The National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (NECLC), founded in 1951 and known for many years simply as the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC), annually held a Bill of Rights Dinner which gathered together members and friends of the organization and provided a setting for the presentation of the group's Tom Paine Award, given once yearly since 1958 in recognition of distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty. The recipient of the 1963 award was singer/songwriter Bob Dylan who accepted the award on December 13 at the Dinner in New York, which also featured noted author James Baldwin.
(Bill of Rights Dinner program cover)
What follows here is a most remarkable set of three documents: first, Bob Dylan's extemporaneous speech, probably typed out later from an audio tape, then an eloquent letter in defense of Dylan and of youth itself from Corliss Lamont, who was then Chairman of the ECLC, and finally, a most beautiful and poetic explanation by Dylan himself analyzing and expressing his tumult of feelings on the occasion.
TRANSCRIPT OF BOB DYLAN'S REMARKS
AT THE BILL OF RIGHTS DINNER
at the Americana Hotel on 12/13/63
I haven't got any guitar, I can talk though. I want to thank you for the Tom Paine award in behalf everybody that went down to Cuba. First of all because they're all young and it's took me a long time to get young and now I consider myself young. And I'm proud of it. I'm proud that I'm young. And I only wish that all you people who are sitting out here today or tonight weren't here and I could see all kinds of faces with hair on their head - and everything like that, everything leading to youngness, celebrating the anniversary when we overthrew the House Un-American Activities just yesterday, - Because you people should be at the beach. You should be out there and you should be swimming and you should be just relaxing in the time you have to relax. (Laughter) It is not an old peoples' world. It is not an old peoples' world. It has nothing to do with old people. Old people when their hair grows out, they should go out. (Laughter) And I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules - and they haven't got any hair on their head - I get very uptight about it. (Laughter)
And they talk about Negroes, and they talk about black and white. And they talk about colors of red and blue and yellow. Man, I just don't see any colors at all when I look out. I don't see any colors at all and if people have taught through the years to look at colors - I've read history books, I've never seen one history book that tells how anybody feels. I've found facts about our history, I've found out what people know about what goes on but I never found anything about anybody feels about anything happens. It's all just plain facts. And it don't help me one little bit to look back.
I wish sometimes I could have come in here in the 1930's like my first idol - used to have an idol, Woody Guthrie, who came in the 1930's (Applause). But it has sure changed in the time Woody's been here and the time I've been here. It's not that easy any more. People seem to have more fears.
I get different presents from people that I play for and they bring presents to me backstage - very weird, weird presents - presents that I couldn't buy. They buy - they bring me presents that - I've got George Lincoln Rockwell's tie clip that somebody robbed for me. (Laughter) I have General Walker's car trunk keys - keys to his trunk that somebody robbed for me. Now these are my presents. I have fallout shelter signs that people robbed for me from Philadelphia and these are the little signs. There's no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there's only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I'm trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics. They has got nothing to do with it. I'm thinking about the general people and when they get hurt.
I want to accept this award, the Tom Paine Award, from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. I want to accept it in my name but I'm not really accepting it in my name and I'm not accepting it in any kind of group's name, any Negro group or any other kind of group. There are Negroes - I was on the march on Washington up on the platform and I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn't see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don't wear suits. My friends don't have to wear suits. My friends don't have to wear any kind of thing to prove that they're respectable Negroes. My friends are my friends, and they're kind, gentle people if they're my friends. And I'm not going to try to push nothing over. So, I accept this reward - not reward, (Laughter) award in 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) 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 in behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba. (Boos and Applause)
(receiving the award from Clark Foreman)
LETTER FROM CORLISS LAMONT
TO ATTENDEES OF THE DINNER
The review referred to by Mr. Lamont in this letter was written by Robert Shelton and appeared in The New York Times of October 28, 1963. It was a review of a solo concert given by Bob Dylan at Carnegie Hall.
( D-R-A-F-T )
December 19, 1963
Many of our friends disapproved our choice of Bob Dylan for the Tom Paine award. Without defending his acceptance speech, I would like to tell you why we feel he deserved the award. Bob Dylan has sent us a message which more clearly conveys his feelings. It is enclosed and I urge you to read it carefully.
