Thursday, February 11, 2010

Not Just Another Pretty Pop Song

A video from "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement" Tuesday night at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bob Dylan sings "The Times They are A' Changin'". Dylan wrote the protest song during an era when a group of American people were denied the ordinary voting rights of ordinary citizens based on merely the color of their skin. It's unfathomable to me that was ever an issue, but it was during my lifetime.

I remember as a kid in the '60's standing in line for a cheap Saturday children's matinee at the local movie theater. The kids were not treated equally, there was a black father with two daughters who had to wait until everyone else (all white) purchased their tickets and popcorn. I remember them patiently standing there until they were the last to be served. If you were last, you probably got the seats in the back of the theater, and it was usually crowded and hard to find a seat by that time. That the workers behind the counters could nonchalantly get away with this was shocking to me. As far as I could see, I was the only one observing what was going on, besides the parent and his daughters. No one else seemed to care. And I was only a second grader.

So, the song means something to me, in more ways than that one. But this is all for now from my personal experience. There is a reason why Dylan was asked to perform this particular song for this particular concert.

Dylan's song has a lot of metaphors, but he's also referring to real events. For instance, "don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall" points to Alabama governor Wallace's symbolic stand in the University of Alabama's auditorium doorway against the entry of two African American students.

When Dylan sang "you'll be drenched to the bone" he referred to the fire hoses used during the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, May 3, 1963:


When Connor realized that the Birmingham jail was full, on May 3 he changed police tactics to keep protesters out of the downtown business area. Another thousand students gathered at the church and left to walk across Kelly Ingram Park while chanting, "We're going to walk, walk, walk. Freedom ... freedom ... freedom."[67] As the demonstrators left the church, police warned them to stop and turn back, "or you'll get wet".[53] When they continued, Connor ordered the city's fire hoses, set at a level that would peel bark off a tree or separate bricks from mortar, to be turned on the children. Boys' shirts were ripped off, and young women were pushed over the tops of cars by the force of the water. When the students crouched or fell, the blasts of water rolled them down the asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks.---Wikipedia

Dylan was warning that the ones who were using the hoses on the protesters would find themselves completely submerged and drowning, but the flood wasn't water, it was thousands of black protestors taking over downtown Birmingham on May 7th. The mayor and the commissioner who ordered the water hoses and police dogs on the young demonstrators ended up handing in their resignations after a truce was made a few days afterward.

It's not just a pretty song. It commemorates ugly events that defeated ugly Jim Crow laws of segregation in public places in Birmingham.

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