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Like A Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan

The Politics Behind The Songs

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Folk musicians of the 1960's often found themselves writing topical songs, songs that were about a specific event or person. This wasn't a common style for Dylan himself, but it was popular with contemporaries like Phil Ochs and Joan Baez. Though not his normal songwriting style (if he was writing a politically charged song, it was usually more vague, making it more universal and timeless), Dylan has composed some topical songs throughout his career. On this page, we will explore the events and people sung about; the things that inspired the songs.

"The Death of Emmett Till" (1963)
 
This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.
 

Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American teenager from Chicago, Illinois who was brutally murdered in a region of Mississippi known as the Mississippi Delta in the small town of Money in Leflore County. His murder was one of the key events that energized the nascent American Civil Rights Movement. The main suspects were acquitted but later admitted to committing the crime. Till's mother had an open casket funeral to let everyone see how her son had been brutally killed. He had been shot and beaten; he was then thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire as a weight. His body stayed in the river for three days until it was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen.

In 1955, Till and his cousin were sent for a summer stay with Till's great-uncle, Moses Wright, who lived in Money, Mississippi. Before his departure for the Delta, Till's mother cautioned him to "mind his manners" with white people.

Till's mother understood that race relations in Mississippi were very different from those in Chicago. The state had seen many lynchings during the South's lynching era (ca. 1876-1930), and racially motivated murders were still not unfamiliar, especially in the "Delta" region where Till was going to visit. Racial tensions were also on the rise after the United States Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public education.

Till arrived on August 21. On August 24, he joined other teenagers as they went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to get some candy and soda. The teens were children of sharecroppers and had been picking cotton all day. The market was owned by a husband and wife, Roy Bryant and Carolyn Bryant, and mostly catered to the local sharecropper population. Till's cousin and several black youths, all under 16, were reported to have been with Till in the store.

As Till was leaving the store, he whistled at an young white woman named Carolyn Bryant. She stood up and stormed to her car. The boys were terrified thinking she might return with a pistol and ran away. The news of this greatly angered her husband when he heard of it upon his return from out of town several days later.

Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was with him at the store, claims Till did nothing but whistle at the woman. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes ... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny." Carolyn Bryant later asserted that Till had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. She said the young man also used "unprintable" words. He had a slight stutter and some have conjectured that Bryant might have misinterpreted what Till said.

By the time 24-year-old Roy Bryant returned from a road trip three days after his wife’s encounter with Till, it seemed that everyone in Tallahatchie County had heard about the incident, in every conceivable version. Bryant decided that he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, 36, would meet around 1:00 a.m. on Sunday to "teach the boy a lesson."

At about 12:30 a.m. on August 27, Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his great-uncle's house in the middle of the night. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered shed on a plantation in neighboring Sunflower County, where they brutally beat him. The fan around his neck was to weigh down his body, which they dropped into the Tallahatchie River. The body was soon found.

The brothers and police tried to convince the towns people that Emmett Till was in Chicago and that the beaten boy was someone else, but the only way that he was recognized was by the ring on his finger that had been his father's. His mother had given it to him the day before he left for Money.

Moses Wright, a witness to Till's abduction told the Sheriff that a person who sounded like a woman had identified Till as "the one" after which the men had driven away with him. Bryant and Milam claimed they later found out Till was not "the one" who allegedly insulted Mrs. Bryant, and swore to Sheriff George Smith they had released him. The men were acqitted for their crime.

They would later recant and confess after their acquittal.

After Till's horribly disfigured body was found, he was put into a pine box and nearly buried, but Mamie Till wanted the body to come back to Chicago. A Tutwiler mortuary assistant worked all night to prepare the body as best he could so that Mamie Till could bring Emmett's body back to Chicago.

In a January 1956 article in Look Magazine for which they were paid, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to journalist William Bradford Huie that he and his brother had killed Till. They did not fear being tried again for the same crime because of the Constitutional double jeopardy protection. Milam claimed that initially their intention was to scare Till into line by pistol-whipping him and threatening to throw him off a cliff. Milam claimed that regardless of what they did to Till, he never showed any fear, never seemed to believe they would really kill him, and maintained a completely unrepentant, insolent, and defiant attitude towards them concerning his actions. Thus the brothers said they felt they were left with no choice but to fully make an example of Till.

