The connections between Amnesty International’s mission and Bob Dylan’s music seem, on a moment’s reflection, so obvious and natural that they require no explanation. For half a century, Amnesty has pressed to secure the fundamental human rights of the persecuted and imprisoned across the globe, standing for the sanctity of individual conscience above arbitrary authority. Over that same half century, Dylan’s art has explored and expressed the anguish and hope of the modern human condition. Mistrusting worldly authority, Dylan has given sympathetic voice to those whom, in “Chimes of Freedom,” he sings of as “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse.” That song, which appears in Dylan’s voice on this commemorative collection, might easily serve as Amnesty’s anthem. But so might “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” or, maybe best of all, “I Shall Be Released.”
In January 1961, on a cold snowy evening in Greenwich Village, a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan, fresh out of Minnesota, began his professional career in earnest playing at a hole-in-the-wall coffee house called the Café Wha? A few months later, the British lawyer Peter Benenson and some friends in London launched the campaign that became Amnesty International. It was a coincidence. Yet from the start, Dylan’s artistic work and Amnesty’s political work drew on a common sensibility that ultimately changed the world.
This sensibility grew directly from the cataclysm of World War II. The defeat of Nazism had exposed the full extent of a previously unimaginable, systematic genocide of European Jewry undertaken in the name of racial superiority. In 1948, the newly-organized United Nations approved a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upheld freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as equality “in dignity and rights,” as a common global standard. Yet the post-war world was rife with human rights abuses, from the suppression of dissent and religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain to the racial oppression of the American South, South Africa, and other bastions of what was then called the Free World. Building on campaigns that pre-dated the war, a rising generation of activists challenged those abuses. The spirit of those challenges inspired the early work of Amnesty International and it informed the early work of Bob Dylan.
At Amnesty’s inception, the group was intimately bound to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Among the six individuals who were the organization’s original “prisoners of conscience” was the Rev. Ashton Jones, a white itinerant preacher from Georgia who had been conducting a one-man campaign in Dixie against racial segregation and inequality since 1932. Now an ally in non-violent agitation with the much younger Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jones had risked death at the hands of racist vigilantes on several occasions and been arrested and incarcerated dozens of times. Jones well understood the fearsome persecution visited on men and women who held unsettling views. He likewise understood the power of the American philosopher John Dewey’s remark, which Benenson was fond of quoting, "If you want to establish some conception of a society, go find out who is in jail." In the crucible of repression, as well as in the fight against social inequity, Amnesty and the civil rights movement represented two forces in a single cause.
Dylan’s artistic involvement with the civil rights movement, culminating in his performance at the March on Washington in August 1963, is familiar to anyone who has loved or even noticed his music. Although he has never joined any political organization, his uncanny ability to identify and articulate the temper of the times has led him to write powerfully of the human impulses that propel egalitarian causes. “We Shall Overcome” was the civil rights movement’s anthem, but “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” captured the idealism of the movement’s foot soldiers. More complicated Dylan songs, such as “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” examined the material, emotional, and psychological complications of racial hatred and violence. Dylan’s early work could enrage and exhort, but the best of it did so within human stories, told with an eloquence that was direct but never simple -- stories of the black kitchen maid Hattie Carroll, laid low by a blow, or of the faceless racist who shot Medgar Evers yet who lived, like his fellow poor southern whites, “on the caboose of the train.”
Dylan’s concreteness owed a great deal to his love for, and immersion in, the traditions of British-Celtic-American balladry. His genius was to invest in those traditions the human situations, heartbreaking, courageous, and puzzling, of his own time and place. In his best work, he never settled for abstractions; what others might perceive as great political struggles involving world-historical forces meant nothing for Dylan, outside of intimate personal experience. That impatience with the doctrines and dogmas of conventional politics, and that insistence on plumbing the human realities behind them, informed Amnesty’s understanding of the world as well.
Many activists mistook Dylan’s shift away from what he called “finger pointing” songs in the mid-1960s as a betrayal. There are still those nay-sayers who persist in seeing Dylan as two men, the honorable protest singer of the early 1960s and the sell-out of all the years since then. And these nay-sayers persist in missing the point. Dylan’s songwriting was never narrowly topical or political. He never intended to become the left-wing troubadour that many of his admirers expected him to become. Yet when he stood up for himself as an artist, Dylan did not extinguish his sympathies with the oppressed and unfree, he expanded them, giving himself the space where he could write about the inner turmoil that can lead to thralldom and can lead to freedom, as well as about the larger world in which that turmoil exists and acquires meaning. He has done so ever since with songs that seem at first to be about one thing but can then be taken to be about something very different, and then turn out to be about all of these things and more, all at once. Always, though, Dylan sings of how the world can conspire against individual freedom -- and how, insidiously, ordinary people can be complicit in that conspiracy.
Chimes of Freedom testifies to his own understanding of the affinities between his work and Amnesty International’s. Even more, the performances in this collection affirm the connection in different ways, whether it be Pete Townshend imagining that the subject of the old song “Corrina Corrina” that Dylan reworked on his second album in 1963 is a forlorn political prisoner or Pete Seeger, now in his nineties, performing “Forever Young” and reminding his listeners that you’re never too old to change the world. A uniting of artists of this caliber to sing the songs of Bob Dylan is an important musical event. But in honoring, at the same time, the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, this collection gathers together the human and humane impulses that have propelled Amnesty’s work – and Dylan’s.