Bob Dylan awarded Medal of Freedom. What does that say about US?

Why did Bob Dylan look so strained during the Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House Tuesday? Perhaps because his musical insurgency was being memorialized.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama presents rock legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom Tuesday during a ceremony at the White House in Washington.

President Obama awarded Bob Dylan the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. Twelve other deserving Americans got the medals, too – as we wrote yesterday, US presidents can give them to anyone they want. But we’re focusing on Dylan today because he seems to have attracted the most attention of the awardees – and because there’s something about his prize we believe has been overlooked.

No, it’s not the sunglasses he wore to the ceremony. Lots of folks have commented on those. Nor is it his overall demeanor. We’ll agree he seemed uncomfortable, like a boy forced to wear a suit and stand up in front of strangers, if that boy were over 70 years old and had written more immortal songs than anyone alive in the US today.

It’s this: Bob Dylan is the first rock and roll star to win the Medal of Freedom. Ever. As far as we can tell.

We admit we’re creating some arbitrary definitions here so that we can make this statement. First, is Mr. Dylan a rocker, per se? He started as a folkie, went electric, and now has settled into a kind of bard-like phrase, where he reinterprets old blues tunes and Confederate poems and things like that. What he really is, is a musical magpie.

“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” said Mr. Obama, when hanging the medal around Dylan’s neck.

Anyway, Rolling Stone magazine called Dylan a “rock and roll pioneer” in their story on the award.  That’s good enough for us. Even if it’s a publication whose name came from a Dylan song.

Second, we’re labeling B.B. King a blues guitarist. Bill Clinton awarded Mr. King a Medal of Freedom in 2006.

Yes, King is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But his nickname is “King of the Blues,” so that’s what we’re going with. Mr. Clinton also gave Aretha Franklin the award, in 2005, but we feel safe in saying she’s not rocker either.

After them, the popular musicians who have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom are mostly from eras past. They are singers such as Frank Sinatra (1985) and bandleaders such as Count Basie (1985). Presidents have also bestowed the award on many classical musicians, such as Pablo Casals (1963) and Van Cliburn (2003).

Given all this, we think Dylan’s award says something about the country as well as Dylan himself. The tumultuous political and musical era in which Dylan became a generation’s bard is now far enough in the past to be safely memorialized.

We’re not sure that Dylan himself, as an artist, would be happy about that. “Safe" isn’t something he ever set out to be. Maybe that accounts for the slightly strained look he had in the East Room yesterday.

Of course, to a certain extent he looks that way on stage too. Until he starts to sing.

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