Bob Dylan and President John F. Kennedy

An excerpt from Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined by Harold Lepidus

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John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th President of the United States, in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 1961, during a snowstorm. Bob Dylan arrived in a snowbound New York four days later.

Kennedy appeared in Dylan’s early songs both by name and by association. The president’s name was used for humorous effect, in a fictionalized account, in 1963’s I Shall Be Free. In the song, the  President phoned him for hints to help “the country grow.” Dylan’s advice? “Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren …” [357]

Since many of Dylan’s compositions during this period were of the topical variety, Kennedy’s name can be attached to songs addressing the battle for civil rights, especially Oxford Town and Only A Pawn In Their Game. Dylan also appeared at the “March On Washington” at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. The march was originally opposed by Kennedy, but he eventually lent his support.

Dylan wrote his anthem, The Times, They Are A-Changin’, in the fall of 1963, and recorded it on October 23 and 24 as the title song of his next album, which was released the following January. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Dylan and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, spent the weekend watching television coverage of the aftermath. Dylan appeared in concert at an upstate New York theater on the 23rd. He told biographer Anthony Scaduto [358] that he felt compelled to sing it, even if it evoked a hostile response. Although the audience applauded, Dylan told Scaduto nothing made any sense in the aftermath. [359]

On December 13, less than one month after the assassination, with the country still in mourning, Dylan was presented with the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Tom Paine Award. His remarks, which referenced Kennedy’s accused assassin, were controversial, and not well received:

“… I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where —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 it would have gone – I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me – not to go that far and shoot. (Boos and hisses) You can boo but booing’s got nothing to do with it. It’s a – I just a – I’ve got to tell you, man, it’s Bill of Rights is free speech and I just want to admit that I accept this Tom Paine Award on behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba. (Boos and Applause)[360]

It’s been widely interpreted that Dylan’s speech was his attempt to avoid being anybody’s puppet, and he began to move away from overt political statements in his songs. Tom Paine was later referenced in the 1967 song, As I Went Out One Morning.

Another song Dylan had been singing, He Was A Friend Of Mine, was rewritten and recorded by The Byrds as a tribute to Kennedy. Chimes of Freedom had been interpreted as a song inspired by Kennedy, but Dylan has denied this.

According to Scaduto’s book, [361] Dylan went on a road trip in 1964, and stopped at the site of the assassination. Dylan wanted to check out Dealey Plaza, but the people they asked would not admit to knowing where Kennedy had been shot. “The seventh man they asked, answered, ‘You mean where they shot that bastard Kennedy?’ Dylan didn’t answer, and the Texan gave them directions. For about a half hour they wandered around the murder scene, Dylan grim and silent, and then back in the car and on their way, and all of them shouting out the windows, condemning all Texans as assassins.”

After the first few “electric” concerts of 1965, keyboardist Al Kooper wanted out, fearing a visit to Dallas on an upcoming tour. As he recalled in his book, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, “I mean, look what they just done to J.F.K. down there … So what was going to happen to Bob Dylan? … I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.” [362]

Bob Dylan married his first wife, Sara, on November 22, 1965.

In 1966, Dylan told biographer Robert Shelton, that the world goes on, no matter what happens, citing Kennedy’s assassination.

The spirit of Kennedy hovered over Dylan throughout the 1980s. He played Dick Holler’s song Abraham, Martin, and John 23 times in concert in 1980 and 1981.

In 1983, Dylan recorded Blind Willie McTell for his Infidels album, but it remained unreleased until 1991’s The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3. It included a reference to East Texas, and fallen martyrs.

In 1985, Bob Dylan headlined Live Aid, which took place at Philadelphia’s John F. Kennedy Stadium. The following year, Dylan appeared with Stevie Wonder and Peter, Paul & Mary at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center Opera House to celebrate the first Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Dylan returned to Kennedy Stadium in 1987, backed by The Grateful Dead.

On the first leg of his tour with Paul Simon in 1999, both artists shared the stage at the end of the first set of whoever opened the show. One song they performed together was the Dylan-inspired The Sound(s) of Silence, whose lyrics were written by Simon in the aftermath of that fateful day in Dallas.

In 2008, Dylan referenced President and Mrs. Kennedy multiple times during a special two-hour President’s Day episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour program. Dylan played a clip of Jackie Kennedy’s televised tour of the White House, contrasted the radio and television interpretations of the Richard Nixon-John Kennedy debates, and played Frank Sinatra’s rewritten, pro-Kennedy version of High Hopes, before describing the fallout between the two.

In December, 1997, Dylan, along with actor Charlton Heston, actress Lauren Bacall, opera singer Jessye Norman, and dancer Edward Villella (who danced for President and Mrs. Kennedy), was honored at the Kennedy Center. At the ceremony, President Clinton said:

“His voice and lyrics haven’t always been easy on the ear, but throughout his career Bob Dylan has never aimed to please. He’s disturbed the peace and discomfited the powerful. President Kennedy could easily have been talking about Bob Dylan when he said that, “If sometimes our great artists have been most critical of our society, it is because their concern for justice makes them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.”” [363]

Addendum 2016: When it was announced Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, President Bill Clinton tweeted: Congrats @bobdylan on a well-deserved Nobel for wise, powerful lyrics that touched minds & hearts. And TY for this amazing orig. sculpture!


An excerpt from Friends and Other Strangers: Bob Dylan Examined by Harold Lepidus

Friends and Other Strangers Bob Dylan Examined Book eBook

Bob Dylan Book_Amazon Rating