Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Only a Pawn in the Game? Dylan Sued Over Bogus Allegations of Racists Remarks

Dylan performing at a benefit in Greenwood, Miss. in 1963
When I heard on the radio earlier today that Bob Dylan was under investigation by French authorities over charges he allegedly incited racial hatred in violation of French law because of a quote from an interview he did in Rolling Stone last year, I did a double-take.

CRICCF, the group that is suing Dylan, is a small organization based in France that supports the rights and interests of Croatian people. They're citing a small quote taken totally out of context from an extensive (and fascinating) Rolling Stone interview with Dylan from September 27, 2012.

I read that interview when it came out last year and while I'm not a Dylan scholar or anything I've seen him in concert and do know a little about him; so let me just be on record as saying it sounds like this CRICCF group has absolutely no clue about the man they are suing. Let's come back to them and their dubious lawsuit in a moment.

Forget the fact that Dylan is an icon and arguably one of the most influential songwriter/musicians of the 20th century, this is a man who not only stood up for African-Americans during the height of the civil rights era in the early 1960's; his music helped to define the movement at a critical juncture. He generously gave of his creativity, energy, resources, time and fame to bring more attention to the cause too; and he didn't just stand around paying lip service to it either.      

Take a look at the photo above. That's Dylan at a small civil rights gathering in Greenwood, Mississippi on July 2, 1963 - 21 days after 37 year-old civil rights leader Medgar Evers (a World War II veteran who served in Europe) was shot in the back and killed in the carport of his home in Jackson, Mississippi just after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers near midnight on June 12, 1963 just a few feet from his wife and three children.

In the photo Dylan is singing, "Only a Pawn in the Game", a powerful protest song he wrote in response to Ever's murder; which shocked the nation and the world. With the recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it's also significant to note that Bob Dylan was there too and "Only a Pawn in the Game" was one of the songs he sang on the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech and Gospel singer extraordinaire Mahalia Jackson floored the 250,000-plus present with her version of "How I Got Over".

But that wasn't Dylan's first protest song written in support of civil rights either, and it wouldn't be his last.

Dylan's songs "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "Blowin' in the Wind" were already widely known and closely linked to the wider protest movement for the civil rights themes in the lyrics. In 1962 he wrote "Oxford Town" about the violence and riots that ensued in the town of Oxford, Mississippi on and around the campus of the University of Mississippi in 1962 after President John F. Kennedy ordered Federal Marshals to the town to ensure that the enrollment of James Meredith, the first black student to be admitted to the school, was enforced.

Later in 1963, Dylan also wrote "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll", a song based on the account of the murder of a 51 year-old black bartender named Hattie Carroll.

In February, 1963 Carroll, the mother of ten children, was struck in the head with a cane and killed by William "Billy" Zantzinger, a 24 year-old scion of a wealthy farming family from Charles County, Maryland during a white-tie function at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore after Carroll failed to bring him a drink of bourbon fast enough. After a three-day trial Zantzinger was famously found guilty and sentenced to 6-months in jail and a fine of $500.

Even though Dylan eventually grew uncomfortable with his creative expression and music becoming almost exclusively linked with the civil rights and protest movements of the 60's, in the 1970's he became interested in the case of former boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter; a NJ man who was convicted and jailed for murder despite questionable evidence, sketchy eyewitness testimony and a trial that was later ruled unfair.

In 1975 Dylan released "The Hurricane", one of his biggest hits of the 70's which helped to bring increased national attention to Carter's case and galvanize support for a new trial; Carter was eventually released in 1988 after his conviction was overturned.

So, just so we're clear, this is the man a small Croatian activist group (that's based in Paris not Croatia...) is accusing of being a racist? Look if this group (it's hard to find anything on the CRICCF even on Google) wants to bring global media attention to their cause; more power to them.

But for them to take one small quote from the extensive Rolling Stone interview between Dylan and Mikal Gilmore (read the article for yourself, Dylan's reflections on transmigration of the soul and the motorcycle accident that changed his life alone are worth the read...) is media low-ball.

In fact the quote they cite as evidence of Dylan "inciting racial hatred" was in fact Dylan talking about why racism is morally repugnant and wrong. The French ought to toss this case right in the crapper; in fact it's downright insulting for them to accuse him of something so heinous.

Sounds to me like some ambitious 20-something CRICCF "Social Media Manager" type who never reads magazines or books Googled the word 'Croatians', saw the quote come up in the search results and came up with the brainstorm idea to sue Bob Dylan and the French publisher of Rolling Stone for "inciting racial hatred."

As I said, I don't know this group personally, but whatever moron in said group concocted this lawsuit business clearly did NOT even bother reading the interview; and further, seems oblivious of Dylan's contributions as an artist and humanitarian.

The conflicts stretching from the 19th century that led to the Serb-Croatian conflict in the 90's are not my specialty and still remain confusing for a lot of Americans. For a pretty decent summary of the origins of the Serb-Croat conflict check out this Yahoo Answers entry.

Clearly there's a lot of places to hang the hat of blame for ethnic hatred against Croats, but it's frankly absurd to try and pin it on Bob Dylan.

Oh, and while the CRICCF are busy blaming Dylan for "inciting racial hatred" against the Croats, it seems to me a quick look at the violently nationalistic Croat Ustashe movement prior to WWII (Yup, that's Croats responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and others) offers a little insight.

The Ustashe movement is summarized by Wikipedia in part: "The movement emphasized the need for a racially "pure" Croatia and promoted persecution and genocide against Serbs, Jews and Romani people."

And these media-savvy CRICCF Croats (in Paris no less) are blaming Dylan for "inciting racial hatred" against Croats? Seems to me their own ancestors did a pretty decent job of that themselves.

Poor Bob, no wonder he went electric.

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