Talking with the President and Talkin’ Trash . . . It’s been tough going for Barack Obama, tougher than he likely anticipated. The learning curve in Washington, D.C. is steep. There’s a lot to absorb and understand. Obama, however, displays clear understanding of Bob Dylan, something self-styled writer A. J. Weberman does not. But then, Obama is President of the United States while Weberman has made a name for himself by digging through the trash bins of Dylan and others, such as Norman Mailer and Richard Nixon. He terms his research methods “garbology.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Obama spoke of a presentation he hosted at the White House earlier this year. Entitled “A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement, the performers included Joan Baez, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan. Wenner asked how it went with Dylan. His answer proves Obama understands Bob Dylan very well.
Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly what you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsals; usually all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up for that. He came in and played “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it –then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.
The reflections by the president, quite the wordsmith himself, are astute. On the other hand, comments made by A.J. Weberman to The Daily Caller are beyond reason; they have no basis in fact. But somehow he concludes that racism guided Dylan’s behavior that evening. Weberman said “Dylan’s hatred for blacks seems to have overtaken his desire to, you know, receive this kind of prestigious welcome.” Now that’s following a line of thought. Someone with “hatred for blacks” agrees to perform at a celebration for civil rights in which many of the participants are black and is hosted by the nation’s first black president.
The Daily Caller referred to the Weberman interview as “interesting.” Harebrained is more like it. He decoded several of Dylan’s songs, including “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” to support his idea that Dylan has racist feelings. Weberman goes far beyond credulity as he reveals his interpretation of the line, “The pump don’t work, ’cause the vandals took the handles.” He says, “The pump, pumping money into the economy, giving blacks money, doesn’t work ’cause the vandals, the liberals, took the handles. The ax handles, like Lester Maddox used to give out pickaxe handles in his chicken place to beat blacks so the whites can beat up blacks over the head with them. Get it?” Would you like to run that by us again, A.J.?
Recorded in January ’65, several months after Lester Maddox defied the Civil Rights Act by refusing to serve black people in his Atlanta restaurant, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is an exhilarating and joyful romp. Dylan is fully plugged-in here. It’s one of the most infectious rock songs ever. In his book, Like A Complete Unknown, John Hinchey offers perspectives on the song, as well as the others on Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home album. Unlike Weberman, Hinchey’s thoughts are straightforward and rational.
A serio-comic bohemian’s survival guide, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is an exploding digest of alternately gnomic and plain-spoken tips on eluding the traps society sets for our freedom. As such, it is a fitting introduction to a set of songs that portray society as the enemy of the artist.
An Ax to Grind . . . People who lived through the rantings of Lester Maddox, a hard-nosed segregationist, would hardly identify him as a friend of the artist or any free-thinking sort. By his actions, he was among those setting traps for those pursuing freedom. He solidified his political career appealing to the fears and bigotry in mid ’60s Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. Such ugliness helped him win the governor’s office.
The going got most ugly on July 3, 1964, one day after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Title II of the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in hotels, motels, restaurants, cafeterias, theatres, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce. Three black students from Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Seminary decided to drive over to Lester Maddox’s Pickrick cafeteria to see how accommodating Maddox would be under the new law. The three students and another black man had come by earlier in the day, but the restaurant was closed for the afternoon break between lunch and dinner. The students said they’d be back at 5:30. Maddox was waiting for them, but not as the gracious host. In his 1968 book, The Riddle of Lester Maddox, Bruce Galphin, then an editorial associate with The Atlanta Constitution, provided a riveting account of the cafeteria showdown.
Proprietor Maddox, face flaring, strode toward the car bearing the three Negroes, Lester Jr, ax handle over his shoulder, followed closely behind. The Rev. George Willis Jr. of Youngstown, Ohio, driver of the car, opened his door. Maddox kicked it shut. The Rev. Albert Dunn of Hillsboro, Texas, emerged on the right, donned his jacket and walked toward the Pickrick.
By then Maddox had drawn his pistol and was shouting at them to leave. A vein in his forehead throbbed in agitation.
