When Jimmy Carter Met Bob Dylan

Five presidential administrations later than we might have thought, Bob Dylan played The White House on Wednesday, February 10, 2010.

It was a great honor for Dylan, albeit long overdue; a White House gig seemed most likely during the Jimmy Carter Administration (1977-81). After all, Carter mentioned Dylan’s name often in his first presidential campaign. He spoke highly of Dylan’s music. As he began what seemed a long-shot race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Carter revealed certain things about himself unknown to even Georgians who had closely followed his political career. He liked rock music. He could recite poems by Dylan Thomas. He referred to Bob Dylan as a “friend.”

Succeeding the segregationist Lester Maddox as Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter was, by comparison, a progressive. Quite so. In his inaugural address on Jan. 12, 1971, he declared, “the time for racial discrimination is over.” To some this seemed a surprising statement from one who sought endorsements from former Gov. Marvin Griffin and others opposed to the civil rights movement. But Jimmy Carter would long prove to be an intriguing and surprising figure. The people of Georgia had apparently elected a Renaissance man to be their governor.
It’s Jan. 21, 1974, Jimmy Carter and family members are at the Omni, Atlanta’s new basketball and hockey arena, which, with its 16,000 seats, also serves as a major concert venue. Limited by Georgia’s Constitution to just one consecutive term as governor, Carter is spending much of his final year in office planning for an even more prestigious job. As it turns out, his presence at the Omni to see Bob Dylan and The Band will serve as a point of reference as he sought that more prestigious position, president of the United States.

The people at the Omni that night gave more thought to Bob Dylan’s return to the concert stage than they did to any of Carter’s ambitions. Dylan and The Band showed why immediately, opening (and encoring) with an energetic “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).” The pacing of the concert was nearly perfect. From loud to soft, from brash to gentle, Dylan and The Band played such favorites as “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Each phase of Dylan’s career was represented.
Dylan would also step away, allowing The Band a share of the spotlight, as they performed “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Stage Fright,” and others. It was, for everyone, a greatest hits kind of evening, particularly as Dylan and The Band closed with “Like A Rolling Stone.” The lights went up, the Omni was rocking, and even after the energetic encore, it seemed way too early to head home.

Home was where the paying customers went, but Dylan, The Band, promoter Bill Graham and other friends piled in cars and took the eight mile ride to the Governor’s Mansion, in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. An invitation by Gov. Carter had been extended a month earlier for a post-concert party. Scrambled eggs, grits, country ham, fresh veggies with cheese sauce, along with beer and wine, were served. According to Paul West, in his Rolling Stone article, dated 2/28/74, Dylan opted for veggies and orange juice as the governor took him on a tour of the mansion, pointing out antiques and chatting quietly.

Carter referred to Dylan as “painfully timid.” West went on to report Carter indicated Dylan “never initiated a conversation but he’ll answer a question if you ask him.”

From there, at least during a crucial political period, Carter did a lot of talking. He had to convince people he was the preferred candidate for President of the United States. Friends with money help, but friends who are living legends such as Bob Dylan help even more, just by skillfully dropping their names.

In his autobiography penned for the campaign, Why Not The Best, Carter informs readers of his roles, his accomplishments and interests: “I am a Southerner and an American. I am a farmer, an engineer, a father and a husband, a Christian, a politician, and a former governor, a planner, a businessman, a nuclear physicist, a naval officer, a canoeist, and among other things, a lover of Bob Dylan’s songs and Dylan Thomas’s poetry.”
Journalists, even those of the gonzo variety like Hunter S. Thompson, found themselves more than just curious about Jimmy Carter. On May 1, 1974, Carter gave a Law Day speech that added gravitas to his reputation while gaining the respect of Thompson and others. Carter invoked Dylan while speaking of class barriers in America. He spoke of his days as a child in depression era Georgia: “I grew up a landowner’s son. But I don’t think I ever realized the proper interrelationship between the landowner and those who worked on the farm until I heard Dylan’s record, ‘I Ain’t Gonna Work On Maggie’s Farm No More.’ ”

Scrubbing The Floor, Looking For Meaning . . . . There are various interpretations at what Dylan is getting at in “Maggie’s Farm.” Is the protagonist oppressed or just bored with his menial work?

