An extraordinary letter, written by Bob Dylan, offers a remarkable insight into the greatest songwriter of his generation. It also offers a hugely challenging perspective on the role of the artist.
In the current issue of hotpress, Christy Moore describes Bob Dylan as the greatest songwriter of them all. It is a view that is shared by many of the leading singers, songwriters and artists of the new generation too, both in Ireland and internationally. The legion of those who have been influenced by Dylan is too vast to catalogue. The fact is that anyone who matches intense, poetic lyrics with music is in some way drawing on the legacy he forged back in the glory days of the 1960s.
There is probably a greater awareness now of the depth of his contribution than ever before. Last year, his Chronicles, the first part of his autobiography, hit the book stands – and it was a fine, powerful, free-flowing and at times brilliant piece of work. In a language derived from the Beats and shot through with an enthrallingly personal note, he told his story elliptically, offering great insight, but as if through an individually carved window, so that it was always clear that much more was being withheld than was revealed.
But it was the freshness and energy of Chronicles. and of the individual voice of Dylan as a writer that made it so impressive, as if Dylan had rediscovered the allure both of the artist’s role, and of the Storyteller’s vocation. And then came No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary that aired first on the BBC and was then made available on DVD.
The focus in this superbly researched and edited film was on those critical years where Dylan shifted away from the perception of him as a topical singer and embraced a kind of existentialist songwriting, with the individual – and what he was seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling, believing and imagining – at the heart of the artistic mission. It was a moment of huge import in cultural terms. But it was also a time of extraordinary excitement and discovery – with Bob Dylan in many ways in the vanguard.
Asked to describe Dylan, it’s not what would have sprung to mind straight away, but in the mid-’60s, the singer was a carefully bedraggled, eye-linered, bohemian pin-up – a kind of prototype for Marc Bolan to base his image on a few years later. But he was also a free artistic spirit, a man who was pushing at the boundaries, unwilling – and perhaps unable – to accept the limitations of sound and subject matter that others were only too eager to embrace.
No Direction Home, and the reaction to it, confirmed that Dylan is a singer, songwriter, artist, performer and thinker of huge relevance to the new generation of rock ‘n’ roll fans as well as artists. Against that backdrop, it is especially fascinating that a barely known document has been uncovered from that key moment in the history of popular culture, written by Bob Dylan himself. It was spotlighted by the eminent rock critic and academic Dave Marsh, who came across it while researching the text for a book of photographs of Dylan from the ‘60s, by Douglas Gilbert, entitled Forever Young.
Dylan had been presented with the Tom Paine Award, at the Bill of Rights Dinner, on December 13, 1963. On the night, running late and probably under the influence, Dylan made an acceptance speech which caused huge controversy by comparing himself to Lee Harvey Oswald, attacking bald politicians and generally fucking with the consensus. Some of what he said was absurdist, more was essentially contrarian – and, in sum, it rang all of the wrong bells at the festive dinner table.
The ensuing document is a letter of apology, written to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee by Dylan, in the wake of what was clearly – at best – an embarrassing occasion for all concerned. In its style and substance, it offers a brilliant foretaste of Chronicles, as we find Dylan articulating, with great wit and flair – and not a little soul-searching and humility – his stance as an artist, and reflecting on the effects of fame and the conflicts and dilemmas with which he is confronted in what is often a lonely calling.
As you will see, it makes powerful and challenging reading...
(Sent to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee after he received the Tom Paine Award at the Bill of Rights dinner on December 13, 1963.)
to anybody it may concern...
countless faces I do not know
an all fighters for good things that I can not see
when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds when I speak of the seashore, I mean the restin shore I dont know why I mentioned either of them
my life runs in a series of moods
in private an in personal ways, sometimes, I, myself, can change the mood I’m in the mood I’d like t be in. when I walked thru the doors of the americana hotel, I needed to change my mood... for reasons inside myself.
