Bob Dylan’s Black History

Bob Dylan’s Black History,” The Root, 10 February 2010.

How a skinny white man from Minnesota came to headline the president’s civil rights jam.

The White House commemoration of Black History Month continued with a star-studded event hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in the East Room of the White House Tuesday evening. The 90-minute concert marked the fifth in a series of inclusive celebrations of music and the arts, including a summer spoken-word event and tributes to Latino and country music. But the civil rights concert, which will be rebroadcast in full on PBS on Feb. 12, had a special significance for the first black president.

“It’s hard to sing in times like that,” said Obama, before handing off emcee duties to actor Morgan Freeman. “But times like that are precisely when the power of song is most potent.  Above the din of hatred; amidst the deafening silence of inaction; the hymns of the civil rights movement helped carry the cause of a people and advance the ideals of a nation.”

Despite last-minute scrambles to accommodate an East Coast snowstorm, the concert featured singers Yolanda Adams, Natalie Cole, Jennifer Hudson, Smokey Robinson, and Joan Baez, choral groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Howard University Choir, and a man the president introduced as “good enough to take a night off from his Never Ending Tour”—Bob Dylan.

Each of the performers has made valuable contributions to American music. But the 69-year-old Dylan has long had a special place in the hearts of civil rights pioneers who remember his provocative and impassioned pleas for justice at the outset of the struggle for equal rights for blacks.

The president mentioned the 1963 March on Washington, where Dylan and Baez, star singers and activists, “joined hundreds of thousands on the National Mall and sang of a day when the time would come.” At the White House concert, longtime head of the NAACP Julian Bond recalled his first meeting with Dylan, after a “freedom summer” concert organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, held in a Mississippi cotton field. “I’ve known him since he first became a musician at 19 or 20 and was involved in social causes—like many folk singers, but unlike many entertainers, both then and today,” Bond said. “Name another.”

Indeed, throughout Dylan’s prolific journey from Minnesota’s Robert Zimmerman to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the cause of racial equality has been a persistent theme—which his fame helped to spread to a wide audience. An early tune called “The Death of Emmett Till” chronicled the brutal and galvanizing 1955 murder of a black boy gone south; on his wildly successful third album with Columbia Records, The Times They Are A-Changing, the title track outlined a definitive challenge to the status quo:

Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

On the same album, more black history emerged: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” narrated the controversial beating of a middle-aged Maryland servant at the hands of her drunken employer, William Zantziger, and critiqued the flawed system of justice for African Americans at the time. “Only A Pawn In Their Game” likewise laments the death of Medgar Evers and offers a still-relevant explanation of the manipulation of poor whites by racist “Dixiecrat” elites:

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame.

In addition to these overtly journalistic songs, there were, of course, the mega-hits like “Blowin in the Wind” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” remixed and covered by nearly all of the major singing groups of the civil rights era—The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, and Peter Paul and Mary, who took his “Times they Are A-Changing” to the top of the American pop charts. But “Blowin in the Wind” derived from a negro spiritual Dylan had heard, and, the lore goes, inspired Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come”—played frequently on Election Day 2008. What remains remarkable about Dylan is this multiplying force; the millions who regarded him as a pop icon enjoyed his odes to love, friendship, or just free association—alongside powerful and insistent arguments for economic, environmental and racial justice.

Dylan never took his megaphone lightly. In 1975, he visited boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in prison, and subsequently took up his cause in an 8-minute howler that declared: If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street / Less you wanna draw the heat. (He had penned a similar ode to slain Black Panther leader George Jackson in 1972.) Unlike, for example, Elvis Presley or other white performers who appropriated black musical forms, Dylan encouraged give-and-take with black musicians, and rendered credit where due: In 1965, he cited Smokey Robinson as one of his poetic inspirations, and he calls Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which Dylan wrote, the definitive version. One of Dylan’s most revered albums, Highway 61 Revisited, is named after the stretch of interstate that connects his native Minnesota with the black musical mecca of New Orleans. And “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded in the 1980s and finally released in 1991, offered a synopsis of black history and a tribute to the Georgia-born blues singer of the title:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.

For those more familiar with traditional gospel, blues or folk sung by the black performers at the White House celebration, there are plenty of reasons to give Dylan another listen as well. His trademark, thin tenor and folksy guitar strumming, often joined by harmonica and piano, are hard to associate with “black” popular music. But Sam Cooke, Tracy Chapman, Nina Simone and other black artists have taken Dylan’s blueprints and made remarkable tracks of their own. And it’s Dylan’s commitment to lyricism (he published a volume of poetry in 1993) that allowed him to chronicle injustice and champion civil rights, and today sets him apart. Bond, noting that he and many of his SNCC compatriots loved Dylan, adds, “We like all kinds of music.”

When Dylan took the stage toward the close of the White House event, he seemed frail and mournful, a long way from the jaunty 19-year-old who first insisted times were a-changing. Nevertheless, Dylan’s immortal lyrics spoke simultaneously to an America that had elected its first black president and to a capital city buried in snow and hopeless partisan gridlock. In an infamous 1963 address to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Dylan told the stately gathered crowd: “I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules—and they haven’t got any hair on their head—I get very uptight about it.” In 2010, Obama invited him, past the height of his singing powers, but as a storyteller for a new generation, to once more speak directly to the lawmakers he had called out long ago. He rose to the occasion:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall

For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your wallsFor the times they are a changin’.

The only thing shaking was the storm-shocked windows of the White House—but the performance was an appropriate cap to an insurgent musical career.

Dayo Olopade

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