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FBI Tracking of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo Foreshadowed Future Abuses

Rotolo’s FBI file is a reminder that the greatest threat to freedom is the agency tasked with protecting it.

Bob Dylan walking with his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo in September of 1961 in New York City, New York.

When neo-fascist “Proud Boys” rallied in Portland, Oregon, on August 17 and were confronted by an array of leftist protesters, Donald Trump weighed in with the tweet, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.” The tweet came little more than a month after Sen. Ted Cruz called for a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation to be opened into antifa, which would greenlight the full extent of the FBI and other federal agencies’ investigatory powers. Such repressive calls against antifa — along with the FBI attention to so-called Black Identity Extremists, and others — is setting down a dire path. The recently released FBI file of Suze Rotolo, a cultural figure from an earlier period, offers insights and underscores the danger of this surveillance overreach.

The FBI and “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”

In 1963, Bob Dylan released his breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, an artistic broadside against the Cold War status quo, with Dylan parodying World War III (“Talkin’ World War III Blues”), railing against inequality and Jim Crow (“Blowin’ in the Wind”; “Oxford Town”), and offering a haunting vision of a world in which the Cuban Missile Crisis transpired differently (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”). These were songs challenging the standing social order and, in many ways, served as an opening bell of the Black freedom, antiwar and other radical upsurges of the decade that followed.

The album itself was tucked inside a jacket bearing the iconic image of Dylan and his then-girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, walking in the February chill on Greenwich Village’s Jones Street. Much has been written about Dylan, Freewheelin’ and his relationship with Rotolo, who passed away in 2011. Rotolo herself documented that relationship, along with her larger life as a political activist and artist, in her 2009 memoir. Unknown and missing from all the various accounts, however, was the fact that Rotolo — and to a degree, Dylan — was under scrutiny by the FBI at the moment that photo was taken, and for the entire span of her relationship with Dylan. Rotolo’s FBI file is exemplary of the repressive role of the Bureau during the 1960s, and underscores the ongoing looming presence of the FBI and other entities that would seek to stifle dissent.

Susan Elisabeth Rotolo was the daughter of Mary and Gioachino Pietro (known as “Joachim” or “Pete”) Rotolo, both of whom had been active with the Communist Party USA, and subject to FBI surveillance.

The younger Rotolo landed on the FBI’s radar because of her participation in a group called Advance, a forerunner of the Communist Party’s youth organization, called “DuBois Clubs.” Apparently, because of this, the Bureau noticed when she applied for a passport to travel to Italy with her mother in early 1961 — several months before she met Dylan — a memo about her plans appears as the first entry in the file (though other reports in the file show reports on her from as early as 1958). Her file would eventually garner 174 pages; modest by FBI standards, but voluminous given how little it was predicated on. It would remain open until 1974.

Reading through the pages of the file, one is struck by the aura of an American Stasi. For example, it documents Rotolo’s attendance as a teenager at “Camp Kinderland,” which the Bureau reports was a “Communist-managed camp.” It also records — via a security informant — that when she was 16, she was, for a time, “the girlfriend” of the son of a prominent Communist leader.

It then moves on to talk about her relationship with Dylan. “During 1963, after her return from Italy, she dated a folksinger by the name of BOB DYLAN, continuing such relationship with DYLAN until approximately December, 1963.” It also cross-references to reports about Dylan’s remarks in front of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, on receiving the Tom Paine Award in December 1963 — only a short time after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated — where he mused, in typically provocative style, about Lee Harvey Oswald. While making clear he would never have done such a thing himself, he said, “I saw some of myself in him.” This statement caused no small controversy, and Dylan had to walk it back. It was, of course, documented in Rotolo’s FBI file.

That incident in turn would be cause for a standing black mark in Rotolo’s file, with the FBI noting in a 1964 entry, “During 1963, the subject frequently associated with Robert Dylan, a folksinger,” before again describing Dylan’s comments at the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. There is likely more to be learned about this in any files the FBI has on Bob Dylan — which Rotolo’s file strongly suggests exists; though for now, Dylan is the ultimate arbiter of such file’s release.

One of the more striking items in Rotolo’s file is an affidavit from July 1964, “furnished by REDACTED employee, Department of the Army.” That informant describes how he came across Rotolo’s name while reading FBI reports, as part of his job. He in turn submitted a report to the Bureau, writing, “my wife was fairly close to Susan Rotolo up to about 1956.” He then tells of how, “last year we heard, through family channels that Susan Rotolo was dating Bob Dylan, the folk singer. In 1963 Columbia Records issued a Bob Dylan recording, [Freewheelin’] and Susan Rotolo appears in a photograph with Dylan on the jacket cover.” It closed noting she “has allegedly broken off her relationship with Dylan, according to my wife’s immediate family.” In this way, family gossip was transformed into FBI intelligence.

What is noteworthy about the released pages is how Rotolo was caught up in the larger machinations of the FBI, which had been aggressively pursuing Communists in the 1950s and was transitioning to target the New Left in the 1960s. Rotolo’s main reason for sustaining a file was her travel to Cuba. A good amount of the dossier is spent on her trip with the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba in 1964, in defiance of the government’s ban on travel to that country — a matter still with us 55 years later. Not only was Rotolo a passionate spokesperson during the trip, her sin was compounded by the fact that the Maoist-inclined Progressive Labor Party was involved in organizing the visit — thus garnering Rotolo the FBI-subject moniker SM-PL (Security Matter-Progressive Labor). All of this was enough for the Bureau to add her to its Security Index — a list of people marked for detention in the event of a “national emergency.” Rotolo would stay on that list until January 1971, after she had been living in Italy for several years. The FBI removed her “in view of subject’s lack of activity in this country since 1965.”

Perhaps the most significant thing about Rotolo’s file is the mere fact of its existence, and its suggestion of a larger file on Dylan himself: It speaks to the wide span of an agency supposedly focused on a mission to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States.” Yet the FBI’s close tracking of Rotolo is consistent with its role throughout the last half of the 20th century, investigating artists ranging from Woody Guthrie, to Leonard Bernstein, to John Lennon. One can only wonder at the full extent of the targeting of other artists beyond what has been pried loose, by an agency and government ever-reticent to give up its secrets. All of this surveillance stands in stark contrast to the U.S.’s fairy-tale proclamations of political and personal freedom — the freedoms that the Bureau’s anti-Communist work was supposedly protecting.

It can be argued that the surveillance of Rotolo and Dylan is merely detritus of the bad old days, and things are different now. But are they? While it would be simple to reduce today’s FBI to that of its past — the protocols and rules it is legally required to follow are today more demanding, the terrain, particularly with the ascent of white nationalist forces, arguably more complex — it would be wrong to lose sight of what the FBI is. It is singular in its role as a national intelligence agency — a domestic political police force, if you will — at the ready to confront threats defined by the ruling authorities. Trump and Cruz’s statements regarding antifa with the consequences of the FBI ratcheting up its measures against that broadly defined entity, along with its other skewed priorities, is exemplary of that. In that respect, Rotolo’s file is a testament to how such repressive power has been used in the past, and underscores the need for vigilance against its abuse in the future.

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