I am a restless soul
it is hard to hear someone you dont know, say “this is what he meant t say” about something you just said
for no one can say what I meant t say
absolutely no one
at times I even cant
that was one of those times
my life is lived out daily in the places I feel most confortable in. these places are places where I am unknown an unstared at. I perform rarely, an when I do, there is a constant commotion burnin at my body an at my mind because of the attention aimed at me. instincts fight my emotions an fears fight my instincts...
I do not claim t be smart by the standards set up I dont even claim to be normal by the standards set up an I do not claim to know any kind of truth
but like an artist who puts his painting (after he’s painted it) in front of thousands of unknown eyes, I also put my song there that way (after I’ve made it) it is as easy an as simple as that
I can not speak. I can not talk
I can only write an I can only sing
perhaps I should’ve sung a song
but that wouldn’t a been right either
for I was given an award not to sing
but rather on what I have sung
no what I should’ve said was
“thank you very much ladies an gentlemen”
yes that is what I should’ve said
but unfortunatly... I didn’t
an I didn’t because I did not know
I thought something else was expected of me other than just sayin “thank you”
an I did not know what it was
it is a fierce heavy feeling
thinkin something is expected of you
but you dont know what exactly it is...
it brings forth a wierd form of guilt
I should’ve remembered
“I am BOB DYLAN an I dont have t speak
I dont have t say nothin if I dont wanna”
I didn’t remember
I constantly asked myself while eatin supper “what should I say? what should I tell ‘m?
everybody else is gonna tell ‘m something”
but I could not answer myself
I even asked someone who was sittin nex t me an he couldn’t tell me neither. my mind blew up an needless t say I had t get it back in its rightful shape (whatever that might be) an so I escaped from the big room... only t hear my name being shouted an the words “git in here git in here” overlappin with the findin of my hand being pulled across hundreds of tables with the lights turned on strong... guidin me back t where I tried t escape from “what should I say? what should I say?”
over an over again
oh God, I’d a given anything not t be there “shut the lights off at least”
people were coughin an my head was poundin an the sounds of mumble jumble sank deep in my skull from all sides of the room until I tore everything loose from my mind an said “just be honest, dylan, just be honest”
an so I found myself in front of the plank like I found myself once in the path of a car an I jumped...
jumped with all my bloody might
just tryin t get out a the way
but first screamin one last song
when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times I was not speakin of his deed if it was his deed.
the deed speaks for itself
but I am sick
at hearin “we all share the blame” for every church bombing, gun battle, mine disaster, poverty explosion, an president killing that comes about.
it is so easy t say “we” an bow our heads together I must say “I” alone an bow my head alone for it is I alone who is livin my life I have beloved companions but they do not eat nor sleep for me an even they must say “I”
yes if there’s violence in the times then there must be violence in me I am not a perfect mute.
I hear the thunder an I cant avoid hearin it once this is straight between us, it’s then an only then that we can say “we” an really mean it... an go on from there t do something about it
When I spoke of Negroes
I was speakin of my Negro friends
selma an birmingham
atlanta pittsburg, an all points east
west, north, south an wherever else they might happen t be.
in rat filled rooms
an dirt land farms
schools, dimestores, factories
pool halls an street corners
the ones that dont own ties
but know proudly they dont have to
not one little bit
they dont have t be like they naturally aint t get what they naturally own no more ‘n anybody else does it only gets things complicated an leads people into thinkin the wrong things black skin is black skin It cant be covered by clothes an made t seem acceptable, well liked an respectable...
t teach that or t think that just tends the flames of another monster myth...
it is naked black skin an nothin else
if a Negro has t wear a tie t be a Negro then I must cut off all ties with who he has t do it for.
I do not know why I wanted t say this that nite.
perhaps it was just one of the many things in my mind born from the confusion of my times
when I spoke about the people that went t Cuba I was speakin of the free right t travel I am not afraid t see things I challenge seein things I am insulted t the depths of my soul when someone I dont know commands that I cant see this an gives me mysterious reasons why I’ll get hurt if I do see it... tellin me at the same time about goodness an badness in people that again I dont know...