Well, I wake up in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

John Hinchey thoughtfully reviews the poetry of Dylan’s songs from the ’60s in his 2002 book, Like A Complete Unknown. He enjoys “Maggie’s Farm,” noting it to be Dylan’s second genuine rock and roll song*, but he does not view it as a serious outcry against imperial employers. He notes Dylan is protesting the “sing while you slave” ethic but “reduces his rebel stance to antic capering.”

Contacted recently, Hinchey says he has since reconsidered and now believes “antic capering is not something to object to,” going on to say “the whole point of the song is that the world needs a lot more antic capering and a lot less slaving away.” He says, “Dylan’s complaining about being made to scrub the floor still strikes me as annoyingly snobbish,” but he realizes “the song does paint the portrait of an unjust society; the aspect Carter would have responded to.”

The unjust society perspective is thoroughly covered in studies of Dylan’s work. Tim Riley in Hard Rain refers to “Maggie’s Farm” as the counterculture’s war cry. In No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, Robert Shelton calls “Maggie’s Farm” an “anti-work song” that contains a “strong condemnation of all meaningless labor.” He goes on to remark that Dylan “sounds a declaration of independence against conformity.”

Clinton Heylin, with three Dylan books to his credit, writes about “Maggie’s Farm” in Revolution In The Air, The Songs Of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973, published in 2009. Heylin calls the “lady’s farm a place where exploitation is rife, rebellion is imminent and escape to the city a dream.”

Still the exploitation and rebellion are mixed with a worker whose attitude toward physical work is likely dubious. The worker may realize he’ll end up in a comfy job soon enough. He’s as much observer as he is worker. Complacently, Dylan’s protagonist shrugs off the “sing while you slave” ethic by saying, “I just get bored.”
Reporters and historians considered Carter’s embrace of “Maggie’s Farm” quite seriously. In her 1980 book, Jimmy Carter, In Search of the Great White House, Betty Glad says the song reflects “the burning resentment of poor whites toward the middle class.” Perhaps in highlighting the song, Carter could have been sending a message to some voters that he “might really be a closet radical interested in redistribution of wealth.”

Any inkling of Carter redistributing the wealth did not register with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Those left-of-center were slow to embrace Carter anyway, and toward the end of the primary season, an Anyone-But-Carter effort began. Liberal candidates Frank Church and Jerry Brown entered the fray. But despite topping Carter in some Western states, they succeeded only in slowing Carter’s amazing drive to the presidential nomination.
Carter’s campaign was hot when it mattered most. His big victories in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina, Florida and other states made it clear the nomination would be his. Party regulars still didn’t know what to make of Jimmy Carter, but they got behind him and worked for his victory against President Gerald Ford in November. Fears of disgruntled American workers rising up, singing “Maggie’s Farm” eased. Carter was a centrist candidate, even if he recited poetry and called Bob Dylan his friend.

In the March ’78 Playboy interview, Dylan was asked by Ron Rosenbaum what he thought of Carter claiming to be his friend. Dylan’s response was splendid. “I am his friend,” he answered, saying he thought “Carter’s heart was in the right place.” When asked if he felt Carter was using him by inviting him to the Governor’s Mansion that night, he replied, “No, I believe that he was a decent, untainted man and he just wanted to check me out.” Dylan then went on to describe the qualities he admired in Harry Truman, saying, “He had a common sense about him, which is rare for a president.”

Jimmy Carter wanted to check him out, but there would be no Dylan appearances at the Carter White House. Who knows why? Scheduling conflicts? The pressure of petty politics? A failure of the administration’s supposedly incompetent staff to follow up on something so obvious? The promise of “a new spirit” on the day Carter became president had faded. During his last year in office, he dealt with the Iranian hostage crisis, a failing economy and an election battle that made his ’76 campaign seem a breeze. And Carter, having disappointed millions of his supporters, returned to Georgia four years earlier than he planned.
Carter has kept up with Dylan since leaving The White House. He and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, have attended at least two Dylan concerts in Atlanta, including show number 30 of the “Never-Ending Tour” in July of ’88. That was a hard-rocking concert with dazzling performances by Dylan’s lead guitarist, G.E. Smith. The Carters were seated near the front. Jimmy Carter has stated a preference for the pre-electric Dylan recordings; but despite the volume and high energy, a Renaissance man could only love the show. It was, well, electrifying.

*”Maggie’s Farm” is indeed a swinging, rocking song, recorded in one take. It appeared on Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan’s first “electric” album, released March 22, 1965.