E.C.L.C. defends the right of all Americans to advocate their beliefs. This is not confined to ideology or political groups. It should certainly be extended to our own youth, who according to many experts are becoming increasingly alienated and lost in our present society.
Whether we approve or not, Bob Dylan has become the idol of the progressive youngsters of today, regardless of their political factions. He is speaking to them in terms of protest that they understand and applaud. (see the enclosed review from The New York Times).
E.C.L.C. feels that it is urgent to recognize the protest of youth today and to help make it understood by the older generation. Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, the culture antecedents of Bob Dylan, were not appreciated by their society until they were very old. We think that it would be better to make the effort now to comprehend what Bob Dylan is saying to and for the youth. It is true that he is not as respectable as Lord Russell, the winner of last year's award, but neither was Tom Paine, and our history is too full of disregard for important messages which were unrespectable at the time.
The annual celebration of Bill of Rights Day is not just a fund-raising affair - although we hope that our friends will help us carry on our work - it is also an opportunity for us to present to our supporters the problems of our democracy which in their daily lives they are apt to over-look.
This year over 1400 people were at the largest civil liberties dinner on record. We appreciate the understanding and support we received from many of those present and we hope that others will gain from the reading of the enclosed message by Bob Dylan an understanding which his speech did not convey.
MESSAGE FROM BOB DYLAN
TO THE E.C.L.C.
The persons Mr. Dylan addresses by first name here are Clark Foreman (ECLC Director) and Mairi Foreman (his wife), Phillip Luce, Edith Tiger (ECLC Assistant Director), and Corliss Lamont (ECLC Chairman).
from Bob Dylan
(Sent to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee
after he received the Tom Paine Award at the
Bill of Rights dinner on December 13, 1963.)
to anybody it may concern...
countless faces I do not know
an all fighters for good things that I can not see
when I speak of bald heads, I mean bald minds
when I speak of the seashore, I mean the restin shore
I dont know why I mentioned either of them
my life runs in a series of moods
in private an in personal ways, sometimes,
I, myself, can change the mood I'm in t the
mood I'd like t be in. when I walked thru the
doors of the americana hotel, I needed to change
my mood... for reasons inside myself.
I am a restless soul
it is hard to hear someone you dont know, say
"this is what he meant t say" about something
you just said
for no one can say what I meant t say
absolutely no one
at times I even cant
that was one of those times
my life is lived out daily in the places I feel
most confortable in. these places are places where
I am unknown an unstared at. I perform rarely, an
when I do, there is a constant commotion burnin
at my body an at my mind because of the attention
aimed at me. instincts fight my emotions an fears
fight my instincts...
I do not claim t be smart by the standards set up
I dont even claim to be normal by the standards
an I do not claim to know any kind of truth
but like an artist who puts his painting (after
he's painted it) in front of thousands of unknown
eyes, I also put my song there that way
(after I've made it)
it is as easy an as simple as that
I can not speak. I can not talk
I can only write an I can only sing
perhaps I should've sung a song
but that wouldn't a been right either
for I was given an award not to sing
but rather on what I have sung
no what I should've said was
"thank you very much ladies an gentlemen"
yes that is what I should've said
but unfortunatly... I didn't
an I didn't because I did not know
I thought something else was expected of me
other than just sayin "thank you"
an I did not know what it was
it is a fierce heavy feeling
thinkin something is expected of you
but you dont know what exactly it is...
it brings forth a wierd form of guilt
I should've remembered
"I am BOB DYLAN an I dont have t speak
I dont have t say nothin if I dont wanna"
I didn't remember
I constantly asked myself while eatin supper
"what should I say? what should I tell 'm?
everybody else is gonna tell 'm something"
but I could not answer myself
I even asked someone who was sittin nex t me
an he couldn't tell me neither. my mind blew
up an needless t say I had t get it back in its
rightful shape (whatever that might be) an so
I escaped from the big room... only t hear my
name being shouted an the words "git in here
git in here" overlappin with the findin of my
hand being pulled across hundreds of tables
with the lights turned on strong... guidin me
back t where I tried t escape from
"what should I say? what should I say?"
over an over again
oh God, I'd a given anything not t be there
"shut the lights off at least"
people were coughin an my head was poundin
an the sounds of mumble jumble sank deep in
my skull from all sides of the room
until I tore everything loose from my mind
an said "just be honest, dylan, just be honest"
an so I found myself in front of the plank
like I found myself once in the path of a car
an I jumped...
jumped with all my bloody might
just tryin t get out a the way
but first screamin one last song
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
but I am sick
at hearin "we all share the blame" for every
church bombing, gun battle, mine disaster,
poverty explosion, an president killing that
it is so easy t say "we" an bow our heads together
I must say "I" alone an bow my head alone
for it is I alone who is livin my life
I have beloved companions but they do not
eat nor sleep for me
an even they must say "I"
yes if there's violence in the times then
there must be violence in me
I am not a perfect mute.