Young Emmett Till's death is a gruesome reminder of the hatred and injustice that surrounded America at this time. It gained notoriety and brought attention this problem. His death has been called by many "the hate crime that changed America".

"Oxford Town" (1963)
 
Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn't get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my friend?
 
The song was about the violent events surrounding the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, culminating in riots late on the evening of Sunday, September 30, 1962, in which two men, a French journalist sent to cover the events and a Lafayette County resident, were killed by stray bullets. Meredith's impending registration at the university, brought on by his win in a federal lawsuit for equal access to education in his home state, sparked widespread unrest and rioting. During the riot cars were burned, university property was damaged, and United States Marshalls ordered to protect Meredith's right to register were pelted with bricks, rocks, and fired upon with stray bullets as they established a line in front of The Lyceum, the main admissions and registration building on the campus. After a long night of fierce battle between National Guard troops, State Highway patrolmen, United States Marshalls, university students, and outside agitators, order was restored to the campus with the early morning arrival of the U. S. Army onto the campus and surrounding town. President John F. Kennedy mobilized the Army and ordered them onto the campus and surrounding community early on the evening of the riot, but poor communication and crossed orders resulted in a delay for their arrival in force until the following morning (Monday, October 1) Meredith enrolled that morning without incident and attended for the rest of the school year, graduating in August 1963 with a degree in history. Dylan played a memorable concert at the Tad Smith Coliseum on the Ole Miss campus in November 1990, which included a performance of the song Oxford Town.

"Only A Pawn In Their Game" (1963)
 
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.
 
 
Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist from Mississippi.

Medgar Evers was a native of Decatur, Mississippi, attending school there until being inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. Despite fighting for his country as part of the Battle of Normandy, Evers soon found that his skin color gave him no freedom when he and five friends were forced away at gunpoint from voting in a local election. Despite his resentment over such treatment, Evers enrolled at Alcorn State University, majoring in business administration. While at the school, Evers stayed busy by competing on the school's football and track teams, also competing on the debate team, performing in the school choir and serving as president of the junior class.

Involvement in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) gave Evers crucial training in activism. He helped to organize the RCNL's boycott of service stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom." Along with his brother, Charles Evers, he also attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954 which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.

Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was rejected, Evers became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school, a case aided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education 347 US 483 that segregation was unconstitutional. In December of that year, Evers became the NAACP's first field officer in Mississippi.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself the target of a number of threats. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard left him vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home, and five days before his death, he was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office. Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first week of June 1963. A local television station granted Evers time for a short speech, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on Evers' life increased.

On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from an integration meeting where he had conferred with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that stated, "Jim Crow Must Go", Evers was struck in the back with a bullet that ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing, dying at the local hospital 50 minutes later. Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy's speech on national television in support of civil rights.

Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery and received full military honors in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people, the largest funeral at Arlington since John Foster Dulles. The past chairman of the American Veterans' Committee, Mickey Levine, said at the services, "No soldier in this field has fought more courageously, more heroically than Medgar Evers."

On June 23, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers' murder. During the course of his first 1964 trial, De La Beckwith was visited by former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker.

All-white juries twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt, thus allowing him to escape justice.

The murder and subsequent miscarriage of justice caused a social uproar, and musician Dylan wrote this song about Evers and his assassin.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (1964)
 
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears.
 
This song is a fairly factual account of the killing of 51 year old bar-maid Hattie Carroll, by the wealthy young William Devereux "Billy" Zantzinger (whom the song calls "William Zanzinger"), and his subsequent sentence to six months in jail.
 
The incident took place February 9, 1963 at a ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Dylan's song accurately implies, but never states, that Carroll was black and Zantzinger is white.
 
At about 1:30 in the morning of the 9th, he ordered a drink from barmaid Carroll and when she didn't bring it immediately, he cursed at her to which Carroll replied: "I'm hurrying as fast as I can." Zantzinger said: "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a n*****," and struck her on the shoulder with the cane. Carroll was heard to remark "I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so" soon after, before collapsing and being taken to the hospital. After Carroll died the following morning, Zantzinger was charged with murder. However, this was changed to manslaughter and assault after it was discovered that Carroll had hardened arteries and high blood pressure, and that she had in fact probably died of a brain haemorrhage caused by the stress of Zantzinger's verbal and physical abuse, rather than the physical assault itself (the cane left no mark on her).
 
