yes, please Mr. President, hang a medal on the man for that.