Bob Dylan’s Latest Award For Being Bob Dylan

By Jon Friedman
The Wall Street Journal
May 23, 2012

Bob Dylan performs onstage during the 17th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards held at The Hollywood Palladium on January 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
(Christopher Polk/Getty Images North America)

Not even Bob Dylan, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29 at the White House, can fully explain why he has been so highly decorated relatively late in his life.

For instance, Dylan sounded bemused in 2001, as he was turning 60, when a European journalist asked him whether he was surprised to be winning so many high-profile awards.

“I’m winning a lot of stuff,” Dylan conceded, bemused by the rush of awards. Was this a part of a sudden recognition of Dylan a s a cultural force for good after his decades of important work?

“There may be an element of that,” Dylan shrugged in 2001. Also likely, Dylan is finally being hailed for both his remarkable and still-evolving body of memorable songs — Dylan released his first album 50 years ago, in 1962 — and longevity on the popular-culture scene. Ever industrious, Dylan earlier this month completed a tour of South America and Central America. In March, he completed recording his first studio album in three years. Word has it that the new record will be released this summer.

Dylan, who turns 71 on May 24, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same month at the White House along with a host of other luminaries. Novelist Toni Morrison and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are among the 13 people who will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama.

You might say that Dylan’s renaissance began at around the time he received the prestigious Grammy award for Best Album in 1998 for “Time Out of Mind.” A few years later, he took home the Oscar for Best Song for “Things Have Changed” from “Wonder Boys.”

Dylan has since been honored by a number of organizations — though, his fans ruefully note, a Nobel Prize in the category of writing has still eluded his grasp. They hope that this latest citation will next bring Dylan a Nobel accolade.

What does Dylan think of this latest honor? Of course, Dylan is notoriously private when it comes to expressing his thoughts about these kinds of occasions. When pundits repeatedly ask him to say what his songs mean, he tells them, as he put it in 1981, “the answers to those questions (are in) the songs themselves.”

Who knows? If Dylan ever decided to talk about his feelings now, he might think for a moment, break into a grin and shrug: “I used to care/But things have changed.”

Jon Friedman is the author of “Forget About Today: Bob Dylan’s Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution,” which Penguin will be publishing in August.