Did Bob Dylan ever say goodbye to protest politics? He apparently did after he received the Tom Paine Award at the Bill of Rights dinner on December 13, 1963. Rock critic Dave Marsh doesn't think so after he found the original text of Dylan's apology for the speech he made that fateful night where he attacked "bald politicians" and "bourgeois negroes". You can read it here yourself.


Bob Dylan receiving the Thomas
Paine award in 1963.
 

I found this while doing research on Dylan in 1963-64. I was writing a text for a book to be published next month as Forever Young, by Douglas Gilbert, the photographer who made some of the most amazing pictures of Dylan in the summer of '64.

Part of the context for what was happening was his 'renunciation' of politics. I went looking for what I could find about Dylan's apology to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, for making a speech when he accepted the group's Tom Paine award, where he compared himself to Lee Harvey Oswald and attacked bald politicians for being bald, and bourgeois Negroes for wearing suits on the platform at the Great March on Washington, and generally pissed on liberalism. That's a remarkable statement of its own - based on the transcript, he's pretty clearly drunk and trying to avoid what he winds up doing, which is to tell these people a certain set of truths about themselves and the world.

But this apology letter is more amazing than that, by half, and I don't think I've ever read it before. I've seen a line or two quoted here and there but never the whole thing. (I'd love to be proved wrong about this so please let me know if so.)

As a piece of writing, I'd judge it better'n any of his liner notes pre-Bringing It All Back Home. As to content, the stuff about coming to New York (and growing up in Minnesota) directly foreshadows Chronicles, Volume One; I don't know anything else by him that does, certainly not this plainly. It's funny (man, he was funny then), but then it has to be because in a sense, he's being more self-revelatory than he is in Chronicles, even. ( See especially the passage about his moods.)

Most important, perhaps, it is not so much a farewell to protest politics but extremely political in a different way: His allegiance to the radicals of SNCC, and to the kids in the Venceremos Brigade, which I presume is what he means by "the folks who went to Cuba." Note that he mentions Selma almost eighteen months before Bloody Sunday - a message to those who believe Dylan paid only lip service to his civil rights involvements. (Foreman spoke to me in late 2003 about having actively recruited him as an ally for SNCC and several SNCC people, notably Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Reagon emphasized that Dylan remained close to them after his protest apostasy.)

The last reason finding this gave me joy, and it truly did, was that it showed Dylan acting out (in advance of its articulation) the principle over which SNCC 'broke' - that white people needed to be addressing the problems of white people in their communities, not trying to solve problems for black people in black communities. You can read a different version of the rest of his '60s career (at least that much) in this. Maybe of his whole career: Why he's sometimes seem unanchored and why he seems so completely on target and sometimes both at once.

Maybe I see it, a little bit, as Bob's ultimate link to Elvis: Bob able to articulate what Elvis never could say but always enacted. Something like that.

(The text and additional context is at the Corliss Lamont website; Lamont led the ECLC. See www.corliss-lamont.org/dylan.htm)

A MESSAGE
from Bob Dylan

(Sent to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee after he received the Tom Paine Award at the Bill of Rights dinner on December 13, 1963.)

to anybody it may concern...
clark?
mairi?
phillip?
edith?
mr lamont?
countless faces I do not know
an all fighters for good things that I can not see

when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds when I speak of the seashore, I mean the restin shore I dont know why I mentioned either of them

my life runs in a series of moods
in private an in personal ways, sometimes, I, myself, can change the mood I'm in t the mood I'd like t be in. when I walked thru the doors of the americana hotel, I needed to change my mood... for reasons inside myself.

I am a restless soul
hungry
perhaps wretched

it is hard to hear someone you dont know, say "this is what he meant t say" about something you just said

for no one can say what I meant t say
absolutely no one
at times I even cant
that was one of those times

my life is lived out daily in the places I feel most confortable in. these places are places where I am unknown an unstared at. I perform rarely, an when I do, there is a constant commotion burnin at my body an at my mind because of the attention aimed at me. instincts fight my emotions an fears fight my instincts...

