We live in a political world: Bob Dylan and the Communist Party

This autumn saw the death of Irwin Silber who, as a member of the American Young Communist League and editor of the US folk-music magazine Sing Out! in the 1960s, arguably began the campaign against Bob Dylan for allegedly ‘betraying’ the radical movements of that decade. FRANK RILEY, a former Labour deputy leader of West Lancashire council, looks at the relationship between Dylan and the Communist Party. Seldom has a popular artist received such venomous attacks and opprobrium than Bob Dylan on his appearance at Newport Folk Festival in May 1965 and after when he ‘went electric’. Indeed, this continued for years, and even has echoes today. Dylan’s performance at Newport had tremendous repercussions, not only in the folk music world, but throughout popular music based on American traditions, especially rock music.



Dylan brought the use of meaningful lyrics back into the popular song. More than that, he sparked poetic lyrics and was, for good or ill, the progenitor of a myriad of singer-songwriters. Even the Beatles said that they got away from teeny-bop words under the influence of Dylan. But the role of the ‘Communist’ Party (CP) – in the US and, later, Britain – in, first, building him up, and then trying to knock him down, has not been explained adequately. The Communist parties were allied to the bureaucratic regime in the Soviet Union, supported the totalitarian state as genuine socialism and, invariably, justified every twist and turn of Soviet policy.

When Dylan turned up on stage in Newport with an electric rock band and burst into the song Maggie’s Farm, a rewrite of an old folk song, Penny’s Farm, there was uproar among the folk traditionalists. Pete Seeger, the then (and now) veteran ‘leader’ of the American folk scene, who had suffered blacklisting during the McCarthy era, went apoplectic. There are many legends told about that day: such as, that Seeger tried to cut the electric cable with an axe, and that his and Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, wrestled in the mud.

Seeger did admit to saying: “If I had an axe I’d cut the cable”, and there were rows going on between the organisers and ‘Dylan’s people’ behind the scenes. What is certain is that Dylan was booed by a substantial part of the crowd. Order had to be restored and, eventually, Dylan came back on stage with an acoustic guitar and sang some of his more ‘acceptable’ songs.

To what extent the Newport outburst was organised heckling no one really knows, although there certainly seemed to be organisation behind the booing that he received at all his concerts on his ensuing world tour. His ‘going electric’, however, should not have come as a great surprise. Dylan’s album, Bringing It All Back Home, acoustic on one side, electric on the other, and which included Maggie’s Farm, had been on sale for months.

In fact, Dylan had started out playing rock and roll when at school, and had even played piano at a couple of gigs with Bobby Vee, very much a bubblegum pop star. In his school yearbook, where students write down what they intend to do next, even though he was going to Minnesota University, he wrote: “Gone to join Little Richard”. If anything, therefore, his ‘treachery’ was merely a return to type. And he was to switch codes many times during his long career, often delighting, bemusing and irritating fans, colleagues and critics in equal measure.

The young Robert Allen Zimmerman who became Bob Dylan, from Hibbing, a Minnesota mining town, rapidly rose to fame in 1962-63 on the back of a couple of ‘protest’ songs he had written in the folk tradition, notably Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times they are A-Changin’. Since then, Dylan has written and performed all forms of American popular songs from diverse traditions – folk, rock, blues, country, gospel, even jazz – becoming, probably, the most influential songwriter and performer in the post-war era. Although he was originally held up as some sort of political Messiah, and carefully groomed by the American CP, against his wishes and knowledge, he suddenly became a ‘traitor’ for moving on.

A new Woody Guthrie?

DYLAN HAD ARRIVED in New York in 1961 aged 19, a musical devotee of folk singer Woody Guthrie, whom he visited before he died in a New Jersey hospital. Guthrie was a close associate of the CP. His colleagues, led by Pete Seeger, were reviving what they regarded as ‘the people’s’ songs as part of their political activity. Although Guthrie probably never formally joined the CP, he accepted the party line just as much as his card-carrying colleagues. He had for a time a column in the CP newspaper, People’s Daily World. He also wrote and sang peace songs between 1939-41, during the time of the Stalin-Hitler pact, when the Communist parties in Britain and the US opposed the war.

Indeed, according to Seeger, it was Guthrie who first changed the line when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Seeger said: “Woody had a smile on his face. He said: ‘Well I guess we won’t be singin’ any more peace songs’. I said: ‘What? You mean we’re gonna support Churchill?’ He said: ‘Yup, Churchill’s flip-flopped. We got to flip-flop’. He was right”. (Interview with Phil Sutcliffe, Mojo issue 193, December 2009) It is interesting that they did not say that it was Stalin, but Churchill, who had been forced to flip-flop!