On August 28, 1963 Zantzinger was convicted of assault and manslaughter and was sentenced to six months. Dylan's song strongly implies that his upper-class status contributed to the brevity of the sentence.

Zantzinger (as of 2001) told Howard Sounes, in Down the Highway, the Life of Bob Dylan, "It's actually had no effect upon my life", but is vitriolic in his scorn for Dylan, saying, "He's a no-account son of a bitch", claiming that the song is inaccurate. "He's just like a scum of a scum bag of the earth, I should have sued him and put him in jail". He claims that the song is a total lie, but has never attempted to prevent Dylan from performing it.

Nevertheless, the song has continued to haunt Zantzinger in later controversies. Zantzinger openly rented properties in violation of unenforced county codes. In 1991, it became known that not only did he rent out properties which he no longer owned, but even won court battles against delinquent tenants on those properties. The fact that the families who rented these properties were black, coupled with Zantzinger's past, led to charges of racism. Dylan's song was invoked as an anthem for those calling for Zantzinger's prosecution.

"Who Killed Davey Moore?" (1964)
 
Who killed Davey Moore,
Why an' what's the reason for?
 
 
Davey Moore was a world-champion boxer from Ohio who fought professionally 1953 to 1963. Moore died March 23, 1963, as a result of injuries sustained in his final professional bout. Moore faced Sugar Ramos in a nationally televised fight on March 21, 1963. Moore lost the fight by a knockout in the tenth round, and died two days later due to injuries received to his brain stem when his head hit the bottom rope when he was knocked out. There was existing public controversy due to the death of Benny "Kid" Paret one year before, and Moore's death prompted debate about the dangers of boxing and the possibility of the sport being banned in the United States.
 
Dylan's song, as well the song "Davey Moore" by Phil Ochs, discusses the brutality of this event and how it was a disgrace that no one bothered to stop the fight when they saw how badly injured Moore had become.

"George Jackson" (1971)
 
I woke up this mornin',
There were tears in my bed.
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head.
Lord, Lord,
They cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
They laid him in the ground.
 
 
George Jackson (September 23, 1941 – August 21, 1971) was a Black American militant who became a member of the Black Panther Party while in prison, where he spent the last 12 years of his life. He was one of the "Soledad Brothers," and achieved fame due to a book of published letters.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, several juvenile convictions resulted in Jackson spending time in the Youth Authority Corrections facility in Paso Robles. Jackson was convicted for stealing $70 at gunpoint from a gas station and was imprisoned as a felon for one year to life at age 18.

While at San Quentin State Prison in 1966, he founded the Black Guerrilla Family, a Marxist prison gang with political objectives. The original goals of the group were to eradicate racism, to maintain dignity in prison and to overthrow the United States government.

On January 16, 1970, along with Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, he was charged with murdering a guard, John V. Mills, in retaliation for the killing of three black activists by a guard, O.G. Miller, at the California's Soledad prison (the San Quentin guard had been acquitted after the Grand Jury ruled the killings as justifiable homicide). He was incarcerated in the maximum-security cellblock at Soledad Prison. Jackson and the other two inmates became known as the "Soledad Brothers."

Isolated in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, Jackson studied political economy and radical theory and wrote two books, Blood in My Eye and Soledad Brother, which became bestsellers and brought him world-wide attention.

On August 7 1970, George Jackson's 17-year-old brother Jonathan burst into a Marin County courtroom with an automatic weapon, freed three San Quentin prisoners and took Judge Harold Haley as a hostage to demand freedom for the three "Soledad Brothers." However, Haley, prisoners William Christmas and James McClain, and Jonathan Jackson were killed as they attempted to drive away from the courthouse. The case made national headlines.

The eyewitness testimony suggests that Judge Haley was hit by fire discharged from a shotgun inside the vehicle during the incident, since he was being covered by a shotgun attached by wiring, tape, and/or a strap of some sort, and/or held beneath his chin. The shotgun was traced back to activist Angela Davis.

Gary Thomas, at that time a prosecutor (later a judge) who was also taken hostage and paralyzed by a police bullet during the incident, testified in a subsequent proceeding that "The sawed-off shotgun was being held under Judge Haley's chin by Magee. The shotgun went off. It was as if it was in slow motion--all outward features of his face moving away." Some accounts of the incident report that Judge Haley's head was taken almost completely off his body as a result of the close-range shotgun blast.