I do not claim t be smart by the standards set up
I dont even claim to be normal by the standards set up
an I do not claim to know any kind of truth

but I am sick
so sick
at hearin "we all share the blame" for every church bombing, gun battle, mine disaster, poverty explosion, an president killing that comes about. it is so easy t say "we" an bow our heads together
I must say "I" alone an bow my head alone for it is I alone
who is livin my life

but like an artist who puts his painting (after he's painted it) in front of thousands of unknown eyes, I also put my song there that way
(after I've made it)
it is as easy an as simple as that

I can not speak. I can not talk
I can only write an I can only sing
perhaps I should've sung a song
but that wouldn't a been right either
for I was given an award not to sing
but rather on what I have sung

no what I should've said was
"thank you very much ladies an gentlemen"
yes that is what I should've said
but unfortunatly... I didn't
an I didn't because I did not know

I thought something else was expected of me other than just sayin "thank you"
an I did not know what it was
it is a fierce heavy feeling
thinkin something is expected of you
but you dont know what exactly it is...
it brings forth a wierd form of guilt

I should've remembered
"I am BOB DYLAN an I dont have t speak
I dont have t say nothin if I dont wanna"
but
I didn't remember

I constantly asked myself while eatin supper "what should I say? what should I tell 'm?
everybody else is gonna tell 'm something"
but I could not answer myself
I even asked someone who was sittin nex t me an he couldn't tell me neither. my mind blew up an needless t say I had t get it back in its rightful shape (whatever that might be) an so I escaped from the big room... only t hear my name being shouted an the words "git in here git in here" overlappin with the findin of my hand being pulled across hundreds of tables with the lights turned on strong... guidin me back t where I tried t escape from "what should I say? what should I say?"
over an over again
oh God, I'd a given anything not t be there
"shut the lights off at least"
people were coughin an my head was poundin
an the sounds of mumble jumble sank deep in my skull from all sides of the room
until I tore everything loose from my mind
an said "just be honest, dylan, just be honest"

an so I found myself in front of the plank
like I found myself once in the path of a car
an I jumped...
jumped with all my bloody might
just tryin t get out a the way
but first screamin one last song

yes if there's violence in the times then there must be violence in me
I am not a perfect mute.
I hear the thunder an
I cant avoid hearin it
once this is straight between us,
it's then an only then that we can say "we" an really mean it...
an go on from there t do something about it

when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times
I was not speakin of his deed if it was his deed.
the deed speaks for itself
but I am sick
so sick
at hearin "we all share the blame" for every
church bombing, gun battle, mine disaster,
poverty explosion, an president killing that
comes about.
it is so easy t say "we" an bow our heads together
I must say "I" alone an bow my head alone
for it is I alone who is livin my life
I have beloved companions but they do not
eat nor sleep for me
an even they must say "I"
yes if there's violence in the times then
there must be violence in me
I am not a perfect mute.
I hear the thunder an I cant avoid hearin it
once this is straight between us, it's then an
only then that we can say "we" an really mean
it... an go on from there t do something about
it

When I spoke of Negroes
I was speakin of my Negro friends
from harlem
an Jackson
selma an birmingham
atlanta pittsburg, an all points east
west, north, south an wherever else they
might happen t be.
in rat filled rooms
an dirt land farms
schools, dimestores, factories
pool halls an street corners
the ones that dont own ties
but know proudly they dont have to
not one little bit
they dont have t be like they naturally aint
t get what they naturally own no more 'n anybody
else does
it only gets things complicated
an leads people into thinkin the wrong things
black skin is black skin
It cant be covered by clothes an made t seem
acceptable, well liked an respectable...
t teach that or t think that just tends the
flames of another monster myth...
it is naked black skin an nothin else
if a Negro has t wear a tie t be a Negro
then I must cut off all ties with who he has
t do it for.
I do not know why I wanted t say this that
nite.
perhaps it was just one of the many things
in my mind
born from the confusion of my times

when I spoke about the people that went t Cuba
I was speakin of the free right t travel
I am not afraid t see things
I challenge seein things
I am insulted t the depths of my soul
when someone I dont know commands that I
cant see this an gives me mysterious reasons
why I'll get hurt if I do see it... tellin me
at the same time about goodness an badness in
people that again I dont know...
I've been told about people all my life
about niggers, kikes, wops, bohunks, spicks, chinks,
an I been told how they eat, dress, walk, talk,
steal, rob, an kill but nobody tells me how any
of 'm feels... nobody tells me how any of 'm cries
or laughs or kisses. I'm fed up with most newspapers, radios, tv an movies an the like t tell me. I want
now t see an know for myself...
an I accepted that award for all others like me
who want t see for themselves... an who dont want
that God-given right taken away
stolen away
or snuck out from beneath them
yes a travel ban in the south would protect
Americans more, I'm sure, than the one t Cuba
but in all honesty I would want t crash tha
one too
do you understand?
do you really understand?
I mean I want t see. I want t see all I can
everyplace there is t see it
my life carries eyes
an they're there for one reason
the reason t see thru them

