August 28, 2013. It’s been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It was the climatic moment of The March on Washington: King’s words put an exclamation point on the message of the March. The words were affirmative and embracing. That no one be left out in our country was the core of King’s message.
Those in the March on Washington, led by Dr. King, were imploring the White House, the Congress and society at large to recognize the humanity and dignity of the nation’s black citizens. Achieving that was a huge part of the dream. In many ways, the dream Dr. King articulated has been fulfilled. In many ways, not so. Yet on February 9, 2010, at the White House, it was Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, who hosted Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others as they performed songs associated with the civil rights movement. That evening, too, had its great moments.
Bob Dylan’s performance at the White House on the evening of February 9 was moving and thoughtful.
Accompanied by bassist Tony Garnier and pianist Patrick Warren, Dylan, on guitar, sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a superb choice for a presentation the White House called “A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.”
The song was delivered as a solemn waltz, allowing its beauty and its message to ring clearly. In Muddy Water, an online magazine, Peter Stone Brown said, “Dylan sang the song like he remembered why he wrote it, though with full awareness of the intervening nearly 50 years, what happened and what didn’t happen.”
Recorded in October ’63 as the title track for his third album, the message in “The Times They Are A-Changin'” will retain its relevance in the next 50 years and long after. Dylan’s proclamation to writers, critics, parents, politicians, and pretty much all of us reveal what already changed, what still needed to change and the changes on the new road that would lead to a better destination.
In the White House appearance, Dylan is hosted by Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States. That represents colossal change. But the election of one good and worthy man does not make all things new again. Perhaps each day President Obama thinks of the urgent words Dylan wrote in 1963.
Come senators, congressmen,
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
President John F. Kennedy had less than a month to live when Dylan recorded “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Had he lived to hear the song, JFK would have found agreement in Dylan’s plea to lawmakers. Kennedy was having difficulty in getting civil rights legislation through Congress. Powerful congressmen with seniority and corrupted views toward justice were able to block new laws granting equality.
One such legislator was the senior senator from Georgia, Richard B. Russell, Jr. Considered one of the most brilliant men to ever serve in the U.S. Senate, Russell’s stand on civil rights proved detrimental to the nation and his career. Yet he stubbornly opposed legislation that would alter the so-called white southern traditions. Having a man so visionary in other ways* but so out of time on the issue of race flustered JFK. He spoke to The Atlanta Constitution’s famed and respected publisher, Ralph McGill, about Russell, a man McGill knew very well.
In Leonard Ray Teel’s fine biography, Ralph Emerson McGill, Voice Of The Southern Conscience, JFK, chatting in the Oval Office with McGill, voices his frustrations.
“I admire Dick Russell very much,” Kennedy said, “and I wonder if you could explain to me a man like him….The whole world is changing and the whole nation is changing. And yet this gifted man remains adamant and defiant in the matters of any measure which tend to enter the field of race-civil rights.”
McGill understood JFK’s challenge with what seemed so illogical and un-American. The columns he had written for The Atlanta Constitution won the praise of many seeking change in the way of race relations but vile hatred from others. The opposition he faced and his region’s failure to accept black people as equal under the law brought him much sadness.
McGill did find comfort, however, in a friendship he developed with poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. An article McGill had written for The Atlanta Constitution’s magazine in ’51 about Sandburg and his move from the midwest to the estate, Connemara, in Flat Rock, North Carolina, led to further correspondence and more visits between the two.
In his book, Teel wrote of an invitation Sandburg sent McGill, after the article appeared, telling him to “come along here anytime and I will knock off from what I am doing to see you and talk with you. I think you represent civilization.” Teel went on to write that “McGill felt a healing power in the ancient poet,” then 73 years old.
Contacted recently, Teel says, “It was poetry that brought them together because McGill loved poetry, too. Sandburg’s manner of speaking imparted solace and peace of mind. McGill badly needed that during the civil rights era when he was constantly hearing criticism and even blasphemy about his columns that proposed even mild moves away from segregation.”
