Few recipients of the presidential Medal of Freedom have carried more cultural and artistic weight than Bob Dylan, who received the recognition from President Barack Obama on Tuesday at the White House for contributions to American life and culture.
The gravel-voiced Dylan, who turned 71 last week, has both pleased and baffled fans and critics for five decades. His 40-plus albums have featured folk anthems, country hits, rock classics and even religious tunes now sung in church pews and by gospel choirs.
“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” Obama said during a packed ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Photographers and reporters jockeyed for a glimpse of the music icon, and even politicians used to the limelight seemed star-struck. The famously retiring Dylan wore dark sunglasses throughout the event and sat bow-tied and stone-faced, not even cracking a smile during lighthearted moments.
Along the way in Dylan’s 50 years of show business, there have been documentaries made about his place in American culture and dozens of books, some by respected historians, written to analyze the man and his music. College professors offer entire courses on his writing.
“Nobody else in serious literature or otherwise has captured that pastiche that is American like Dylan has captured it. He knows it, he’s nailed it. He pushes us toward something better than we are,” said Frances Hunter, a creative writing professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. She teaches an elective poetry course on Dylan’s writing.
Boston University humanities professor Christopher Ricks devoted an entire book to Dylan’s religious writings in 2004, “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” which looked at the deadly sins and cardinal virtues through the prism of Dylan’s songs.
Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University American history professor, added to the cultural legacy of Dylan with “Dylan in America,” showing the historical influences that shaped the Minnesota-raised songwriter.
Hunter and other academics have been pushing for Dylan to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Last year they gave it to a very obscure Swedish poet,” she noted, arguing that Dylan’s musical staying power may be working against him for literature’s highest honor. “I think fame hurts. You can be too famous. The literary snobs come out.”
If the Nobel judges have ignored Dylan, the White House, serious academics and the broader art world clearly have not. Art galleries feature his paintings. Hollywood honored Dylan’s art with the 2007 film “I’m Not There,” where famous actors take on different Dylan personas from various times in the artist’s life and career.
Dylan has won 11 Grammy Awards, pop music’s top recognition. He’s also won an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
Perhaps the best testament to Dylan’s importance is that his work has been recorded more than 3,000 times by other artists, a nod of respect more direct than any award presented. A White House pianist played his song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” as guests entered the East Room.
“Bob Dylan is one of the most important songwriters in music history. And that is the entire spectrum of recorded music history,” said Howard Kramer, curatorial director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “As an American artist, he’s essential to the entire narrative of American musical tradition.”
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., on May 24, 1941 – not in nearby Hibbing as President Obama incorrectly mentioned Tuesday – Dylan grew up along the Mesabi Iron Range. There was nothing to suggest that the son of Jewish middle-class parents would someday be honored at the White House.
To the contrary, his earliest foray into music, in the late 1950s, imitating Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, was hardly greeted with enthusiasm. Robert Hewitt, four years younger than Dylan and a brother of a Dylan schoolmate, recalled how English teacher Testla Lundeen closed down a Dylan performance at a Hibbing High School talent show.
“She got out of her seat and went to the (superintendent) . . . she demanded that he shut that thing down,” recalled Hewitt, still a friend of Dylan’s younger brother, David Zimmerman. “He pulled the plug on Dylan and asked him to leave.”
A few years later, abandoning college, Dylan moved to New York, learned at the bedside of ailing folk legend Woody Guthrie, and by 1964 was the most influential artist in protest music. His “Blowin’ in the Wind” is now synonymous with peace and justice, translated into dozens of languages. He stood alongside civil rights leaders at the height of strife in the Deep South, his songs a soundtrack of those tumultuous times.
“He captured something about this country that was so vital,” Obama said, noting he was a Dylan fan in college.
Dylan loathed the mantle of “Folk King,” however, and cast it off, declaring in song that he was “so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
In his acclaimed autobiography “Chronicles,” Dylan recalled, “The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo were imprisoning my soul – nauseating me – civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions – the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling – the contra communes – the lying, noisy voices – the free love, the anti-money system movement – the whole shebang.”
Years later on his 1985 album, “Empire Burlesque,” he warned again, “If you want somebody you can trust, trust yourself.”
Fiercely independent, Dylan has recorded the music he wanted to record. Although great commercial success has eluded him since the 1980s, Dylan has remained relevant and has written some of his most acclaimed work since then.
One pointed to by Kramer, the Rock Museum curator, is “Every Grain of Sand,” off the 1981 album, “Shot of Love.” The haunting song about his conversion to Christianity is both devotional and as confessional a work of art as there ever has been.
“Fifty-plus years of recording, the quality of his output has been extraordinary,” said Kramer. “I can’t compare another artist like that who has had a 50-year career, where the quality of his output has been so extraordinary.”