Friday, October 19, 2007

December 7, 1997 and August 28, 1963

I'm sure there are other reasons these dates are significant, but I find them interesting because on both days Bob Dylan hung out a bit with Charlton Heston.

Now, not to dive into the deep end of French literary theory but one favorite distinction gleaned from that work was Roland Barthes' notion of the writerly and readerly texts. Put simply, the meaning in readerly texts is fixed and rigid, but in writerly texts the meaning is more fluid, more open. Barthes said "In readerly texts the signifiers march; in writerly texts, they dance." As artists, the difference between Bob and Chuck seems pretty clear.

In 1997, Dylan and Heston were in the group of five artists honored by President Clinton at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1968, both men were also together in Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a quarter of a million men and women marching together for social justice.

The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations, all of which generally had different approaches and different agendas. The "Big Six" organizers were James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League.

Opposition to the march came from a number of quarters. President Kennedy originally discouraged the march, for fear that it might make the legislature vote against civil rights laws in reaction to a perceived threat. Once it became clear that the march would go on, however, he supported it. While various labor unions supported the march, the AFL-CIO remained neutral.

Outright opposition came from two sides. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, were obviously not in favor of any event supporting racial equality. On the other hand, the march was also condemned by some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington," and members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.

Nobody was sure how many people would turn up for the demonstration in Washington, D.C. Some traveling from the South were harassed and threatened. But on August 28, 1963, an estimated quarter of a million people—about a quarter of whom were white—marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, in what turned out to be both a protest and a communal celebration. The heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary, as the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness. The march was extensively covered by the media, with live international television coverage.

The event included musical performances by Marian Anderson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Josh White. Charlton Heston—representing a contingent of artists, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier–read a speech by James Baldwin.

The two most noteworthy speeches came from John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a younger, more radical group than King's. The original text to his speech had circulated throughout the day and the march leaders were able to convince him to tone down his rhetoric and remove the most inflammatory portions. What he did deliver was still the most explicitly radical speech of the day. He said, in part:

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory." For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King's speech remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. He started with prepared remarks, saying he was there to "cash a check" for "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," while warning fellow protesters not to "allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. But then he departed from his script, shifting into the "I have a dream" theme he'd used on prior occasions, drawing on both "the American dream" and religious themes, speaking of an America where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He followed this with an exhortation to "let freedom ring" across the nation, and concluded with:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

When I talk about the impact of Bob Dylan upon American culture in the last half century I always include the image of the 23 year-old folksinger on the stage in the shadow of the Washington Monument performing as, in effect, the warm up act for Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech.

Dylan sang his greatest protest song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," about the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When he sang this song it was less than three months since that killing. In the film of the scene the camera pans the faces of the crowd and people appear to be listening intently to Dylan's words. The song is unique in the literature of protest music because it does not rally the troops by attacking the killer. Instead, it asks the listener to consider larger questions:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

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.

You can see the rest of the lyrics and hear the melody here; the song is from Dylan's third and most explicitly "protest song" album, The Times They Are A-Changin', which wouldn't be released until the winter of 1963, which means that the crowd in Washington was hearing it for the first time.

But the song and performance that never fails to make all the hair on my neck stand at attention is immediately before that. "When the Ship Comes In" (seen here in a slightly grainy video from the march) uses Biblical imagery to create a sense of justice marching through history, destroying all enemies in its path.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'.
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still 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 when 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.

I suppose it's something to do with age. To paraphrase Bob, "I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now." In 2007 none of the TV networks would cover that march; the audience research says people don't want to see "protests" and we would have instead investigative reports on the breaking scandal of Ellen's dog and Britney's inability to follow the instructions that come with panties.

But "When the Ship Comes In," as powerful as it is, makes no sense today. It is as if it's being sung in a dying language, one with only one or two living speakers. A language that somehow no longer fits the world it once described.

Aw.... I hate to be a buzzkill, but the question does occur to me whether it really makes any difference if Rudy or Hillary is wearing the Captain's costume as the last little bit of the deck rail disappears beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic.

* The section above on the March on Washington borrows heavily from the Wikipedia entry.

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