Folk Music and Human Rights

By Ross Altman


Blues giant Josh White had just finished his show at New York nightclub Café Society and was cooling off in the backstage dressing room when jazz legend Billie Holiday walked in and pulled a knife on him. What could he have done to provoke this response from his fellow artist? "Stop singing my song," said Holiday, and White suddenly realized she was not pleased that he had performed Strange Fruit, the anti-lynching song written for her by Abel Meeropol with which she often ended her concerts.

White had to do some quick thinking, since this was one of those times when it might be too late to tell oneself, "I wish I had said that." "Billie, why don't we both sing Strange Fruit until no one ever has to sing it again?" Josh White's appeal to the reason she sang the song prompted her to put the knife away.

I was reminded of that story listening to journalist Ted Koppel discuss his new documentary on the Discovery Channel, The Last Lynching. It took place in Alabama in 1981, and is reportedly the last documented case of a black man being lynched in America, although the horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas ten years ago certainly has all the elements except a rope and a tree. Nonetheless, let us not mince words: Perhaps Strange Fruit has outlived its immediacy as a protest song for our time and is now a song for the ages. It will always remind us of the role that folk music has played in the progress of human rights in America and around the world.

December 10, 2008, marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first comprehensive attempt to put into language the birthright of every human being. On that day in 1948 First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt walked into the hallowed halls of the Hotel Pas de Calais in Paris where the signing ceremony was to take place and was greeted with a rare standing ovation for her efforts in drafting it and bringing it to pass.

Out of the ashes of the Holocaust this declaration rose like a Phoenix bird-underscoring

Eleanor Roosevelt's vow that never again would the nations of the world stand idly by and watch while genocide was taking place. She extended the basic legal principles of The Bill of Rights to include economic rights (under pressure from the Soviet Union), the right to health care, to marry someone of one's choosing, and to the "Four Freedoms" enumerated by her husband FDR, the freedom to worship, of speech, and the freedom from want and fear.

The phrase human rights first appears a hundred years earlier in 1848, in Thoreau's classic essay On Civil Disobedience; as a concept, however, it was first fully enunciated by Thomas Paine during the French Revolution in his two-part landmark book The Rights of Man, published in 1791 and 1792. Paine had come to America from England with little more than an introduction to Benjamin Franklin, and had inspired or provoked his adopted homeland to rebel against his native country with a pamphlet he wrote in a white heat called Common Sense. He published it in January of 1776 and its effect was so immediate and profound that Thomas Jefferson began to work on The Declaration of Independence to make the separation from the mother country official.

Common Sense was the incendiary spark that lit the fuse of the American Revolution. Having started one revolution, however, Thomas Paine was not content to rest on his laurels. When his benefactor Ben Franklin told him, "Where liberty is, Sir, there is my country," Paine replied, "Where liberty is not, Sir, there is mine."

Paine was off to England with plans to help foment and support the French Revolution. The Rights of Man was his crowning achievement, after which he was condemned in England and pursued until his only remaining safe haven was France itself. Greeted initially as an intellectual hero he wore out his welcome there too, when after supporting the Revolution he opposed on principle the beheading of the deposed King Louis the 16th on the grounds that capital punishment was evil, especially when conducted for revenge. He was straightway imprisoned and eventually only released when Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson intervened on behalf of his old revolutionary cohort. Running out of options Tom Paine returned to America a largely forgotten and ignored onetime hero, who when he died in 1809 had only six people attend his funeral, including two freed Negroes and a few Quakers, just enough to carry his coffin. The man who had once written, "These are the times that try men's souls," and had seen George Washington read his essays to the soldiers who were freezing at Valley Forge to encourage them not to give up hope, became a footnote to history, until a century and a half later novelist Howard Fast wrote Citizen Tom Paine, and helped restore him to his place at the forefront of our Founding Fathers. At last he was voted into America's Hall of Fame.

The story of human rights and folk music cannot be told without Tom Paine since he became indelibly linked to Bob Dylan's storied career when Dylan was given the annual Tom Paine Award by New York's Emergency Civil Liberties Union in December of 1963, just a month after the assassination of President Kennedy. Dylan, genius wunderkind notwithstanding, was not quite ready for prime time in terms of award ceremonies and proceeded to insult and offend most of the elder statesmen of New York's liberal activist elite during his extemporaneous acceptance speech. It wasn't enough that he mentioned their bald heads as the most noticeable thing about them, he went so far as to express a nearly incoherent sympathy for the misunderstood assassin of the much beloved president.

It was enough to alienate his biggest fans and demonstrated for the first time his capacity to frustrate and disappoint those who would mistakenly look to him for mutual regard and confirmation: They needed Dylan; he did not need them.

Nonetheless, the primary reason the New York Emergency Civil Liberties Union is still remembered and became a minor character in modern progressive history is for their then unappreciated role in Dylan's evolution from the second coming of Woody Guthrie to a post-modern artist of personal vision. If you go on their web site even today you will find to your delight and amazement that they faithfully and diligently chronicle the whole sorry episode, long since having made peace with Bob, who soon afterwards sent them a dutiful letter of apology.

His real public comment, however, came five years later, on his first post-motorcycle accident album John Wesley Harding. As I Went Out One Morning tells the story in a wholly new way, as an elliptical ballad, where the American revolutionary is reborn as a rhapsodic character in a Dylan song:

As I went out one morning

To breathe the air around Tom Paine's,

I spied the fairest damsel

That ever did walk in chains.

I offer'd her my hand,

She took me by the arm.

I knew that very instant,

She meant to do me harm.

