African American Culture and
Bob Dylan: Why He Matters

Things Twice
This is an eloquent piece by Robert Chapman, originally
posted on soc.culture.african.american, explaining what
Bob Dylan has to do with African American culture.

Originally compiled: August 24, 1997
Last revised: August, 24 1997

From: Robert Chapman (robert.chapman@worldnet.att.net)
Subject: AA Culture and Bob Dylan: Why He Matters
Newsgroups: soc.culture.african.american
Date: Sat, 26 Apr 1997

"Where black is the color, none is the number."

These are the words of songwriter and musician Bob Dylan, written when he was just twenty-one years old. They are from his haunting and beautiful song A Hard Rainís a Gonna Fall, released in 1963.

I have been asked why I wrote at great length about Dylan recently on SCAA-misc. What does this white man have to do with African American culture? For those who are unaware of his contribution to the civil-rights struggle, I wanted to answer the question.

In the early sixties, he was a driving force in rallying much of America to an awareness of the struggle of blacks for equality in our society. The sad truth is that too many whites--then, and now--are not nearly as responsive to a message that emanates from a person of color as they are when they hear it from a white person. And, of course, as a white man he had opportunities to be heard that a black person (in the early sixties) was simply not afforded.

While the great black civil-rights leaders fought on the main front, and other blacks (and whites) quietly and valiantly labored in pursuit of equality, Dylan reached others on a different battleground.

"How many years can some people exist, before theyíre allowed to be free?"

This, from his famous anthem, Blowiní in the Wind. If his answer to the query was uncertain, his questions were not. He pointed a dagger at the heart of Jim Crow America in the early 60ís, and with his unvarnished voice spoke immutable truths.

He was a folk-singer writing during a time when popular song focused on "Moon-June" sentimentality and vacuous ditties. At the time it was unheard of for a young white songwriter to compose the kind of songs that he did, and he knocked down some serious barriers to what was thought possible within the parameters of popular music.

In Only a Pawn in Their Game he wrote of the murder of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. But instead of focusing on the racist murderer or the victim, he described the nefarious structural edifice behind the symptoms of racism. Showing remarkable maturity for a twenty-three year old white person in America in 1964, he pointed out that unless the underlying socio-political structure changed, you could round up racists for hate crimes all day and nothing would ever really change.

Consider the extraordinary ballad, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. Released in 1964, it is based on the true story of the murder of a black woman. Hattie Carroll, fifty-one years old, was the maid for a rich (white) Baltimore landowner by the name of William Zanzinger. She was the mother of ten children and by all accounts a person of great rectitude. At a society gathering, Zanzinger became drunk and upset when she didnít bring him a drink quickly enough. In a rage over nothing, he beat her to death with his cane. In the song, Dylan describes the incredible injustice as Zanzinger got off with just a six-month sentence.

You who philosophize, disgrace, and criticize all fears.
Bury the rag deep in your face
Nowís the time for your tears.

He stirred a restless and emerging youth culture of the sixties that wanted to work towards a more egalitarian society. Many of the "Freedom Riders" that went down south in the early sixties to register blacks to vote did so to the sound of Bob Dylanís music, giving them inspiration to deal with their fears. He played at a concert for black voter registration in Greenwood, Mississippi, and participated in many other events on behalf of the civil-rights struggle.

He was remarkably prescient in his warning of the turbulence to come if America did not face up to its racial injustice:

Where black is the color, none is the number
And Iíll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountains so all souls can see it
Then Iíll stand on the ocean until I start sinkiní
But Iíll know my song well before I start singiní
And itís a hard, itís a hard, itís a hard, itís a hard,
Itís a hard rainís a-gonna fall.

Bob Dylan


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