Myth has it that in 1963 a drunk Bob Dylan ad-libbed a speech at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC) “Bill of Rights” fund-raising dinner that didn’t mean much of anything except maybe as one of Dylan’s first steps in distancing himself from the progressive Left and finger-pointin’ songs. Even then, insulting his audience for their age, baldness, and patronization of “Negroes” would probably have been forgotten as a minor pothole on the road of Bob Dylan’s journey through life if not for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Dylan’s sentiment that he… “saw some of myself in [Oswald]” just a few weeks after the assassination elicited boos from the crowd and consternation in the ranks of the ECLC. The outcry was loud enough to compel the ECLC Board of Directors to justify their selection of the callow youth for the Tom Paine Award, including with their letter a New York Times review of Dylan’s Carnegie Hall concert, as well as a somewhat apology from Dylan himself.
As with Shakespeare, Bob Dylan’s works are for the ages. But sometimes it’s hard to fully understand why either Shakespeare or Dylan are talking about what they’re talking about without knowing how their thoughts were framed by the world they lived in; worlds both similar to and wildly different from ours. In Willy the Shake’s case, his world was torn apart by disagreements over the proper method of observing Christianity; a conflict reflected in almost all Shakespeare’s plays. In our boy Bobby’s case, we’re talking a world being shaped by African-American agitation for civil rights; Cold War hysteria; and growing radical student activity.
The 22-year-old’s remarks at the ECLC dinner and his follow-up missive indicate that — while certainly befuddled by wine — Dylan knew exactly what he was saying and to whom he was saying it to. By his second breath Dylan was ungrammatically accepting the Tom Paine Award “… in behalf of everybody that went down to Cuba” and would conclude his stream-of-consciousness speech with a shout-out to James Forman and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The ECLC and the Tom Paine Award
The ECLC was formed in 1951 by civil rights advocates who felt that the ACLU wasn’t being proactive enough in its defense of civil liberties, especially the civil liberties of those holding unpopular opinions such as advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. The ECLC itself came under criticism for both its rumored ties to the Communist Party and, from, an activist perspective, its conservative stance on various social issues. The ECLC wasn’t a “take it to the streets” sort of organization. Like the ACLU, the ECLC focused its energies on legal defense and challenges, as well as on fund-raising to support those activities.
Over several decades into the 1990s the annual ECLC “Bill of Rights” fund-raising dinner featured the presentation of the group’s Tom Paine Award, given to individuals in recognition of their “distinguished service in the fight for civil liberties.” Recipients of the award have included Bertrand Russell, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Shirley Chisholm, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Tom Smothers, Pete Hamill and, in the winter of 1963, Bob Dylan.
Enter Young Dylan, Pursued by Demons
Arriving tieless in his Woody Guthrie denim ensemble and wearing the light suede jacket that graced the cover shot of Freewheelin’, Dylan immediately headed for the bar, obsessing over his mistaken idea that he was obliged to deliver a speech. As he later noted in his apologia letter, he should have blown it off. He was after all, BOB DYLAN, an interesting moment of self-awareness about his growing fame. He could have lit out, which he apparently tried to do before being stopped and recalled to the ballroom. Captured, he might have simply stood up, thanked the crowd of 1,400, been done with the ceremony, and escaped. Instead, well-lubricated with the wine that he had been downing since his arrival at the Americana Hotel, Dylan delivered a speech that could be summarized as “I don’t belong here with you.”
Many in the ECLC probably felt the same about Bobby D, even if they had a clear idea of who he was. The Original Gangsta Leftists in formal wear had come to the Americana to nosh on rubber chicken, schmooze, and write a check to the ECLC. But why was this kid here? Where was his “distinguished service in the fight for civil liberties”? I mean, last year Bertrand Russell got the Tom Paine even if he didn’t attend the dinner. He’s an English Lord, for Christ’s Sake! And right there at tonight’s banquet table is James ‘effing Baldwin, a most respectable tie- and carnation-wearing Negro if ever there was one. How come he ain’t getting the Tom Paine?
And what is this with the kids who went to Cuba?
Talkin’ Cuban Communism Blues
Although in popular imagination there’s a tendency to shorthand the ’60s as being all Kumbaya folkie music, New Frontier, and Camelot before going to hell with rock n’ roll, assassinations, and Vietnam, things weren’t as rosy in 1963 as 21st century nostalgia might make it out to be. In many ways 1963 looked a lot like 2021, especially when it came to Cuba.
Cuba and communism were two of the many thorns in America’s side in 1963. After the failure of the U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961 the socialist Cuban revolutionary government aligned itself even more closely with the Soviet Union. The U.S. applied a variety of sanctions against the island nation, including the State Department banning U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, a symbolic move to show that the newly-inaugurated Kennedy — criticized as being “soft on Communism” — was just as tough as anyone when it came to the Cuban Revolution.
The travel ban didn’t sit well with many younger Americans who, from a 90-mile away perspective, thought the Cuban Revolution looked mighty good, maybe even a harbinger of things to come, and wanted to see it close up and personal. Anyway, shouldn’t you have the right to travel anywhere you want to see for yourself what’s happening?
