For first time in my life, I spent the Fourth of July outside of the United States last year. I had no barbeque or parade to go to but it was a beautiful day and I decided to visit the John Lennon Peace Wall in Prague, where I live. I had heard about the memorial wall but never seen it. It’s located on a quiet courtyard across from the French Embassy. I stood in the sun looking at the graffiti, art, and song lyrics when a car pulled up.
A Czech tour guide and two tourists got out. I heard the tour guide explain the history of the wall. On December 8th 1980, the evening John Lennon was murdered, people showed up at the wall to hold a spontaneous vigil. They painted messages on the wall and it became a memorial not only to the fallen Beatle but to free expression and rebellion. The next day the Communist Police painted over the messages. People continued to gather at the wall, especially on December 8th every year and International Human Rights Day two days later.
In 1980, Western music was banned and playing The Beatles’ music was grounds for arrest and a jail sentence. Still, people showed up in the middle of the night to paint. And the police couldn’t manage to whitewash enough to drown out their messages. People wrote about peace, freedom and how they suffered under the totalitarian regime. Many people were arrested, beaten and jailed. This continued until the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
John Lennon never visited Prague, but his music touched the lives of people living under oppression in the former Czechoslovakia.
The tour guide then pointed to the the French Embassy and said that Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, saw people being beaten and were able to take photographs and recordings of people gathering, talking about their suffering and their hope for freedom. The Embassy sent these messages and photographs to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty so that the rest of the world and Czechs listening would know what was happening. This was a rare circumstance to have a Western Embassy watching these events unfold and be able to give the Czech people a voice. My ears perked up when the tour guide spoke of this because I was working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at the time and I, so many thousands of miles from my own country on Independence Day, realized yet again how people around the world are still yearning for freedom. And the depths to which they go – creative and otherwise – to achieve it.
I thought of my visit to the wall today when I found out that Bob Dylan added tour stops to Beijing, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City next month. His requests to play in China are pending approval from the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Last year, he was denied approval to play in China by Chinese officials and he canceled his Asia tour. The Associated Press reported Dylan’s concert promoter as saying that the Ministry demanded that Dylan sign a pledge promising ”not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” during his performances. Wow. The thing about Bob Dylan is that he doesn’t have to say anything because his lyrics speak for themselves.
I doubt it, but I hope that the people of China and Vietnam get to hear Bob Dylan sing next month. I want people in Tehran and Tripoli and Mandalay and Minsk to hear Bob Dylan sing. To feed their souls. Just like the Czechs listened to John Lennon and found inspiration. Music transcends borders.
The first time I heard Bob Dylan play was almost fifteen years ago. My sister and I were psyched. We’re from Minnesota and so is he and we’re very proud of that fact. We feel a kinship to him. Our seats were in the very last row at the Target Center – the nosebleed seats as they call it – but we didn’t care. We were watching a legend and it didn’t matter if he mumbled.
I’ve seen Dylan play a few times since then. The thing about Bob Dylan is that he is epic. He’s like Walt Whitman with a guitar. At the March On Washington in 1963, just before Dr. King delivered his ‘’I Have a Dream’’ speech, Dylan sang Only a Pawn in Their Game about the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers. They killed the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon. But Bob Dylan is still singing.
At the White House Celebration of Music From The Civil Rights Movement last year, Bob Dylan sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ in remarkable true-to-form style. And when Joan Baez got on stage and led the crowd in We Shall Overcome, the video panned to Rahm Emanuel singing along. Seriously.
That’s the effect that music has on people. It moves us. Especially when it’s hard to find words.
Bob Dylan isn’t famous for talking much during his performances. He usually just sings and maybe mutters an introduction to a song during a show. One occasion when he did say something was on October 26, 2002. I remember because it was the worst day of my life. It was the first morning that I had to wake up and suffer the harsh reality that my mentor, his wife, their daughter and three of my colleagues and friends died in a plane crash the day before. At their vigil the night before, we stood in the rain, struggling to find words, and someone started singing We Shall Overcome impromptu. The only thing we could do was sing.
Their plane went down in Evelyth, Minnesota, just 30 miles from Robert Zimmerman’s home town. From my colleagues, I learned about working for justice and human rights and about how politics can and should be about helping people and eliminating suffering. At this concert on October 26th in Denver, Bob Dylan played an acoustic version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Afterward, he said, ”That song was for my man, the great Senator from Minnesota.” There was a strange comfort that his message brought, coming from a man who sang through the Civil Rights movement, wrote songs about protesters being killed, songs about freedom and gave a voice to the voiceless in the South. I think of Bob Dylan as the soundtrack of Civil Rights Movement and the soundtrack of my own grief. And I hope that someday soon the Chinese will have their own peaceful soundtrack too.
At the White House Celebration, President Obama spoke about how Dr. King didn’t see the real meaning of the civil rights movement until he saw young people signing in the face of hostility. President Obama said: ”You see, it’s easy to sing when you’re happy. It’s easy to sing when you’re among friends. It’s easy to sing when times are good. But it is harder to sing when times are rough. It’s harder to sing in the face of talks, and fear and the constant threat of violence. It’s hard to sing when folks are being are being beaten, leaders are being jailed and churches are being burned. It’s hard to sing in times like that but times like that is precisely when songs are most potent. Above the dim of hatred, amongst the deafening silence of inaction, the hymns of the civil rights movement helped carry the cause of a people and advance the ideals of a nation.”
The President was talking about America and its struggle for equality in the 1960s. But he could have been talking about Czechoslovakia in 1980 or China today as activists are arrested.
Recalling the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis said that “The songs fed our spirits and gave us hope.” In a time of great struggle, he remembered that “Music weaved our spirits together and gave us the courage to stay in the struggle until change did come. When we would sing, the message of the music lifted us and connected us to a higher call for justice that we believed we were responding to. The songs reminded us of that the power of love had the ability to overcome all inhumanity and indignity. Music was our inspiration, and it fed our spirits in the most difficult hours.”
I hope The Times They Are A-Changin’ in on the set list in Beijing next month. Because there are Dr. Kings and Vaclav Havels in China just waiting to sing.
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you”ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.