Why Bill Clinton said Bob Dylan 'probably had a greater impact on people of my generation than any other creative artist'

After trying to start his music career in Fargo, Bob Dylan sold millions of albums, earned awards, toured extensively and received praise from multiple presidents for his impact on music and popular culture.

Bob Dylan receives a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on May 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Ingalls / / Public Domain / Special to The Forum

By the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan had become one of the most popular singer-songwriters in the U.S.

Some of his songs, including “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” were not only popular for him, but also for other established recording artists. Musical ensembles like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds, Sonny and Cher, the Turtles, the Association, and the Hollies all recorded Dylan-composed songs that became hit tunes for them.

Because of his popularity, he spent much of his time on tour all over the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, and to help him maintain his hectic schedule, Dylan began abusing drugs, especially amphetamines. He crashed in 1966, both physically and emotionally, and was finally able to slow down, take stock of where he was at with his musical career and reestablish his goals for the future.

Bob Dylan with Joan Baez on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Public Domain / Rowland Scherman via Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum


After his motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966, Dylan made very few public appearances, and for almost eight years, he stopped going on tours. Avoiding the spotlight, Dylan continued to compose songs, and in the fall of 1967, he returned to Nashville to record "John Wesley Harding," an album of “short songs thematically drawing on the American West and the Bible.”

After his mentor, Woody Guthrie, died in October 1967, a memorial concert was held at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 20, 1968, and Dylan made “his first live appearance in 20 months” at the concert. Dylan’s next album, "Nashville Skyline," was released in 1969, and one of the songs, “Lay Lady Lay,” became one of his biggest hits. Also in the album, he sang a duet with Johnny Cash, one of Dylan’s biggest supporters since he began making records.

On Feb. 24, 1969, Dylan worked with Cash for the concert “Johnny Cash in San Quentin,” and when Cash premiered his television show in May 1969, he invited Dylan to sing duets with him. It appears that Cash’s influence on Dylan was profound because, in the 1970s, Dylan began to champion the causes of those people who he believed had been treated unfairly by the law.

The first was George Jackson, a Black Panther who had been imprisoned at San Quentin. He then protested the move by the U.S. Immigration Service to deport John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had been convicted of possessing cannabis. Dylan also wrote and sang the ballad “Hurricane,” which championed the innocence of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had been given a life sentence for a triple murder that he claimed he did not commit.

Dylan spent much of the 1970s on tours with many of the nation’s leading recording artists of that time. However, he did take time out in 1972 to play a major role in a movie, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." For the movie, he also composed and sang the song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which became a major hit and earned him a Grammy nomination in 1973.

In 1972, he won a Grammy for best album of the year for "The Concert For Bangladesh," which was organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar.

Cash said that “he had problems with Dylan because of his lifestyle,” and talked to him about salvation and becoming a Christian. In late 1978, Dylan said that while alone in a Tucson, Ariz., hotel room, he sensed “a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus.” He added, “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it all over me. I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.”

In 1979, Dylan took several months off to attend a Bible school run by the Association of Vineyard Churches. Over the next three years, he released three albums of contemporary gospel music. In 1979, he released the album "Slow Train Coming," which included the song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The album shot up to No. 3 on the Billboard charts, and the song was awarded a Grammy for best rock vocal performance by a male.


Dylan’s second gospel album, "Saved," was released in 1980, and his third "overtly Christian" record, "Shot of Love," was released in 1981. Both albums were nominated for Grammys for best inspirational performance. At his concerts, Dylan attempted to evangelize, but that did not go over well with his traditional fan base. Also, some of his new Christian fans began proclaiming that Dylan was a prophet, and this made him very uncomfortable, so he stopped evangelizing at his concerts.


In 1985, Dylan discovered a new cause — famine in Africa — and he joined in the “We Are the World” charity single performed by stars in the supergroup USA for Africa, as well as performing at the Live Aid benefit concert. He also participated in Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts to help debt-ridden farmers.
In 1987, he starred in the movie "Hearts of Fire," about a “washed-up rock star turned chicken farmer,” but the movie “flopped.” In 1988, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the same year, Dylan, along with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty, formed a group called the Traveling Wilburys. Their album, "Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1," was awarded a Grammy in 1989.

At the Grammy Awards ceremony in February 1991, Jack Nicholson presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award to Bob Dylan. “Over the next few years, Dylan returned to his roots... covering traditional folk and blues songs.” His 1993 album, "World Gone Wrong," earned him another Grammy in 1994 as the best traditional folk album.

Dylan had a banner year in 1997, performing before Pope John Paul II at the World Eucharistic Conference, and also receiving three Grammy awards for the albums "Time Out Of Mind" (best contemporary folk album and best album of the year), and for the song “Cold Irons Bound” (best male rock vocal performance.) Dylan capped off the year in December when President Bill Clinton presented him with a special Kennedy Center award. In tribute, Clinton said, “He probably had a greater impact on people of my generation than any other creative artist.”

Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House, later reaffirmed that when he said, “The sheer magic, for I think everyone in my generation, is to finally have our nation recognize Bob Dylan.” Their assessment of the influence of Dylan’s music is, perhaps, the only thing on which the two rival politicians ever publicly agreed.

In May 2000, Dylan received an Oscar for his song “Things Have Changed,” written for the film "Wonder Boys." In 2001, he received another Grammy for best contemporary folk album for "Love and Theft." In 2004, he published his autobiography, "Chronicles: Volume One," which reached No. 2 on The New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction bestseller list.

The film biography about Dylan, "No Direction Home," shown in 2005 on television, received the Peabody Award in 2006. Also in 2006, his song, “Someday Baby,” and album, "Modern Times," received Grammy Awards.


In 2007, the musical drama film "I’m Not There" was released. “It is an unconventional, biographical film inspired by the life and music of Bob Dylan.” The movie received a number of awards, and Dylan was pleased with it.

In 2008, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Dylan a special citation for “his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

During the 21st century, Dylan continued to compose songs and appeared on numerous tours, many of which included stops in Fargo or Bismarck . However, on March 12, 2020, he discontinued his concerts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dylan’s records have sold more than 100 million copies, making him one of the bestselling music artists of all time. To think that the Hibbing, Minn., native's professional music career began in Fargo, N.D., is something we can all look at as being very special.

Robert Zimmerman's Hibbing (Minn.) High School senior photo. Forum News Service file photo

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at


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