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How Bob Dylan Ran Afoul of the FBI

James Baldwin and Bob Dylan at a dinner of the Emergency Civil Rights Committee, where Dylan would give a notorious speech in acceptance of the organization's Thomas Paine Award.

The Kennedy Assassination

On November 22, a little more than two weeks after the Newsweek article [a derogatory profile on Dylan], John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. On December 13, Bob Dylan received an award from the Emergency Civil Rights Committee. Things did not go well.

Problems arose when Dylan, who had been drinking throughout the ceremony, gave a rambling acceptance speech that reads more as an out-loud, unfiltered internal monologue, rather than a thought-through statement of views, let alone the expected thank you at an awards ceremony. In part, he said:

So, I accept this reward — not reward [laughter], award on behalf of Phillip Luce who led the group to Cuba which all people should go down to Cuba. I don’t see why anybody can’t go to Cuba. I don’t see what’s going to hurt by going any place. I don’t know what’s going to hurt anybody’s eyes to see anything. On the other hand, Phillip is a friend of mine who went to Cuba. I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as 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]

Before ending his remarks, he scolded the crowd for booing, “Bill of Rights is free speech,” and saying he accepted the award “on behalf of James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba.” That too was met with boos as well as applause.

Dylan’s internal thought process aside, in most situations in 1963, his comments on Cuba alone would have been enough to get him into trouble, but given the proximity to the Kennedy assassination, his remarks about Oswald were unequivocally verboten. As a result, he would be forced to issue a public apology. Though his apology, consistent with Dylan speaking for himself alone, reads as a further elaboration on his own internal thinking:

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.

Apology or not, the speech had repercussions. Among other things, the incident found its way into the FBI’s files — by way of his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. As a report in her file noted:

ROBERT DYLAN, self-employed as a folksinger appeared on December 13, 1963, at the 10th Annual Bill of Rights Dinner held by the ECLC at the Americana Hotel, New York City. At this dinner, DYLAN received the Tom Paine Award given each year by the ECLC to the “foremost fighter for civil liberties.” In his acceptance speech DYLAN said that he agreed in part with LEE HARVEY OSWALD and thought that he understood OSWALD but would not have gone as far as OSWALD did.

A more elaborate account of the incident showed up in the nationally syndicated column of Fulton Lewis, Jr., which ridiculed the entire event, but made clear to get across Dylan’s remarks. For example, Lewis characterized James Baldwin, also honored at the event, as a “liberal egghead whose books dot the best seller list,” and, Robert Thompson, another attendee as “the top-ranking Communist official once convicted of violating the Smith Act.” He then delivered his shot at Dylan:

The ECRC Tom Paine Award went to folksinger Bob Dylan, who wore dirty chinos and a worn-out shirt. He accepted the award “on behalf of all those who went to Cuba because they’re young and I’m young and I’m proud of it.” He went on to say that he saw part of Lee Harvey Oswald “in myself.”

What is striking about the column is that it reads as though Lewis were at the dinner, though he never says as much, nor does he cite any source for what is a very detailed description of the event. So either he failed to mention his attendance — his byline has him in Washington, the dinner was in New York — or he received a rather detailed report from an unnamed source.

All this might be explained by the fact that Lewis had a friendly relationship with the FBI. An FBI memo from October 1963, which listed anti-communist writers “who have proved themselves to us,” including journalists Paul Harvey of ABC News, Victor Riesel of the Hall Syndicate, and Fulton Lewis Jr. of King Features Syndicate.

That particular mystery might be answered by information in the FBI file on Bob Dylan, which recent governmental releases show was created. Specifically, there is an FBI report on the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which includes a table of contents listing for a report on the dinner. Unfortunately, the actual report is not included in that document, though there is a notation on the informant — coded as T-3390-S — who supplied information on Dylan. Beyond that, there is a report from January 1964, which references a file on Dylan himself, though there he is called “Bobby Dyllon.” Bob Dylan, in other words, was a subject of a more particular kind of FBI attention.

While most writing on Dylan in this period focuses on his personal decisions and behavior, what is clear in looking at the concentrated events in his most political period is that he confronted a considerable amount of scrutiny and hostility. He was ridiculed in the media, kept from performing certain material on television, and had his spontaneous remarks used to justify the opening of an FBI file. Dylan, in other words, was up against more than he realized. In this, he was not alone.

Excerpted with permission from 

Whole World in an Uproar: Music Rebellion & Repression 1955-1972

Aaron J Leonard

Repeater Books, 2023