Politics

08.27.13

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez & More Music at 1963’s March on Washington

Folk music dominated the soundtrack of the March on Washington 50 years ago, with performances by Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and of course Bob Dylan—who would later stage a weird and shocking retreat from protest politics, writes Michael Tomasky.

One aspect of the March on Washington that can’t be overlooked: the music. It’s around. You can see it. Bob Dylan’s three songs—two, really, as I’ll explain below—have inevitably made their way to YouTube, as has Mahalia Jackson’s song as have Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Marian. Anderson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” doesn’t appear to have successfully completed the social-media voyage, but perhaps even more interestingly, you can see her more historically important Lincoln Memorial performance, her “My Country ’Tis of Thee” from back in 1939 when black people weren’t supposed to appear on stages with white people at all.

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They’re fascinating visual documents. Things were not, in those days, like they are now. Today—or really, probably since about the 1980s, when these kinds of events started becoming corporatized and professionalized; “staged” in a way they hadn’t been—there would be a separate stage for the musical acts, or maybe two. There’d be lighting and effects. Mixed-race children’s choirs from a couple of carefully chosen local progressive schools.

But in 1963, life and stagecraft weren’t that way. Bob Dylan sang from the same podium and through the same bank of microphones the speakers used. On the same podium where the speakers placed drafts of their speeches, Dylan set down the lyric sheets to “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” reading from them closely. For Peter, Paul, and Mary, whose habit was to gather around one microphone on an otherwise empty stage, the organizers at least removed the podium. They sang “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The latter is of course Dylan’s song, from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released that May. But Peter, Paul, and Mary had a hit with it—their cover was sitting at number 6 on the Billboard singles chart when the march took place (number one that week? “Fingertips, Pt 2,” by Little Stevie Wonder). So only real folkies would have known, in August of 1963, that it was a Dylan song.

Jackson’s performance, unsurprisingly, is pretty riveting. The song is “How I Got Over,” a spiritual that appears to me to refer to getting over to Heaven but many of whose lyrics can also be read metaphorically about a people striving toward a goal and better destination:

Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I've been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over...

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Jackson had been active in the movement, raising funds for Freedom Riders being among her many activities—and she was of course a favorite of Dr. King’s. It was at his request that she sang right before he took the stage, belting out “I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned,” but no video seems to survive of that one.

There’s a version of “Eyes on the Prize,” the great civil-rights spiritual whose name was later borrowed for the magnificent PBS documentary series of the 1980s, by Dylan, Joan Baez, an African American folk artist named Len Chandler, and an unknown (to me, and to the guy who introduced them) white folkie. I thought I recognized this guy but couldn’t place him. Like Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, he wore the de rigueur folkie’s goatee; also, horn-rimmed glasses. He was stocky and looked a little like Alan Sherman on the cover of “My Son, the Folk Singer.” Chandler is someone I didn’t know until I started looking into this. Still alive today, he grew up in Akron; got a master’s in music from Columbia; became an early ’60s folkie, one of the very few black ones; wrote songs for the Black Panthers in the later ’60s; and joined Jane Fonda’s famous F.T.A. tour in 1971 (if you’ve never seen the documentary film F.T.A.—I’ll let you figure out what it stood for—and you’re interested in this sort of thing, track it down).

But the focal point today, of course, is Dylan. With Baez providing harmonies, Dylan appeared in the form of Protest Bob, or Hobo Bob, for those old or interested enough to remember the now-antique Dylanologists’ phases; it spanned basically all of 1963 and it was the Dylan who (according to legend, anyway) hopped trains or hitchiked or did whatever to go play impromptu “concerts” to white farmers in the Midwest, black cotton hands down South. This was even after he had a record deal, partly at the behest of Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend at the time (seen with him on that beloved and heartwarming Freewheelin’ cover). His music then was expressly political, mostly about civil rights and race, a bit about The Bomb (i.e. nuclear) and the military-industrial complex.

“When the Ship Comes In” was actually written in a fit of pique after a hotel clerk in early 1963 denied him a room on the basis of his ratty appearance, until the more comely Baez vouched for him. And yet he magically spun out, as he so often did in those days, a set of allegorical lyrics in which that hotel clerk became Bull Connor, George Wallace, the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and The Man generally, all to be swept away to sea some glorious day:

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real
The hour that the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh's tribe
They'll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

He sang it again, accompanied by Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, at Live Aid in 1985, probably his biggest audience since the march (or maybe second, to Isle of Wight). Keith and Ronnie seemed drunk; likely a safe bet in 1985. But Dylan could still sing then, and it’s a fantastic performance.

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“Only a Pawn in Their Game” took a rather more controversial approach. It was expressly about the murder of Medgar Evers, but its point was that his killer—we now know it was Byron de la Beckwith, who was at that moment about to face trial down in Mississippi—wasn’t really to blame:

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
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

This was not, to put it mildly, the party line at the time. And it wasn’t true either. De la Beckwith was a remorseless racist who wasn’t anyone’s pawn. But that was Dylan.

Not long after all this, he started feeling used by the movement because of his talent and fame. It culminated in a scene in December 1963 that, if played out in anything like today’s media environment, probably would have seen him banished from the respectable quarters of the industry.

The occasion was the annual dinner of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a very big organization at the time. The ECLC made the mistake of deciding to give that year’s Tom Paine Award to Dylan. He wasn’t pleased about this, felt it was more exploitation. He reportedly drank heavily before the dinner. Then he got up and gave a speech that went declared, according to About.com’s folk music site, “I haven't got any guitar. I can talk, though,” he began, accepting the award on behalf of Philip Luce, who led the first annual Venceremos Brigade to Cuba in a show of solidarity with Cuba.

“You people should be at the beach,” Dylan jabbed at his audience, cutting up on bald people. “It's not an old people's world... Old people, when their hair grows out, they should go out.” At this, the crowd chuckled nervously. Dylan then began ridiculing people who engage in politics. “There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore,” he stated flatly. “There's only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”

Speaking about his performance that he did in August during the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., Dylan then lambasted the movement as phony, “I was at the March on Washington up on the platform and I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn't see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don't wear suits. My friends don't have to wear any kind of thing to prove they're respectable Negroes.”

But wait! It didn’t end there. Not even close!

“I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don't know exactly... what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too—I saw some of myself in him. I don't think I could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things he felt, in me...not go that far and shoot.”

Imagine that--less than a month after the assassination! So that explains what happened with Dylan and the protest movement. The Times They Are A-Changin’, his next album, was his last protest album, released in January 1964, the tracks already in the can when he shocked the ECLC. The next month, the Beatles hit. Pure folkies mocked them, but Dylan saw it immediately, saw what was original and smart and raw in them. He did one more acoustic album, but of personal and introspective songs, not political ones. And then he picked up his Stratocaster, and everything changed again.