Mastercard Masters Of Music Festival - Hyde Park

BOB DYLAN/billboard.com

In an episode of the television series Taxi, Latka Gravas, an immigrant from an unnamed Eastern European country, is repairing a cab while his radio plays what sounds like polka music from his homeland. Cab driver Jim Ignatowski, who hasn’t gotten over the ‘sixties, stops momentarily to listen, cupping his ear and gently rocking to the beat. As he walks away, Iggy says, “You never know what Dylan is going to do next.” Ignatowski, though usually in a daze, knew a thing or two, including, it seems, the wide range of musical genres Dylan has explored—invariably making his own mark. That Taxi episode was recorded in 1979; Dylan has covered a lot of ground since then.

I have only a casual knowledge of Bob Dylan, but it was knowledge enough to draw my attention to the title of this book written by Richard F. Thomas, a professor of classics at Harvard. It struck me that Dylan’s influence has been such that, on the one hand, no one needs to explain why he matters and, on the other hand, no one can. Or perhaps I mean no one should, because I know Dylan has bristled at times at efforts to explain him and his work—and especially at efforts to fit him and his work into categories.

So because I was curious about that title—curiosity is one of my downfalls—I read the book. It was immediately apparent to me that I did not belong in Richard Thomas’s company, at least where Dylan is concerned. Thomas has vast and deep knowledge of Dylan’s career with its many phases—tableaux might be a better word; with his songs and how they have slipped in and out of the repertoire; with the shifting devotion of his fans; with his odyssey through musical genres and his spawning of new ones; with his live performances; with his other artistic expressions; with the fuzzy distinction between truth and fantasy in his recollections, and with his personal life. Dylan fans—real fans—might revel in Thomas’s exposition of Dylan and his songs, done in accessible language and in a relatively compact space.

What absorbed me most in this book was what Thomas presented as Dylan’s early and continuing interest in the culture of ancient Rome and his incorporation of classical Greek and Roman poetry into his lyrics. In his Nobel lecture, Dylan spoke of the influence that Homer’s Odyssey has had on him and on many other writers.

Thomas sees the connection between Dylan and the ancients as a great deal more than plagiarism or “creative use of existing texts.” With respect to Ovid, Virgil, Homer, and that whole crowd, Thomas writes, “For the past forty years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan’s songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets. He is part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today and incapable of being contained by time and space.”

And Dylan’s take? He recalls reading Cicero, Plutarch, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius: “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school teacher—probably teach Roman history or theology.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The electric chair at the Holman Correctional Facility

When I was in high school, Mike Rinaldo, a history teacher and a hell of a nice guy, gave us some experience in debate. Not only did he assign the topics, but he also told us which side of the topics we were to argue. He assigned me to argue in favor of capital punishment. I was not in favor of capital punishment, but I made the best argument I could, and the faculty panel that judged the debates declared me the winner of that one. Since Mr. Rinaldo had compelled me to construct an argument against my own beliefs, I was amused when he told me privately, and with a twinkle in his eye, that he thought my argument was all wet and that it was shameless of me to include Torah references such as “an eye for an eye,” knowing that the rabbis had interpreted such references in much more nuanced ways than I had used them.

I understand support for the death penalty—I really do. I have read about murder cases that made me, for the moment, so angry that I would have pulled the switch or started the IV myself. But when I reflect calmly on it, I abhor capital punishment. To me, it represents the height of pessimism. Nathan Leopold would have been executed had it not been for Clarence Darrow; Leopold served his time and spent the rest of his life being peaceful and useful. Queen Victoria thought Edward Oxford should be hanged, but Oxford was shipped off to Australia where he became a prominent citizen of his community. Would death have served better purposes? I don’t think so. And my antipathy for the penalty wasn’t assuaged at all by The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with a literary hand from Lara Love Hardin of Idea Architects.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON/slate.com

Hinton, who is from Birmingham, spent nearly 30 years on death row in an Alabama state prison for a crime he had nothing to do with. In 1985, a witness identified him as the man who shot a restaurant owner in an incident that had occurred while Hinton was 15 miles away, working on a cleaning crew in a warehouse. The warehouse was surrounded by razor-wire fence, and anyone coming or going had to check in with a guard at the gate. In addition, the workers were supervised by a foreman who assigned them task by task. Hinton was not charged with that crime but with two murders that had followed the same pattern. He was convicted on the basis of what turned out to be inaccurate ballistics test results that connected the crimes to a revolver owned by Hinton’s mother. He was convicted also because, being black, he fit Alabama’s glib profile of a criminal, and being poor, he did not receive competent defense.

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HOLSOM STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

Because of this best-selling book and the media attention that has been afforded Hinton, it is well known by now that he was released from prison in 2015 after the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the State of Alabama declined to retry the case—not because the state finally acknowledged its mistakes but because, with the ballistics test debunked, it had no evidence against Hinton. The criminal justice system in Alabama had doggedly refused to acknowledge what was clear; its behavior leads only to the conclusion that its priority was not to establish the truth but to execute this man who, conveniently, was convicted and incarcerated.

This story is also about the unnecessary cruelty with which the State of Alabama treated the inmates on death row in the Holman Correctional Facility. Condemned men live every hour in putrid conditions with a combination of humiliation, fear, and hopelessness—there were eleven suicides on the unit while Hinton was there, and he writes that he considered that solution for himself.