According to whose testimony is to be credited, Maddox shouted, “Get out of here and don’t ever come back,” or “Get off, get off or I’ll kill you.”
Then depending again on the witness, Maddox pointed the gun directly in Willis’ face, did not point it all but kept his finger outside the trigger guard; waved it around; held it at his side or held it straight up in the air.
Willis and Dunn, and the Rev. Woodrow Lewis of Sumter, South Carolina, who never got out of the car, retreated. Maddox grabbed an ax handle from a bystander and smacked the top of the car as it pulled away. Others poked ax handles at the Negroes through the car’s open windows……Willis said the trio intended to return, but expressed concern “about what they would do to my car.”
After reports of the incident were broadcast, Pickrick partisans rallied to the site, offering patronage, and if necessary, more physical support. Many, including women and children, bought ax handles from inside the entrance door.
Rather than comply with the law, Maddox chose to shut down the cafeteria. His defiance brought him a huge following. Klansmen and ardent segregationists in the state viewed him as a martyr to their cause. Thanks to their support and a fluke election, Lester Maddox was sworn in as Governor of Georgia on January 10, 1967, less than three years after his despicable gun-waving antics in his cafeteria’s parking lot.
The Line It Is Drawn . . . Lester Maddox, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 87, was less politician than he was showman or carney-barker. Even after becoming Governor, he continued to sell souvenir ax handles (he preferred calling them “pick handles”), watches, clocks and t-shirts emblazoned with his image. He had a souvenir shop at Underground Atlanta, a short walk from the state capitol. Less than a mile in the other direction was the Omni Coliseum. On the evening of January 21, 1974, while Maddox may have been selling trinkets at his shop, Bob Dylan and The Band gave the first of two concerts at the Omni. In the crowd was Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who succeeded Maddox. For those present, it was an awe-inspiring night: A Georgia governor at a Bob Dylan concert.
The times, they were a-changin’, but not fast enough. Maddox was still popular in Georgia. Since state law at the time kept Maddox from succeeding himself as Governor, he ran for the office of Lieutenant Governor. He won with 73.9% of the vote.
Maddox was a pitiable sort, his antics inspiring political cartoonist Cliff Baldowski (known to readers of The Atlanta Constitution as “Baldy.”) in ’68 to draw a flustered Maddox moaning, “The stupid newspapers print every stupid thing I say.” His followers were equally pathetic. They supported him as he inveighed against Martin Luther King, Jr. and others working to see America live up to its promise. They bought into his bluster as he stood by a coffin symbolizing “the death of free enterprise and private property rights” shortly after he closed his restaurant rather than serve blacks, or as he called them, “integrationists.” A sign above the coffin proclaimed “Freedom, Liberty and Independence” died on July 2, 1964, the day the Civil Rights Act was signed. Maddox put the blame on “Bloody and Ungodly Communists” as well as President Johnson and the United States Congress.
Many Georgians and people elsewhere fell for such nonsense, all the while claiming ax handles were not racist or hateful instruments. They would have known better if they had talked to Marjorie Meeks Brown, who at the age of 16, was among the black students attacked by 200 middle aged and older white men in Jacksonville, Florida on August 27, 1960. The students, conducting sit-ins at the segregated cafeterias and department store lunch counters, were beaten with baseball bats and ax handles. Fifty years later, Jacksonville observes the day as Ax Handle Saturday. It serves as a day of reflection on many of the sad days that fill our history books. Maddox supporters, and others like them, should consider those days with heavy hearts. They should ponder why hate took such a hold. Interestingly, many of the people in those times looked at the national press with contempt for exposing the malevolent actions in their region. Bitterness over the coverage remains to this day. Painful as it is, they should be grateful to those who revealed the ugly truths. Candor moves people in the right direction.
To get to the truth in our past, one can go to the history books. It also helps to seek out people with vivid memories of those days of turmoil and change. Candor and clarity will be the result, quite unlike what “researchers” such as A.J. Weberman determine, searching through the trash.