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Newly Uncovered Documents Reveal the FBI’s Campaign Against Bob Dylan

The US impulse toward repression didn’t die with the Cold War, as current attempts to suppress support for Gaza show.

Bob Dylan performs onstage at the Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois, on October 17, 1978.

Veteran singer-songwriter Bob Dylan is currently promoting his album Rough and Rowdy Ways, with the epic song “Murder Most Foul” — a deconstruction of the John F. Kennedy assassination and the larger 1960s, full of paranoia, intimations of conspiracy and foreboding. While the song reconstructs the world of the ‘60s, it is also, with its allusions to sinister forces at play, very much a song of the moment. The irony in all this, however, is that documents buried in the archives recently discovered by this author detail how Dylan himself was a target of a secret government program during that period.

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. On December 13 that year, the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC) — an advocacy group for constitutional rights, with considerable Communist Party influence — held its annual Bill of Rights Dinner. The event aimed to honor people it considered at the forefront of the fight for civil liberties. One of those up for an award was Bob Dylan.

Dylan, who had been drinking freely throughout the evening, was not employing the most diplomatic behavior. When he rose to accept the honor, he proceeded to give a rambling speech, where among other things, he opined on the assassination — a matter still white-hot in most people’s thinking:

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.

While much of the audience responded to Dylan’s remarks with boos and hisses, FBI informants — there were at least five in the audience — were taking notes. Based on these, an internal memo claimed Dylan had said, “He would not go that far, but he is not sure.” Later reports, such as those in his girlfriend Suze Rotolo’s Bureau file, would omit the provocative phrase “but he is not sure.” The initial report, however, went into and would remain in the FBI’s records.

Dylan would walk back his comments to a degree, issuing a statement saying, among other things, “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 it did not stop the fallout. We now know the FBI quickly crafted a plan for using the remarks against Dylan and the ECLC. These revelations come via memos buried in the voluminous, and largely unexamined, files of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) aimed at the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA).

In the wake of the dinner, the New York FBI sent a memo, dated December 16, 1963, to J. Edgar Hoover recounting the particulars of the incident. In it, agents wrote, “The statement in the letterhead memorandum made by Dylan pertaining to the assassination of President KENNEDY has been furnished to the Secret Service in New York City.” However, in another memo a week later, they made clear they were not limiting things to the Secret Service:

The above statement of Dylan’s [on Oswald] was furnished to the Secret Service in New York City by the New York Office (NYO). At the Seat of Government [Washington DC] we disseminated copies of the memorandum concerning the meeting, including Dylan’s statement, to Secret Service, Assistant Attorney General Yeagley and to the intelligence agencies of the armed services.

In this way, the FBI was not just alerting the Secret Service, but was also alerting other key federal agencies, suggesting Bob Dylan was a potential national security threat.

That same memo also laid out what the FBI knew about Dylan up to that point. In it, they report that the April 16 issue of the National Guardian — a leftist weekly — “contained an announcement regarding a ‘Folk and Jazz Concert’ to be presented on 4-25-62 by the U.S. Festival Committee. One of the individuals listed to perform at this ‘concert’ was Bob Dylan.” The scare quotes around the word “concert” suggesting ulterior aims.

That same report notes Dylan’s aborted appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” citing a New York Times article from May 14, 1963. Dylan had been scheduled to appear on the show and planned to perform the song, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” which ridiculed that right-wing organization. However, the producers told him after the rehearsal that he could not play the song because it was “controversial.” That incident in turn led CBS — which owned Dylan’s label, Columbia Records — to remove the song from Dylan’s forthcoming Freewheelin’ album.

The Bureau, however, was not content to just write memos. The incident occurred at a time when the FBI was undertaking an aggressive campaign to disrupt the Communist Party through COINTELPRO. In the FBI’s view, the CPUSA was in disarray in the aftermath of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin in 1956. As such, the Bureau assessed that the situation was “made to order for an all-out disruptive attack against the [Communist Party] from within.” What followed was an extensive campaign to disrupt the group by spreading rumors, sending out poison pen letters, planting stories in the press, and other secret measures. In that regard, they saw Dylan’s speech as an opportunity:

Under the Counterintelligence Program, it is urged that this statement of BOB DYLAN, made at this meeting, be brought to the attention of all the Bureau’s contacts in the mass media field so that proper publicity will be given to DYLAN, who by means of his folk singing, has the ability to have some communication with American youth. In addition, publicity of this sort will point up the type of organization the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee is to honor an individual of Dylan’s mentality.

The contempt exhibited for Dylan in this is palpable.

Two weeks later, a piece by nationally syndicated columnist Fulton Lewis Jr. was published in newspapers around the country. Lewis’s column was a detailed report of the dinner — though notably, he did not claim to be in attendance — that reads as if taken straight from the FBI’s files. For example, he notes the attendance of Robert Thompson, a “top-ranking Communist official once convicted of violating the Smith Act, and Harvey O’Connor, the oft-identified Communist.”

The column also disparages James Baldwin — honored at the event alongside Dylan — as a “liberal egghead,” before turning to the musician:

The ECRC Tom Paine Award went to folksinger Bob Dylan, who wore dirty chinos and a worn-out shirt. He accepted the award “on behalf of all those who went to Cuba because they’re young and I’m young and I’m proud of it.” He went on to say that he saw part of Lee Harvey Oswald “in myself.”

It is not surprising that Lewis would have such information. He was one of the media sources considered to be among the FBI’s “press contacts.” He was also considered to be an ally of the Bureau and its longtime director, J. Edgar Hoover. This closeness can be seen in a letter from Hoover, obtained via a FOIA request by this author, to Lewis’s successor after Lewis died in 1966. While the addressee of the letter is redacted, a typed “Note” on the bottom reads “Fulton Lewis, Jr., was a good friend to the Bureau and the Director.”

How all this ultimately impacted the ECLC and the CPUSA is unclear — it was but one among a barrage of efforts by the Bureau. With Dylan, however, it offers another piece in the puzzle of the attention and repression aimed at him during his most overtly political period, when he wrote such songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Not only had he been prohibited from singing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that May, two weeks before the ECLC dinner, there was a hit piece on Dylan in Newsweek. The piece, along with ridiculing his singing, claimed a New Jersey high school student — not Dylan — wrote the song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Notably, those attacks were conducted more or less in the open. The FBI, however, was operating in the shadows.

The pushback on Dylan happened amid the Cold War contention between the now long-gone U.S.S.R. and the U.S. While that was a time with its own peculiar forms of repression, the impulse has not disappeared. Putting aside for the moment the fascistic politics percolating across the U.S., one need look no further than the current calls and actions to suppress those standing with the people of Gaza to see how fraught the current landscape is. If the Bob Dylan of today is writing songs about a dark turn of events in the U.S. — or as Dylan writes in “Murder Most Foul,” the place where faith, hope and charity die — he is only expanding on a narrative that has been in play for a considerable amount of time.

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