Bob Dylan will be awarded with a Presidential Medal of Freedom this spring, the highest civilian honor available to a citizen of the United States. President Barack Obama announced Dylan’s name along with 12 other recipients on Thursday of this week. The award is cited as in recognition of significant impact on American culture over the last five decades.
Bob Dylan moved to New York City in 1961, a few months before his 20th birthday. By 1963, he was a sort of musical chronicler of the times and a spiritual leader in the calls-to-arms for the civil rights and anti-war movements. Before he started recording his own music, he had his name legally changed. Born Bob Zimmerman, he took his new surname as an homage to the poet, Dylan Thomas, whom he cites as an influence.
During those turbulent times, the burgeoning folk rock movement provided a shared anthem for the (mostly) young people who threw themselves into the political battle for social justice in a world apparently gone mad. This was of course the decade of MLK, the Freedom Riders, and Malcolm X; also the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, JFK, and many high-profile assassinations.
Dylan didn’t aspire to this position, but his lyrics resonated with the counter-culture of the time. Good examples include two of his early hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin.’” The latter was inspired by old Irish or Scottish ballads, like “Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens,” but he instead directed his exhortation to socially-conservative parents, to politicians, that the world is no longer the same, that a new way of thinking would need to prevail: “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call. . .” the folk singer begged.
Also to his credit, Dylan holds 11 Grammys, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and the title Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Art et des Lettres from France. He’s quick to downplay his work, but his name has been floated for years as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Or would it be a tremendous stretch for someone whose work has been primarily inspirational to even be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize? There have been less-deserving recipients.
One step at a time, however. Other winners named in President Obama’s press release on the Medal are as follows: Madeleine Albright, John Doar, William Foege, John Glenn, Gordon Hirabayashi, Dolores Huerta, Jan Karski, Juliette Gordon Low, Toni Morrison, Shimon Peres, John Paul Stevens and Pat Summitt.
Speaking of them as a group, the release called the recipients “extraordinary.” It went on to say that “each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our nation. They’ve challenged us, they’ve inspired us, and they’ve made the world a better place.”
Photo credit: St. Lawrence University Yearbook, 1964