In the first verse we see that Tom Paine, rather than bringing sweet liberty, brings a malevolent la belle dame sans merci, to whom the poet utters a warning:

"Depart from me this moment,"

I told her with my voice.

Said she, "But I don't wish to,"

Said I, "But you have no choice."

"I beg you, sir," she pleaded

From the corners of her mouth,

"I will secretly accept you

And together we'll fly south."

Dylan is having none of her sweet inducements, just as he originally refused to accept the Woody Guthrie caricature of himself that the Old Left wanted to shower with awards:

Just then Tom Paine himself,

Came running from across the field,

Shouting at this lovely girl

And commanding her to yield.

And as she was letting go her grip,

Up Tom Paine did run,

"I'm sorry, sir," he said to me,

"I'm sorry for what she's done."

Copyright ©1968; renewed 1996 Dwarf Music

The real Tom Paine saves the poet, and the day, from the imposters who wanted to imprison Dylan in their own expectations of what he should write and who he should be. And in his song, rather than Dylan apologizing to the Old Left for giving him an award named for a dead revolutionary and insisting that he become like Tom Paine with a guitar, Tom Paine, who was every bit as irascible and antisocial as the poet enfant terrible, apologizes to Dylan for what they've done. And in so doing he mythologizes Paine as well, who does thus wind up representing the very thing he seemed to threaten-personal freedom.

The year before, in 1967, when Dylan was recovering from the broken neck from his motorcycle accident, he was holed up in the House at Big Pink with the Band in Woodstock, New York, creating the music that would eventually be released as The Basement Tapes. During this annus mirabilis, he wrote his great prison song I Shall Be Released, a testament to personal freedom that was later picked up by Amnesty International as their theme song for human rights.  He had also written a more traditional sounding prison song during his early protest period called The Walls of Red Wing, which is in some ways a more dramatic song, but I Shall Be Released captures a yearning for freedom that is unmatched for its power and simplicity:

They say ev'rything can be replaced,

Yet ev'ry distance is not near.

So I remember ev'ry face

Of ev'ry man who put me here.

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released.

The power of the song derives from the point of view of the narrator: He is in prison, just as he had been "inside the walls, the walls of Red Wing," except that this time he can taste his freedom in the hope and magic of the last line: I shall be released.

They say ev'ry man needs protection,

They say ev'ry man must fall.

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall.

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released.

Dylan counter-poses his point of view with the view of conventional wisdom: "They say..." Even in prison, whether it be the real prison of Red Wing, or the prison of other's expectations, as in his song about Tom Paine, or the unnamed prison that may even evoke death's final release from the mortality of life, he is able to see his own reflection "high above this wall." In the last poignant verse, which conjures up such ghosts of political prisoners past as Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, and The Hollywood Ten, as well as modern icons like Nelson Mandela, Dylan stands with them and offers them hope: Standing next to me in this lonely crowd,

Is a man who swears he's not to blame.

All day long I hear him shout so loud,

Crying out that he was framed.

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released.

Copyright ©1967; renewed 1995 Dwarf Music

The optimism of Dylan's song is a far cry from the unflinching realism of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara's last unfinished song, written while he was imprisoned in the Estadio de Chile during the CIA-backed military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973-another 9/11 that will live in infamy. Jara was tortured by the soldiers who held 5,000 students, intellectuals, workers and other supporters of the democratically elected socialist president in the makeshift concentration camp where many of them were then murdered, including Chile's most famous folk singer.

When Victor realized his fate was imminent he wrote down his last song, describing in wrenching detail what he saw and heard during his captivity, called it simply Estadio de Chile, the name of the soccer stadium. As he was about to be taken off and shot on September 16, Jara gave the two scraps of paper that contained his final song-which ended in mid-sentence-to the prisoner standing next to him and instructed him to hide it from the soldiers. Miraculously it survived and was smuggled out of the stadium after the coup, literally a voice from the tombs. Pete Seeger later set it to music and recorded it on his Folkways album Banks of Marble. Victor's widow Joan Jara had that song in mind when she entitled her biography of her late husband, Victor Jara: An Unfinished Song.

Twenty-five years later the infamous soccer stadium where Victor Jara was tortured was renamed Victor Jara Stadium in his honor, giving one some hope and encouragement for the eventual realization of the ideals embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. English poet Adrian Mitchell wrote a poem that memorialized the most moving symbolic aspect of Victor's final days: Victor Jara of Chile lived like a shooting star/ He fought for the people of Chile with his songs and his guitar/ His hands were gentle-his hands were strong. The junta had smashed Victor's hands with their rifle butts and then commanded him, "Now play your guitar!" Arlo Guthrie set the poem to music and transformed Adrian Mitchell's poem into a soaring song for human rights. He recorded it on his album Amigo.

The theme of human rights in folk music has thus a long-standing tradition, from slave spirituals to industrial labor songs, to modern masterpieces like Strange Fruit (by Abel Meeropol) which cries out against the lynching of black people, Chilean folk singer Victor Jara's last song, Estadio de Chile, which he wrote while imprisoned before he was murdered by Pinochet and the junta, and Bob Dylan's I Shall Be Released, which embodies the yearning for human freedom wherever it is threatened or oppressed. Sixty years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt spelled out in black and white what those rights were, and gave heart to those brave individuals and groups who would come to dedicate their lives to protecting and ensuring those rights for all.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. On Friday, December 12, at 7:30pm, Ross will be hosting and performing in I Shall Be Released, a show at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; 310-822-3006 ; 681 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA. $7. For further information visit their web site at