It’s February 3, 1964. In six days, the Beatles would make their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with a performance that made it clear: times were really changing. Soon Bob Dylan would also be among the millions influenced by the Beatles. But in that first week of February ’64, he and three friends were on an extended road trip. An important stop on the ride that began in New York and ended in California was Flat Rock, North Carolina. Dylan was intent on meeting his idol, Carl Sandburg.
After getting directions from a local service station attendant (he did not know about a poet named Sandburg but there was a goat farmer named Sandburg on a 240 acre farm), Dylan’s party made it to Connemara, and walked to the front porch where they met Mrs. Lillian Sandburg. There are several accounts of this fascinating unexpected call, one is the late Robert Shelton’s in No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan.
She didn’t seem startled by the hairy foursome….Dylan announced: ‘I’m a poet. My name is Robert Dylan and I would like to see Mr. Sandburg.’ She disappeared into the house while they looked over the serene, sloping pasture, where goats grazed, into a heavy wood backed by Sugarloaf Mountain….”
Sandburg was taking his time in getting out to the porch. When he did, one of the four, Pete Clayton, recalled for Shelton that “Sandburg looked at the rest of us, but he just wasn’t as interested as he was in Dylan. There was an immediate, unspoken communication between them.”
Sandburg told Dylan, “You look like you are ready for anything. I would like to ask you about forty good questions. Your group looks able to prepare for any emergency.” He also told Dylan, “You certainly are an intense young man.”
The visit lasted 20-30 minutes. Dylan gave Sandburg a copy of the newly released The Times They Are A-Changin’ album and Clayton offered a copy of his own album as well. Sandburg said he would listen to the albums, but even though Sandburg seemed to “prick up his ears” each time Dylan proclaimed himself a poet, the visit soon drew to a close. Sandburg had letters and manuscripts that needed attention.
Dylan was disappointed in the visit. He thought they could linger awhile, maybe go inside where Sandburg would open up and expound on the world as he saw it. Dylan was also disappointed that Sandburg had not heard of him, despite his three successful albums. But it’s understandable that even a world-wise poet of 86 in the Carolina mountains would be unaware of his work. Still Sandburg saw something in his guest who kept reiterating that he too was a poet. He rightly perceived Dylan’s intensity.
Two days later the four friends made their way into Atlanta, checking out the town and then heading for near-by Emory University where Dylan was scheduled for a concert. The people in the audience made an enthusiastic crowd, knowing the words to nearly all his songs.
Roughly six miles southwest of Emory University was the old Atlanta Constitution building, in the old part of the city’s downtown. Who knows what might have happened had Dylan thought to visit Carl Sandburg’s friend, Ralph McGill, the Constitution’s publisher and moral voice? Dylan and McGill might have talked poetry. Maybe they could have compared gold records to Pulitzer Prizes (McGill won a Pulitzer in ’59, for editorial writing). Or perhaps McGill could have brought up a column he had written for the Constitution in April of ’53.
McGill’s column, One Day It Will Be Monday, envisioned the day that the U.S. Supreme Court would “outlaw the South’s dual school system, wholly or in part.” He noted the issue of segregation in the schools was before the courts in four states and the District of Columbia. Thirteen other states would be affected by the rulings that awaited. He called on leaders in the southern states to work toward accommodation, avoiding violence and anger.
Eleven months later, on May 17, 1954, Monday came. The Supreme Court ruled, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregated schools were unconstitutional, striking a blow to the separate-but-equal ruse. McGill saw the times were changing and would change even more. The changes have been slow in coming to many and dizzyingly fast to others. Decades would be spent dealing with the changes. There was much to atone for and much ground to make up.
Carl Sandburg shared McGill’s concern for the downtrodden. He supported civil rights and had contributed to the NAACP. It’s likely Sandburg and McGill, on the porch at Connemara, often spoke of their desire that America live up to its principles. Both men could tell us now, even with the progress made, much was still to be done. But surely both would have been pleased watching Bob Dylan, in 2010, singing “The Times They Are A-Changin'” before a black American who also happens to be the president of the United States.
* To his credit, Russell was wary of US involvement in Vietnam.
This article — Part 4 of Rockin’ the White House — continues The Southern Song of The Day series.