About nine months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in June 1963, fifty-nine American students visited the island in direct defiance of the travel ban and were graced with a “surprise” visit by El Caballo, Fidel Castro himself, as they played table tennis at Varadero Beach. Perhaps Castro showing up shouldn’t have been a surprise, as the students’ all-expenses-paid trip was being funded by the Cuban Federation of Universities. On the U.S. side the trip had been organized by the Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) of New York City, a Maoist-leaning group that had split off from the Communist Party USA in the early `60s.
The PLM and the SNCC…
Without getting too inside baseball, in the incestuous and back-biting world of the American Left, the PLM was considered an abhorrence by the old Marxist-Leninists of the CP-USA, too pro-Red Chinese, too radical, and, most of all, too young. The PLM was, in fact, all those things and more, and considered the CP-USA Party old and in the way of the international communist front, lately exemplified by the Cuban Revolution.
The 1963 Cuban visit had been led by one of the founders of the PLM, Phillip Abbott Luce, a radical Leftist who would go on to run guns into the 1964 Harlem riots in hopes of starting a Cuban Revolution-styled guerilla war. Dylan would call Luce “a friend of mine” right before his infamous Oswald remark. As a consequence of the Cuba trip, Luce and ten other travelers, apparently those judged the most radical, were subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) just three months before the ECLC “Bill of Rights” dinner.
The hyper-charged revolutionary air filling the ballroom wasn’t limited to Cuba. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was created in 1960 as a counterpoint to the Kennedy administration’s ham-handed attempts to co-opt southern black student activists into the Martin Luther King “go slow” top-down leadership philosophy of attaining civil rights. In contrast, the leaders of the SNCC wanted radical, albeit nonviolent, confrontations with the white power structure, led by grassroot activists. Needless to say, another way of differentiating the SNCC from King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the even older school NAACP was that the former’s membership was predominately young… young and impatient.
Dylan had been performing at various SNCC events in New York City since 1962 and considered many SNCC activists as friends. In July 1963, at the invitation of the executive secretary of the SNCC — James Forman — Dylan traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi with Pete Seeger, Len Chandler, and the SNCC Freedom Singers to support a SNCC voter-registration drive. “The SNCC is the only organization I feel part of spiritually,” Dylan would say several months after the ECLC dinner.
… and the FBI too
Among the audience of 1,400 in the Americana ballroom were several FBI informants, including two whose reports on Dylan’s speech would end up in their respective subjects’ FBI case files. One of those persons of interest to the FBI was James Baldwin, a featured speaker at the ECLC dinner. The other FBI case file was focused on… Suze Rotolo.
“Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?” semi-closeted pervert J. Edgar Hoover asked in a memo included in Baldwin’s massive file. Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet and well-known to the FBI, which tracked his activities from the early ’60s into the ’70s. As far as the 1963 ECLC dinner went, the informant noted that Baldwin said in his speech that “he was not very interested in the recommendations of MR. J. EDGAR HOOVER” (a Hoover dictum ordered that all mentions of his name were to be brought to his attention) and that “as a Negro he’d be better off vacationing in Cuba than Miami Beach no matter what sort of system was there.”
The FBI mole spent more ink recording Dylan’s earlier remarks, an error-filled transcript which might be hilarious if you could ignore that the U.S. government was spying on its citizens. The informant’s report labeled “Bobby Dillon” a “young beatnik-type entertainer” whose speech “was not well-received.”
Because of her parent’s involvement with the CP-USA, Suze Rotolo had been on the FBI’s radar since she was 15 years old, when she attended red diaper baby Camp Kinderland. There’s no record of her being at the ECLC dinner, but the FBI knew of Rotolo’s and Dylan’s relationship. It was noted in her file that “During 1963, after her return from Italy, she dated a folksinger by the name of BOB DYLAN, continuing such relationship with DYLAN until approximately December 1963.” The later notation covering the ECLC dinner includes a relatively accurate summary of Dylan’s remarks where, “he agreed in part with LEE HARVEY OSWALD and thought that he understood OSWALD but would not have gone as far as OSWALD did.”
The FBI had certainly opened a file on Dylan by late 1963, probably coming to their notice when he started performing at CORE, SNCC, and CP-USA benefit events. But that file remains out of public sight.
Whose Side Are You On?
As incoherent as parts of his ECLC speech were, it was obvious whose side Dylan was on. Unfortunately he didn’t have his guitar, or he could have expressed his sentiments through a song he had written a few months earlier.
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
Singing The Times They Are A-Changin’ probably would have pleased the crowd, since no one ever thinks the song’s criticism is directed at them. Instead Dylan spoke, accepting the award “… in behalf of everybody that went down to Cuba,” telling the assembly that he wished most of them were retired on a beach someplace while Dylan would be “celebrating the anniversary when we overthrew the House Un-American Activities just yesterday” with his youthful peers. In case you’re uncertain about how much Dylan’s finger was on the pulse of radicalism at the time, he’s referring to a 1960 riot where students — including pre-Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman — disrupted a HUAC hearing in San Francisco, closing it down and forcing the HUAC roadshow to get out of town.
