For anyone else, it would have been career suicide, but on Friday December 13, 1963, Bob Dylan's career arc was rocketing. Nothing was going to stop him from speaking his mind. The occasion was the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee's annual Bill of Rights dinner, when the organization gave its Tom Paine Award to some distinguished individual. The year before, it was Bertrand Russell; this year, it was Dylan.
Founded in 1951, the ECLC was formed to protect Communist Party members being crucified during the paranoid days of McCarthyism. The ECLC's ranks were mainly filled with brave authors, lawyers and intellectuals from the Old Left of the 1930s who defied the persecution of the Red Scare. Mostly affluent, elderly liberals, the attire was suits, furs and jewelery, while Dylan was garbed in blue jeans and a suede jacket.
Done With the Cause
In receiving the award, Dylan felt he was being exploited because of his credibility as a “protest singer” among the New Left community, whose main body was stuffed with next-generation folk revivalists. It was a position Dylan was uncomfortable with. The entire year of 1963 was Dylan's immersion into politics and the civil rights movement as he played political rallies and benefits at the behest of his radical girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. But he began feeling that these organizations were merely using him because of his fame, and he resented it.
Angry—at the organization, at those attending who expected him to wear his protest singer mask, angry at himself for being the dupe—Dylan drank heavily in anticipation of the speech. In the ballroom of the Hotel Americana in Manhattan, looking apprehensive, he took the podium before the crowd of 1,400. “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.
And Then It Soured
“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.”
At this point, with the audience fully alienated, Dylan drove the final spike home, admitting that he saw similarities between himself and Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy's assassin only three weeks earlier: “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.”
The booing and hissing became intense.
“You can boo, but booing's got nothing to do with it,” said Dylan. “It's just a—I just uh—I've got to tell you man, it's Bill of Rights. It's Free Speech.” He then accepted the award on behalf of James Foreman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, along with those who stood against the Cuba travel ban. And off he walked.
ECLC donations for that year plummeted. In an attempt to salvage the mess, chairman Corliss Lamont swiftly issued a letter to the members, defending Dylan as that year's recipient: “...it is urgent to recognize the protest of youth today and to help make it understood by the older generation. Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, the cultural antecedents of Bob Dylan, were not appreciated by their society until they were very old. We think that it would be better now to make the effort to comprehend what Bob Dylan is saying to and for the youth.”
Lamont also enclosed the message that Dylan had issued to the organization. On his feelings of being exploited and his reaction, Dylan wrote:
“it is a fierce heavy feeling
thinkin something is expected of you
but you don't know what exactly it is...
it brings forth a weird form of guilt”
Attempting to show his respect for the ECLC and its old school leftist membership, he added:
“I'm speakin now of the people I've met
who were strugglin for their lives and other peoples'
lives in the '30s and '40s an the '50s
an I look t their times
I reach out t their times
an, in a sense, am jealous of their times.”
And covering himself for his blunder, he blamed himself:
“I should've remembered
I am Bob Dylan an I don't have t speak
i don't have to say nothin if I don't wanna
but I didn't remember”
Dylan closed the letter with, “I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me.” More, he offered to pay any monetary losses that the ECLC suffered, although he never came through on that promise.
No Looking Back
Ultimately, the ECLC speech became Dylan's declaration of independence from politics. A month afterward, he released the most politically charged album of his career, The Times They Are A-Changin', but he'd already moved on to the next thing. As he'd made loud and clear, his next album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, released in October of 1964, would be completely vacant of what he called “finger-pointing songs.” And it was.
In an interview with Nat Hentoff published in The New Yorker that month, Dylan stated his final position on the civil rights movement and politics: “I agree with everything that's happening, but I'm not part of no movement... I'm never going to have anything to do with any political organization again in my life. Oh, I might help a friend if he was campaigning for office. But I'm not going to be part of any organization.”