When you’re Bob Dylan, I’m pretty sure that awards become a bit passe. That’s not to say that it’s not an honor for Mr. Dylan whenever he’s ushered up onto a dais and handed a trophy of some sort in recognition of his work. However, even a Grammy must pale in comparison to being handpicked to win the country’s top honor that it can give non-combatants. That’s exactly what happened when President Barack Obama chose Dylan to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a prize given yearly to citizens for their positive impact on American society.
Dylan joins the likes of Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, and Yo-Yo Ma as musicians who have won the award. President Obama said of Dylan that “… he captured something about this country that was so vital.” That’s a high compliment coming from the leader of the free world. The president’s words got me to thinking. Obviously he had his reasons for choosing Bob, but I wanted to chime in with my own reasons for why Dylan deserves this high honor, and here are the three biggest I came up with, in no particular order.
Without Dylan, There is No Beatles – Yes, Beatles historians will rightly point out that they had been making music together for a few years before The Fab Four and Dylan started hanging out. But I’m the kind of obnoxious Beatle fan that gives far more credence to their later work, which all four Liverpudlian lads admit were heavily influenced by Bob Dylan. Dylan gave The Beatles, and countless other songwriters and lyricists, permission to sing about more than just teenage love and angst. Suddenly, it was okay for rock and pop artists to comment on the war in Vietnam, or on any other social issue at the time, which completely changed the culture of the 1960s, and made possible some of the big leaps forward for civil rights and in ending the war in southeast Asia.
Dylan Went Electric – Not only did Dylan plug in, he did so knowing that he’d alienate a huge portion of his audience, who wanted him to keep strumming his acoustic guitar and playing his harmonica. But the impact of Dylan going electric cannot be overstated. It was Bob embracing the new era, but also showing that he was willing to do whatever he wanted to do with his own art, and that he’d not kowtow to any group, even his fans. That is truly embodying American freedom; the choice to do with your contribution to society what you please. It showed how important that little kick of rebellion is in American life as well.
He Demonstrated Patriotism Through Critique – Bob was one of the first artists to really go out on a limb and criticize the government not only in Vietnam, but here at home. He made it possible to be a patriot, truly loving his country, but to also be honest about its shortcomings. His classic song “Blowin’ In The Wind” is an indictment of the country both at home and abroad. “The Times They Are A-Changing” is yet another example of Dylan being unafraid to champion the youth movement, to inspire Americans to join in the cause and to make life truly better for one another. His songs in that era especially were a bit dark and ominous and foretold big societal change, but always tinged with hope that the change would bring about prosperity and happiness for all; and that’s a message that’s important in any era.