Dylan’s speechifyin’ moved on to hair, the benefits of having it; youth, the desirability of being one; and “Negroes” and color blindness. He tossed off an aside about Woody Guthrie, one of the few times where he was acknowledged with applause, and then goes into a strange zag about George Lincoln Rockwell’s tie clip, General Walker’s car trunk keys; and little fallout shelter signs that fans have stolen and given to him.
The mostly-forgotten Rockwell, who would have fit right into today’s world, was the founder and leader of the American Nazi Party. The equally-forgotten General Edwin Walker was an arch-conservative and vocal anti-communist probably most infamous among the Left for instigating the Ole Miss riots of 1962 to protest the admission of James Meredith. Although Dylan couldn’t have been aware of it at the time of his speech, the Warren Commission would later conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald had been the shooter who had unsuccessfully tried to assassinate General Walker in April 1963 before moving on to another target some seven months later.
And speaking of Oswald, Dylan finally arrived at the point in his speech where, in a meandering sort of way, he would note that in some respects he could identify with the assassin. Why? Dylan would later write in his semi-apology letter filled with the affected abbreviations he favored at the time…
“…for no one can say what I meant t say absolutely no one at times I even cant that was one of those times”
… as good an explanation as any, and let’s leave it at that.
Aftermath and Fallout
In his follow-up “MESSAGE from Bob Dylan to the ECLC” — probably drafted at the strong suggestion of ECLC director Clark Foreman — Dylan notes he’s a moody sort of guy; often doesn’t know why he says what he says, and anyway is a songwriter, not a speechifier.
Dylan does volunteer to return the Tom Paine Award, but the letter as a whole doesn’t read much of either an explanation or apology. The closest Dylan comes to not sounding as if he had written the entire piece grinning like a buttered-up cat is when he self-ironically adds, “an I understand you lost money on the masterful way I expressed myself” asking the ECLC to “please send me my bill; an I shall pay it; no matter what the sum.”
A generous if disingenuous offer from the 22-year-old, who still can’t resist mentioning that no one had told him they’d be asking for money at his award dinner. One report has it that Clark Foreman did send Dylan a bill for $6,000 to cover the estimated loss in donations.
There’s no record as to whether the ECLC was reimbursed.
And that’s about the end to our story. A little after the ECLC dinner, Bob Dylan made an appearance at a planning session of the Students for a Democratic Society, better known as the SDS. During a conversation with SDS members, Dylan expressed interest in supporting them by singing at benefits but, “warned us to be careful — of him.” Recounting the massacree at the ECLC dinner, Dylan said he “went crazy [about] these bald-headed, pot-bellied people sitting out there in suits” implying that the same thing might happen again at any time.
Like Woody Guthrie, who boasted that he had been thrown out of the CP-USA for being “too wild,” Bob Dylan was a bomb you tossed at your own peril, as likely to blow up friend as foe.
The Emergency Civil Liberties Committee later renamed itself the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee and merged with another organization defending civil and constitutional rights in 1986.
James Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages of documents, collected from 1960 until the early 1970s.
After Fidel Castro recovered from serious illness in 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush said: “One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.” The atheist Castro replied to the media: “Now I understand why I survived Bush’s plans and the plans of other presidents who ordered my assassination: the good Lord protected me.” Castro passed into the good Lord’s hands in 2016.
The Progressive Labor Movement (PLM), now the Progressive Labor Party, is still active.
After years of harassment by the FBI COINTELPRO program, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted a “merger” with the Black Panther Party in 1967, which effectively destroyed the group as an organization. After the decline of the SNCC, James Forman moved on to working with other Black political radical groups, organizing disenfranchised people around issues of progressive economic and social development and equality. He passed away in 2005.
George Lincoln Rockwell was assassinated in 1967 by a disaffected ex-American Nazi Party member. General Edwin Walker was arrested in the 1970s for public lewdness after fondling and propositioning a male undercover police officer. He died on Halloween Day in 1993.
The original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) splintered in 1969 into a mélange of other groups after ongoing battles among its membership on SDS positions on the Vietnam War, Black Power, and Women’s Liberation. One of the groups emerging from the SDS ashes was the gender-neutral Weather Underground, which took its name from Bob Dylan’s lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin would go on to co-found the Youth International Party (“Yippie”) and become Chicago Seven defendants. An early investor in Apple Computer, Rubin became a multimillionaire in the late ’70s and regularly debated Hoffman on the college circuit in a format they titled “Yippie vs. Yuppie.” Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, at age 52. After being struck by a car and seriously injured, Rubin died of a heart attack in 1994.
With a group of other U.S. citizens including Clark Foreman’s son Geno, Suze Rotolo would travel with Phillip Abbott Luce on another unauthorized trip to Cuba in 1964. By 1965 Luce had publicly disavowed communism, the PLM, and the New Left and would become a friendly witness and consultant to HUAC. Rotolo would repeat the unproven rumor popular in Leftist circles that Luce had been an undercover FBI agent provocateur in her memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time.
The current location of Bob Dylan, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on May 24, 2021, is unknown.
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