And this story is about the strength of character that sustained Hinton during those decades in which 54 condemned prisoners were walked past his cell on their way to the electric chair or, in latter years, the gurney and lethal injection. In fact, the quality of the human being who emerges from this account makes the fact that he languished in prison for no reason all the greater tragedy: He was robbed of his life, and his community and friends and family, and the world at large, were denied the blessing of his presence.

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ANTHONY RAY HINTON and LESTER BAILEY/gridironnow.com

He was a blessing to his colleagues on death row, though, because while he wrestled with  the frustrations and horrors of his own situation—ingeniously creating a detailed fantasy life in which he could find relief from a suffocating reality—he related to the other condemned inmates, even the former Klansman who had lynched black men, as first of all fellow human beings. He went to the length of convincing the warden to let him form a book club with a group of prisoners, opening to some of them a part of their own intellects that they had never before experienced.

Hinton is a man of such integrity that when, after many unsuccessful attempts to get the state to confront the injustice done to him, he was offered the opportunity of life without parole, he turned it down. He would rather have died than imply that he had committed those crimes.

Anthony Ray Hinton is 62 years old; to a large extent, he has missed out on life. But with this book—a tough one to put down once you start reading it—he has made a powerful statement about injustice. And if Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative had not taken up the case, the State of Alabama would have gone on its giddy way to killing—murdering, really—this insightful and gentle man.

 

A hero in Hinton’s life is Lester Bailey, who has been his friend since they were young children. Bailey never missed a visiting day at Holman for the entire time Hinton was incarcerated, often bringing Hinton’s devoted mother until she passed away. You can see Hinton talking about Hinton’s friendship by clicking HERE.

 

 

 

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I must have been out of town, figuratively, when angry protesters were denouncing Fred Rogers for “tolerating” gay people. That’s what one of the protest signs—in a scene from the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—accused Rogers of doing, “tolerating.”

I dislike that word and its derivatives when they are used to describe race relations or gender relations, if that’s the right term. To tolerate a class of people is to put up with them when we’d rather not. And this documentary reinforces the fact that tolerating people because they were black or gay or disabled or distinguished in some other way was precisely what Fred Rogers did not do. He accepted people as they were and, what’s more important, he taught children to do that by explicitly extending that courtesy to them.

Mr. Rogers, we learn in this presentation, was an overweight child who took some abuse from his peers. Having been belittled in that way, he made a career of promoting in the minds of children that, regardless of their individual circumstances, each one of them was of value—not in spite of but because of the fact that each one was unique.

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François Clemmons/PBS

I’m not sure it was made clear in the movie, but the demonstration scene seems to depict the followers of the crazed Kansas minister Fred Phelps making a nuisance of themselves during a memorial service in Mr. Rogers’ honor. Phelps hated everything about Rogers.

We learn in the documentary that Fred Rogers’ attitude toward gay people evolved in a way that was dramatized by his relationship with a prominent member of the cast of his television series. This was François Clemmons, who played a policeman in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood for 25 years. This casting was groundbreaking in itself; Clemmons was one of the first black performers to have a recurring role on a children’s television show. And he was presented as an authority figure who was beloved in the neighborhood and a close friend of Mr. Rogers. The documentary includes a scene in which Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a plastic pool of water and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. When the camera zoomed in on the black feet and the white feet next to each other in that pool—at a time in our history when black swimmers were unwelcome in many pools—no words were necessary to convey the message.

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John Beale/Focus Features

Clemmons, who is a distinguished singer and university lecturer, is gay. He explains, without rancor, in the documentary that Fred Rogers—aware of the conservative mindset of corporate supporters and of the parents of many children who watched the show—advised him to stop visiting a gay nightclub and in general to keep his gender identity under wraps. Rogers went so far as to recommend that Clemmons marry—a step that Clemmons actually took with predictable results. But that was in the 1960s, and Clemmons, who says he regarded Rogers as his “surrogate father,” understood or, at least, rationalized the logic of the time—if Clemmons came out as gay, there would have been powerful pushback that Rogers was not prepared to resist.

Clemmons’ decision to continue on the show had to do with both his personal relationship with Rogers, which was deeply sympathetic and spiritual, and with Clemmons’ assessment of what was the best course for a gay performer at that moment in history. It’s easy to pass judgment on a person in that situation—as long as the person isn’t you. There is more to Clemmons’ story than this documentary could explore, but he talks about it in more detail in an article in Vanity Fair currently available at THIS LINK.

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Joanne Rogers/Getty Images – Frederick M. Brown

Fred Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says in the documentary that her husband eventually “came around” with respect to homosexuality; Clemmons, who is a prominent figure in the movie, certainly seems to be satisfied on that score.

I wasn’t aware that Phelps had aimed his vitriol at Mr. Rogers. Nor was I aware that other reactionary types had misconstrued Rogers’ message to children as suggesting that they need not struggle or even work in order to succeed—a bizarre interpretation of his assurance to children that “You are special” and “I love you as you are.”

This documentary has received nearly universal praise, but not only because it is a portrait of a beloved public figure and an important influence on two generations of children. The film is also praiseworthy because it presents Fred Rogers with no filter on the lens, as a man who had his doubts and disappointments—a radical whose radicalism knew its boundaries. Make no mistake: he was an extraordinary human being, but he wasn’t perfect, and we have no right to expect that of him. In fact, it was from Fred Rogers that we learned to love him just as he was.