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Every musician to win the 'Presidential Medal of Freedom'

The coveted ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ is awarded by the President of the United States “for especially meritorious contribution to either: the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”.

Honorees are typically selected by the current president or recommended to them by the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board. The award, along with the Congressional Gold Medal, is the highest civilian prize available in the United States. The medal is not limited to those with US citizenship, however, and has in the past been awarded to those overseas for their worldwide services.  

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and superseded the Medal of Freedom that President Harry S. Truman had established in 1945 to honour civilian service during World War II. The award can be given with distinction if a president feels that the honouree’s actions or career impacts merit “an additional level of veneration”, as President Barack Obama stated in 2017. 

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The last president to award the medal was Donald Trump in 2021. The current President Joe Biden hasn’t yet issued any Medals Of Freedom, but in 2017, he was awarded one himself by former President Barack Obama. The medals are usually issued annually on or around July 4th. Since its establishment, 647 Presidential Medals of Freedom have been awarded, with the majority having been issued to high-ranking government or ex-military officials. Many recipients have also been leading figures in social justice campaigns and scientific research. 

The medal is also occasionally awarded to sportsmen and women and accomplished artists who have had a significant cultural impact. So far, only 47 medals have been awarded to musicians and singers, just over 7% of the total awarded. 

As can be seen on the list below, the early presidents tended to give fewer medals to pop musicians; those receiving the award throughout the 1960s and ‘70s were primarily classical musicians and composers. This comes as little surprise, as the presidents in question were likely not too fond of the counter-cultural rock music that blossomed over this period. 

The first rock musician to be honoured with the medal was B.B. King in 2006. Following the term “rock” loosely, B.B. King has since been followed by Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen, who were all awarded by Obama. After Donald Trump entered the White House in 2018, he awarded Elvis Presley the medal posthumously.

Other notable pop musicians to have earned the coveted award include Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Loretta Lyn, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross.

The queen of country music, Dolly Parton, has turned down the medal twice. Parton turned it down the first time because her husband was ill and the second time because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hopefully, one day soon, President Biden will finally manage to get Parton to the White House to receive the award.

Below, we have listed all of the musicians and singers to have been presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom to date. 

Every musician to win the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’

John F. Kennedy

  • Marian Anderson
  • Pablo Casals
  • Rudolf Serkin

Lyndon B. Johnson

  • Aaron Copland
  • Leontyne Price

Richard Nixon

  • Duke Ellington
  • Eugene Ormandy

Gerald Ford

  • Arthur Rubinstein
  • Irving Berlin
  • Arthur Fiedler

Jimmy Carter

  • Beverly Sills

Ronald Reagan

  • Eubie Blake
  • Kate Smith
  • Mabel Mercer
  • Tennessee Ernie Ford
  • Count Basie
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Vladimir Horowitz
  • Danny Kaye
  • Mstislav Rostropovich
  • Meredith Willson
  • Pearl Bailey

George H. W. Bush

  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Isaac Stern

Bill Clinton

  • Martha Raye

George W. Bush

  • Plácido Domingo
  • Van Cliburn
  • Doris Day
  • Charlie Daniels
  • Carol Burnett
  • Aretha Franklin
  • B.B. King

Barack Obama

  • Chita Rivera
  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Bob Dylan
  • Loretta Lynn
  • Arturo Sandoval
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Emilio Estefan
  • Gloria Estefan
  • Itzhak Perlman
  • Stephen Sondheim
  • Barbra Streisand
  • James Taylor
  • Diana Ross 
  • Bruce Springsteen

Donald Trump

  • Elvis Presley