I’ve been told about people all my life
about niggers, kikes, wops, bohunks, spicks, chinks, an I been told how they eat, dress, walk, talk, steal, rob, an kill but nobody tells me how any of ‘m feels... nobody tells me how any of ‘m cries or laughs or kisses. I’m fed up with most newspapers, radios, tv an movies an the like t tell me. I want now t see an know for myself...
an I accepted that award for all others like me who want t see for themselves... an who dont want that God-given right taken away stolen away or snuck out from beneath them yes a travel ban in the south would protect Americans more, I’m sure, than the one t Cuba but in all honesty I would want t crash that one too do you understand?
do you really understand?
I mean I want t see. I want t see all I can everyplace there is t see it my life carries eyes an they’re there for one reason the reason t see thru them
my country is the Minnesota-North Dakota territory that’s where I was born an learned how t walk an it’s where I was raised an went t school... my youth was spent wildly among the snowy hills an sky blue lakes, willow fields an abandoned open pit mines. contrary t rumors, I am very proud of where I’m from an also of the many blood streams that run in my roots. but I would not be doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t come t New York. I was given my direction from new york. I was fed in new york. I was beaten down by new york an I was picked up by new york. I was made t keep going on by new york. I’m speakin now of the people I’ve met who were strugglin for their lives an other peoples’
lives in the thirties an forties an the fifties an I look t their times I reach out t their times an, in a sense, am jealous of their times t think I have no use for “old” people is a betrayin thought those that know me know otherwise those that dont, probably’re baffled like a friend of mine, jack elliott, who says he was reborn in Oklahoma, I say I was reborn in New York...
there is no age limit stuck on it
an no one is more conscious of it than I
yes it is a fierce feeling, knowin something you dont know about’s expected of you. but it’s worse if you blindly try t follow with explodin words (for that’s all they can do is explode) an the explodin words’re misunderstood I’ve heard I was misunderstood
I do not apologize for myself nor my fears I do not apologize for any statement which led some t believe “oh my God! I think he’s the one that really shot the president”
I am a writer an a singer of the words I write I am no speaker nor any politician an my songs speak for me because I write them in the confinement of my own mind an have t cope with no one except my own self. I dont have t face anyone with them until long after they’re done
no I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me
but I can return what is rightfully yours at any given time. I have stared at it for a long while now. it is a beautiful award. there is a kindness t Mr Paine’s face an there is almost a sadness in his smile. his trials show thru his eyes. I know really not much about him but somehow I would like t sing for him. there is a gentleness t his way.
yes thru all my flounderin wildness, I am, when it comes down to it, very proud that you have given this t me. I would hang it high, an let my friends see in it what I see, but I also would give it back if you wish. There is no sense in keepin it if you’ve made a mistake in givin it. for it means more’n any store bought thing an it’d only be cheatin t keep it
also I did not know that the dinner was a donation dinner. I did not know you were gonna ask anyone for money. an I understand you lost money on the masterful way I expressed myself... then I am in debt t you not a money debt but rather a moral debt if you’d a sold me something, then it’d be a money debt but you sold nothin, so it is a moral debt an moral debts’re worse ‘n money debts for they have t be paid back in whatever is missin an in this case, it’s money
please send me my bill
an I shall pay it
no matter what the sum
I have a hatred of debts an want t be even in the best way I can you needn’t think about this, for money means very little t me
I’ll return once again t the road
I cant tell you why other people write, but I write in order to keep from going insane.
my head, I expect’d turn inside out if my hands were t leave me.
but I hardly ever talk about why I write. an I scarcely ever think about it. the thought of it is too alarmin
an I never ever talk about why I speak
but that’s because I never do it. this is the first time I am talkin about it... an I pray the last the thought of doing it again is too scary
ha! it’s a scary world
but only once in a while huh?
I love you all up there an the ones I dont love, it’s only because I do not know them an have not seen them... God it’s so hard hatin. it’s so tiresome... an after hatin something to death, it’s never worth the bother an trouble
out! out! brief candle
life’s but an open window
an I must jump back thru it now
respectfully an unrespectfully
(sgd) bob dylan
Click here to see more on our Bob Dylan special feature, and for details on how to enter our exciting Dylan competition.
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