Guthrie had become famous in the US mostly through his song This Land is Your Land, which he conceived as a radical alternative ‘anthem’ to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. However, the feeling of the song owes more to the American Dream than a demand for public ownership of the land. He was co-opted by Roosevelt government agencies to promote the New Deal, being paid to sing in depressed towns and villages about to be destroyed to make way for hydro-electric schemes, including the Grand Coulee Dam, honoured in his song of that name.

Dylan gravitated to the working class-cum-bohemian Greenwich Village, New York. A precocious talent, he was nurtured by the much older artists around Seeger and became romantically involved with Suze Rotolo, a 19-year-old artist who worked in the civil rights movement. (She was on the cover of his second album, Freewheelin’.) Rotolo was what she calls a ‘red diaper baby’, her parents having been working-class CP activists. She had grown up in this milieu.

CP members, Seeger and Irwin Silber, publisher of Sing Out! a magazine that put out new ‘topical’ songs, were constantly in touch with Rotolo, making sure she kept their protégée onside, although it seems that she was not wholly aware of what they were up to. As far as she was concerned she was just helping Bobby. They were hoping Dylan would become the new Woody Guthrie and help spread their version of socialism while becoming the big star of the folk world.

Dylan openly admits that he ran his political songs past Rotolo before release. “She’ll tell you how many nights I stayed up and wrote songs and showed them to her and asked her ‘Is this right?’. Because I knew her father and mother were associated with unions and she was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was. I checked the songs out with her”. (Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan) He later said that he did not know that they were communists, and would not have cared even if he had. Dave von Ronk, folk singer and self-styled ‘Trotskyist mayor of McDougall Street’ (Greenwich Village), also befriended Dylan, and soon discovered he was apolitical.

A ‘musical expeditionary’

THIS DOES NOT mean that Dylan was not sincere in his civil rights songs and actions. His love of music with African-American roots, and his Jewish upbringing, made him a natural anti-racist. Black artists also had a great rapport with Dylan – he was never regarded as a white liberal salving his conscience. American black artists, from gospel singers, the Staples family, through Stevie Wonder to Jimi Hendrix, recorded Dylan songs. Bobby Seale dedicates a chapter of his book, Seize the Time, to a discussion with Huey P Newton, leader of the Black Panthers, of the Dylan song Ballad of a Thin Man. Ironically, while the CP was attacking this song and others, Columbia records almost did not release it on the grounds that it was ‘communistic’!

Harry Belafonte, a black singer who had been successful in the mainstream, dedicated much of his time and money promoting new black artists. Nevertheless, he gave Dylan his first recording experience: playing harmonica on the Belafonte album Midnight Special. Dylan still occasionally reverts to political comment in his songs. As recently as 2006, Workingman’s Blues #2 contains the lines: “The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down/Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak”.

Dylan was greatly underestimated by those who sought to exploit him, including the CP. Far from being the country hick from Hibbing, Dylan was a ruthless user of everyone who could further his career. His fellow students and musicians at St Paul’s and Minneapolis had discovered this. He soaked up everything that could be used later, nicknamed the ‘sponge’ for his merciless theft of anything he could use musically: ideas, songs and arrangements. He still attempts to justify this by saying he was a “musical expeditionary”.

What the folkies around Seeger really objected to most in 1965 was not the switch to electric instruments but Dylan’s refusal to write any more “finger-pointin’” (as Dylan called protest) songs. They accused him of being ‘introspective’ and, therefore, it was implied, reactionary. This was an echo, in fact, of the sterile ‘socialist realism’ and ‘proletarian culture’ espoused by Stalinism and which manifested itself in the folkies’ insistence on musical ‘purity’.

Britain’s folk scene

IN BRITAIN, A similar development had occurred in the folk music world. In 1951, the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) published a pamphlet, The American Threat to British Culture. The perceived threat to ‘British’ music was taken up in earnest by party members Bert Lloyd (well known as folklorist A L Lloyd) and folk singer Ewan MacColl (real name Jimmy Miller), writer of the popular song Dirty Old Town, about his home town of Salford.

MacColl had started out in radical drama (his first wife was Joan Littlewood). After meeting American folklorist and CP member Alan Lomax, whose secretary happened to be Carla Rotolo, sister of Suze, he switched his attention to folk music. MacColl and Lloyd set out, successfully, to launch a folk revival in Britain. There was much cross-fertilisation between Britain and the US. Indeed, there is some evidence that Pete Seeger, whose folk singer sister Peggy later became MacColl’s partner, modelled his folk revival in the US on the work of Lloyd and MacColl.