I hear the thunder an I cant avoid hearin it
once this is straight between us, it's then an
only then that we can say "we" an really mean
it... an go on from there t do something about
When I spoke of Negroes
I was speakin of my Negro friends
selma an birmingham
atlanta pittsburg, an all points east
west, north, south an wherever else they
might happen t be.
in rat filled rooms
an dirt land farms
schools, dimestores, factories
pool halls an street corners
the ones that dont own ties
but know proudly they dont have to
not one little bit
they dont have t be like they naturally aint
t get what they naturally own no more 'n anybody
it only gets things complicated
an leads people into thinkin the wrong things
black skin is black skin
It cant be covered by clothes an made t seem
acceptable, well liked an respectable...
t teach that or t think that just tends the
flames of another monster myth...
it is naked black skin an nothin else
if a Negro has t wear a tie t be a Negro
then I must cut off all ties with who he has
t do it for.
I do not know why I wanted t say this that
perhaps it was just one of the many things
in my mind
born from the confusion of my times
when I spoke about the people that went t Cuba
I was speakin of the free right t travel
I am not afraid t see things
I challenge seein things
I am insulted t the depths of my soul
when someone I dont know commands that I
cant see this an gives me mysterious reasons
why I'll get hurt if I do see it... tellin me
at the same time about goodness an badness in
people that again I dont know...
I've been told about people all my life
about niggers, kikes, wops, bohunks, spicks, chinks,
an I been told how they eat, dress, walk, talk,
steal, rob, an kill but nobody tells me how any
of 'm feels... nobody tells me how any of 'm cries
or laughs or kisses. I'm fed up with most newspapers,
radios, tv an movies an the like t tell me. I want
now t see an know for myself...
an I accepted that award for all others like me
who want t see for themselves... an who dont want
that God-given right taken away
or snuck out from beneath them
yes a travel ban in the south would protect
Americans more, I'm sure, than the one t Cuba
but in all honesty I would want t crash that
do you understand?
do you really understand?
I mean I want t see. I want t see all I can
everyplace there is t see it
my life carries eyes
an they're there for one reason
the reason t see thru them
my country is the Minnesota-North Dakota territory
that's where I was born an learned how t walk an
it's where I was raised an went t school... my
youth was spent wildly among the snowy hills an
sky blue lakes, willow fields an abandoned open
pit mines. contrary t rumors, I am very proud of
where I'm from an also of the many blood streams that
run in my roots. but I would not be doing what
I'm doing today if I hadn't come t New York. I was
given my direction from new york. I was fed in
new york. I was beaten down by new york an I was
picked up by new york. I was made t keep going on
by new york. I'm speakin now of the people I've met
who were strugglin for their lives an other peoples'
lives in the thirties an forties an the fifties
an I look t their times
I reach out t their times
an, in a sense, am jealous of their times
t think I have no use for "old" people is a betrayin thought
those that know me know otherwise
those that dont, probably're baffled
like a friend of mine, jack elliott, who says he
was reborn in Oklahoma, I say I was reborn in
there is no age limit stuck on it
an no one is more conscious of it than I
yes it is a fierce feeling, knowin something you
dont know about's expected of you. but it's worse
if you blindly try t follow with explodin words
(for that's all they can do is explode)
an the explodin words're misunderstood
I've heard I was misunderstood
I do not apologize for myself nor my fears
I do not apologize for any statement which led
some t believe "oh my God! I think he's the one
that really shot the president"
I am a writer an a singer of the words I write
I am no speaker nor any politician
an my songs speak for me because I write them
in the confinement of my own mind an have t cope
with no one except my own self. I dont have t face
anyone with them until long after they're done
no I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me
but I can return what is rightfully yours at any
given time. I have stared at it for a long while
now. it is a beautiful award. there is a kindness
t Mr Paine's face an there is almost a sadness in
his smile. his trials show thru his eyes. I know
really not much about him but somehow I would like
t sing for him. there is a gentleness t his way.