my country is the Minnesota-North Dakota territory that's where I was born an learned how t walk an
it's where I was raised an went t school... my
youth was spent wildly among the snowy hills an
sky blue lakes, willow fields an abandoned open
pit mines. contrary t rumors, I am very proud of
where I'm from an also of the many blood streams that
run in my roots. but I would not be doing what
I'm doing today if I hadn't come t New York. I was
given my direction from new york. I was fed in
new york. I was beaten down by new york an I was picked up by new york. I was made t keep going on
by new york. I'm speakin now of the people I've met
who were strugglin for their lives an other peoples'
lives in the thirties an forties an the fifties
an I look t their times
I reach out t their times
an, in a sense, am jealous of their times
t think I have no use for "old" people is a betrayin thought those that know me know otherwise
those that dont, probably're baffled
like a friend of mine, jack elliott, who says he
was reborn in Oklahoma, I say I was reborn in
New York...
there is no age limit stuck on it
an no one is more conscious of it than I

I'm fed up with most newspapers, radios, tv an movies
an the like t tell me.
I want now t see an know
for myself...
an I accepted that award for all others like me who want t see
for themselves...
an who dont want that God-given right taken away stolen away or snuck out from beneath them

yes it is a fierce feeling, knowin something you
dont know about's expected of you. but it's worse
if you blindly try t follow with explodin words
(for that's all they can do is explode)
an the explodin words're misunderstood
I've heard I was misunderstood

I do not apologize for myself nor my fears
I do not apologize for any statement which led
some t believe "oh my God! I think he's the one
that really shot the president"

I am a writer an a singer of the words I write
I am no speaker nor any politician
an my songs speak for me because I write them
in the confinement of my own mind an have t cope
with no one except my own self. I dont have t face
anyone with them until long after they're done

no I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me

but I can return what is rightfully yours at any
given time. I have stared at it for a long while
now. it is a beautiful award. there is a kindness
t Mr Paine's face an there is almost a sadness in
his smile. his trials show thru his eyes. I know
really not much about him but somehow I would like
t sing for him. there is a gentleness t his way.
yes thru all my flounderin wildness, I am, when it
comes down to it, very proud that you have given this
t me. I would hang it high, an let my friends see in
it what I see, but I also would give it back if
you wish. There is no sense in keepin it if you've
made a mistake in givin it. for it means more'n any
store bought thing an it'd only be cheatin t keep it

also I did not know that the dinner was a donation
dinner. I did not know you were gonna ask anyone
for money. an I understand you lost money on the masterful way I expressed myself...
then I am in debt t you
not a money debt but rather a moral debt
if you'd a sold me something, then it'd be a money debt but you sold nothin, so it is a moral debt
an moral debts're worse 'n money debts
for they have t be paid back in whatever is missin
an in this case, it's money

I mean I want t see. I want t see all I can everyplace there is t see it
my life carries eyes
an they're there for one reason
the reason t see thru them

please send me my bill
an I shall pay it
no matter what the sum
I have a hatred of debts an want t be even in
the best way I can
you needn't think about this, for money means
very little t me

so then

I'll return once again t the road

I cant tell you why other people write, but I
write in order to keep from going insane.
my head, I expect'd turn inside out if my hands
were t leave me.

but I hardly ever talk about why I write. an I
scarcely ever think about it. the thought of it is
too alarmin

an I never ever talk about why I speak
but that's because I never do it. this is the
first time I am talkin about it... an I pray
the last
the thought of doing it again is too scary

ha! it's a scary world
but only once in a while huh?

I love you all up there an the ones I dont love,
it's only because I do not know them an have not
seen them... God it's so hard hatin. it's so
tiresome... an after hatin something to death,
it's never worth the bother an trouble

out! out! brief candle
life's but an open window
an I must jump back thru it now

see yuh
respectfully an unrespectfully
(sgd) bob dylan


Note: Dave Marsh (along with Lee Ballinger) edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch's favorite newsletters.From the February Rock & Rap Confidential, For a free copy of the issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034. Marsh's definitive and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has just been reissued, with 12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts.

With one hand gripping a bottle of fine charbono and the other rippling across the keyboard, Marsh now maintains the Holler If Ya Hear Me blog, where articles like this can be regularly found.

Marsh can be reached at: marsh6@optonline.net





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