This was also the year that produced the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, a completely reformist affirmation of the Stalinist theory of ‘socialism in one country’. MacColl’s theories on music flowed directly from this. A debate about ‘purity’ and ‘workers’ songs’ raged in the British folk world, with MacColl being a leading protagonist. He eventually reached the absurd position that if a singer was from England the song had to be English; if American, the song had to be American, and so on. There were also detailed definitions of ‘traditional’, ‘commercial’, ‘ethnic’, ‘amateur’, etc. This was adopted as policy in those folk clubs (a majority) where MacColl and his supporters held sway.

Enter Bob Dylan into this minefield. In 1962, Dylan came to Britain. After some difficulty getting into the Singer’s Club, based in the Pindar of Wakefield pub in London, he was allowed to sing three songs, two of them his own. Contemporary accounts say that MacColl and Peggy Seeger, who ran the club, were hostile. As Dylan was little-known, one interpretation could be that Alan Lomax had talked to them about him. Dylan did not get on well with Carla Rotolo – a relationship immortalised in Dylan’s Ballad in Plain D: “For her parasite sister I had no respect” – so this may explain it. Or it may be that they did not regard his self-written songs ‘valid’ folk. Later, when Dylan was pronounced anathema by the CP, MacColl went one step further and announced that all Dylan’s previous work in the folk idiom had not been true folk music.

Civil rights campaigning

DYLAN ONLY RARELY got involved in public political action. He went to the southern states of the US with Pete Seeger to support the black voter registration campaign. He also sang, with Joan Baez, next to Martin Luther King on the platform on the March on Washington – the occasion of the ‘I have a dream’ speech. (Baez’s political activity stemmed from a Quaker peace movement background: her father was an eminent physicist who refused to work on weapon-related projects and her hardcore traditional folk songs came from her Scottish-American mother.)

When he was with Seeger in the south, Dylan sang a new song, Only a Pawn in Their Game, about the recent murder of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers. Everyone knew that redneck Ku Klux Klan member, Byron De La Beckwith, did it. But it took 30 years (1994) to find a Mississippi jury prepared to convict him. In the song, Dylan lays the blame firmly on capitalism, pointing out that the poor whites are used to split the working class as pawns in the ruling class’s game. The line: “The poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool”, sums up the message of the song.

Seeger says he found this an “interesting new slant” on the issue. (No Direction Home, film documentary by Martin Scorsese, 2005). This exposes the CP’s liberal position: seeing racism simply as a black-and-white issue. Dylan’s words, on the other hand, reflect a certain class consciousness.

The ‘Judas’ protest

ONE MONTH AFTER the Newport debacle, on 28 August 1965, Dylan played Forest Hills with a newly formed rock group based on The Hawks, later to be called The Band. A crowd of 14,000 applauded his opening 45 minutes acoustic set and then booed throughout the second half of the concert when the band came on. On 24 September 1965 in Austin, Texas, Dylan began a tour across America and then the world which would last a full year. The pattern of Forest Hills was to repeat itself everywhere. Never before had anyone known people buy tickets to go to a concert to express vociferous dissatisfaction. Levon Helm, the drummer, gave up in disgust before they even left America and was replaced.

By the time the tour reached Britain in May 1966, the pattern was set. In Edinburgh, the Young Communist League had a debate and decided to stage a walk-out when the electric instruments were brought on stage. Similar events occurred in Dublin and Bristol. There was little press coverage of this, except for the Melody Maker which carried the headline on 14 May, The Night of the Big Boo, so the suspicion of covert organisation remains. Prior to the concert in Manchester the University Folk Society had a meeting which voted to boycott, though not disrupt, it.

This was the background to the extraordinary scene at Manchester Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966 (See CP Lee, Like the Night, Helter Skelter publishing, 1998). The concert had the usual trouble-free first half. Then, three songs into the second set – ironically, immediately after the ‘communistic’ Ballad of a Thin Man – slow-hand clapping began, then individual heckles. A girl went up to Dylan and gave him a piece of paper which, it later transpired, said: “Tell the band to go home”.

Then, in a moment of silence between songs there rang out loud and clear the now infamous protest call: ‘Judas!’ Dylan was audibly angry and shaken – the concert is now on official CD release after years of availability as a bootleg (misnamed the Albert Hall Concert). Although this is generally regarded as the peak of this bizarre period, things became much more serious in Glasgow, where a ‘fan’ tried to get into Dylan’s hotel room armed with a knife. No one can seriously blame the Communist Party for this last event, but there is little doubt that some of its members were cheerleaders in the extraordinary events of the 1965-66 tour, based on a twisted Stalinist interpretation of ‘proletarian culture’ dashed with an unhealthy dose of nationalism.

Note: We live in a political world is the first line of the song, Political World, which opens the 1989 Bob Dylan album, O Mercy.


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