yes thru all my flounderin wildness, I am, when it
comes down to it, very proud that you have given this
t me. I would hang it high, an let my friends see in
it what I see, but I also would give it back if
you wish. There is no sense in keepin it if you've
made a mistake in givin it. for it means more'n any
store bought thing an it'd only be cheatin t keep it
also I did not know that the dinner was a donation
dinner. I did not know you were gonna ask anyone
for money. an I understand you lost money on the
masterful way I expressed myself... then I am in debt t you
not a money debt but rather a moral debt
if you'd a sold me something, then it'd be a money debt
but you sold nothin, so it is a moral debt
an moral debts're worse 'n money debts
for they have t be paid back in whatever is missin
an in this case, it's money
please send me my bill
an I shall pay it
no matter what the sum
I have a hatred of debts an want t be even in
the best way I can
you needn't think about this, for money means
very little t me
I'll return once again t the road
I cant tell you why other people write, but I
write in order to keep from going insane.
my head, I expect'd turn inside out if my hands
were t leave me.
but I hardly ever talk about why I write. an I
scarcely ever think about it. the thought of it is
an I never ever talk about why I speak
but that's because I never do it. this is the
first time I am talkin about it... an I pray
the thought of doing it again is too scary
ha! it's a scary world
but only once in a while huh?
I love you all up there an the ones I dont love,
it's only because I do not know them an have not
seen them... God it's so hard hatin. it's so
tiresome... an after hatin something to death,
it's never worth the bother an trouble
out! out! brief candle
life's but an open window
an I must jump back thru it now
respectfully an unrespectfully
(sgd) bob dylan
When Bob Dylan accepted the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee he might have suspected, had he checked out a little history, that he was among friends. So, what did he say to those purists who focus on the Bill of Rights, those who championed his right to free speech, those who had assembled in his honor?
With the typical sweet brashness of youth he dismissed his elders, totally innocent of the truth that they had long been dealing with the dilemmas of democracy, especially with free speech issues, decades before he was born. When the young waken to look at old problems with new eyes how can they know for certain just who among us has been working on solutions? Elders are braced for this. But the next thing was too much...
Bob Dylan's reference to Oswald was shocking in any context, especially hurtful to this audience still grieving for their assassinated leader. Perhaps in identifying with the three students who had been arrested for challenging the US ban on travel to Cuba, he had the mistaken perception that patriotic "freedom fighters" had been betrayed by Kennedy's failure to provide adequate air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion. He seemed to be suggesting that sometimes one must go to extreme lengths to fight the enemy, whatever the enemy is perceived to be. Was this a blanket indictment of the establishment? Life magazine labeled Dylan as "The Angry Young Folk Singer" in its April 10th report, and described his photo as having been taken at "a civil rights dinner."
Another matter of ethics might be explored here: that of exploitation. When an organization honors a celebrity, its intent to publicize its own cause thereby is obvious, even blatant. And when Dylan brought his fame to the microphone the double burden of translating civil liberties into a message for youth fell heavy on him; little wonder his perplexity at what was expected of him. The sea of bald heads he observed was testimony to the need for youth to first understand the importance of the Bill of Rights, and then to pick up and carry the cause. What a swirl of mixed emotions and distress on both sides of the podium on this occasion!
We wonder if Dylan has yet suffered the ironic indignity life bestows on the mature.
The event described on this Web page was covered in director Martin Scorsese's epic 207-minute 2005 PBS documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan. Half-Moon Foundation, sponsor of this Web site, provided materials from the estate archives of Dr. Corliss Lamont that were used, with permission, in the production. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan was published on DVD-Video by Paramount Pictures on September 20, 2005. The 2-disc set (ISBN 1-4157-1389-8) is available from numerous sources including Amazon.com. The recounting of the incident involving Dylan's acceptance of the Tom Paine Award starts at about 8 minutes into disc 2.
John Henry Faulk, Dr. Corliss Lamont, and Bob Dylan John Henry Faulk and Bob Dylan
Be sure to visit
The Bill of Rights and the NECLC
for additional information on the
National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.
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