Ruchell Magee, the sole survivor among the militants who attacked the court, was convicted for Haley's kidnapping and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, which he is serving in Corcoran State Prison. Now 56 years old, he has lost numerous bids for parole.

On August 21, 1971, three days before he was to go on trial, Jackson was gunned down in the prison yard at San Quentin during an escape attempt.

At his request, shotguns, not flowers, were brought to George Jackson's funeral. He is remembered as an intellectual and a revolutionary.

"Patience has its limits. Take it too far, and it's cowardice." - George Jackson

"Hurricane" (1975)
 
Rubin Carter was falsely tried.
The crime was murder "one," guess who testified?
Bello and Bradley and they both boldly lied
And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride.
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool's hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
 

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (born May 6, 1937), an African-American middleweight boxer between 1961 and 1966, is better known for his controversial convictions (1967, 1976) for three June 1966 murders in Paterson, New Jersey, and his subsequent release from prison in 1985.

The question of Carter’s actual guilt or innocence remains a strongly polarizing one. However this much is certain: either the criminal justice system released a triple murderer from the punishment that two separate juries had recommended, or it imprisoned an innocent man for almost 20 years

On June 17, 1966, at around 2:30 a.m. two African American males entered the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and started shooting. The bartender, Jim Oliver, and a male customer, Fred "Cedar Grove Bob" Nauyoks, were killed instantly. A badly wounded female customer, Hazel Tanis, died almost a month later, having been shot in the throat, stomach, intestine, spleen and left lung, and her arm shattered by shotgun pellets. A third customer, Willie Marins, survived the attack, despite being shot in the head and losing sight in one eye.

Petty criminal Alfred Bello, who had been near the Lafayette to commit a burglary that same night, was an eyewitness. Bello was one of the first people on the scene of the shootings and called a telephone operator to alert the police. A resident on the second floor (above the Lafayette), Patricia Graham (later Patricia Valentine), saw two black males get into a white car and drive west away from the bar. Another neighbor, Ronald Ruggiero, also heard the shots and when he looked from his window he saw Alfred Bello running on Lafayette Street toward 16th Street. He also heard the screech of tires and saw a white car shoot past, heading west, with two black males in the front seat.

Carter's car matched the description provided by the witnesses; the police stopped it and brought Carter and another occupant, John Artis, to the scene about thirty minutes after the incident. There was little physical evidence, police took no fingerprints at the crime scene, and lacked the necessary facilities to conduct a paraffin test on Carter and Artis. None of the eyewitnesses identified Carter or Artis as one of the shooters. When the police took Carter and Artis to the hospital to be viewed by Marins, he stated, "I can't tell. I don't know." However, on searching Carter's car, the police discovered a live .32 caliber pistol round and a 12-gauge shotgun shell, of the same calibers used in the shootings. Carter and Artis were taken to police headquarters and questioned.

In the afternoon, both men underwent polygraph testing. Although there are serious questions about exactly what happened during the testing, examiner John J. McGuire subsequently reported the following conclusion about Carter: "After a careful analysis of the polygraph record of this subject, it is the opinion of the examiner that this subject was attempting deception to all the pertinent questions and was involved in this crime. After the examination and confronted with the examiner's opinion the subject denied any participation in the crime." The scientific merit and reliability of polygraph tests are disputed, however, and they are generally inadmissible as evidence. Carter and Artis were released later that day.

Several months later, Bello disclosed to the police that he had had an accomplice during the attempted burglary, one Arthur Dexter Bradley. On further questioning, Bello and Bradley both independently identified Carter as one of the two black males that they had seen carrying weapons outside the bar the night of the murders; Bello also identified Artis as the other. Based on this additional evidence, Carter and Artis were arrested and indicted.

Even though the defense showed that the accused didn't match the descriptions that victim and eye witness Hazel Tanis gave on June 17, the two stuck to their testimony. This, plus evidence of the identification of Carter's car by Patricia Valentine, the ammunition found in Carter's car, and questions about the testimony given by Carter's alibi witnesses, convinced an all-white jury that Carter and Artis were the killers. Both men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

During his time in prison, Carter wrote his autobiography The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472, which was published in 1974. He maintained his innocence, and won increasing public support for a retrial or pardon.

Dylan wrote this song to express the view that Carter was innocent and that perhaps his conviction was racially motivated.

"Bob Dylan freed your mind,
like Elvis freed your body."

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