Against a backdrop of escalating war in Vietnam and social and political mayhem to accompany it at home, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, the conditions were perfect for hard-hitting topical rock and soul songs to step in and document the times. John Lennon put forth “Imagine,” the follow-up to his and Yoko Ono’s initial bursts of song devoted to giving peace a chance. Marvin Gaye voiced his concerns in “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” while Cat Stevens boarded the “Peace Train” that would ultimately take him to study the Qur’an and inspire a conversion to Islam. At the height of the era of music for change, it was more or less expected serious artists would weigh in during times of trouble with a song. From the chart-busting Motown artists who began to draw from a repertoire that was Blacker and stronger, to the rush-released recording by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of “Ohio” concerning the shooting tragedy at Kent State, the appetite for topical songs in the US was spurred on by their chart successes. Of course it was Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s pro-civil rights and anti-war songs that were the catalysts for the decade’s new strain of rock and soul music with a message.
Dylan’s arrival in Greenwich Village in 1961, to a scene informed equally by poetry and politics as it was jazz and folk, found him mastering pointed and topical song form early on, from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” He followed his first act with his famous retreat from political songs and folk music. Resisting the tag, “voice of a generation,” he leaned more toward poetical and philosophical lyric forms, rather than those polemical or topical and developed his own world of song perhaps best exemplified by the rambles, “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Desolation Row,” and other epics on the trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. From 1966 through much of 1971 Dylan remained in self-imposed exile, off the road and away from the spotlight.
Making his way back to performing in public for the first time since his Isle of Wight concert in 1969, Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden on August 1st, 1971 at the Concert for Bangladesh, the model for all of today’s all-star charity events. Organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, the rally for Bangladesh raised awareness and funds for the residents of East Pakistan and Bengal India, regions beset by complications of war plus a cyclone and the flooding and famine that followed. An already troubled region was now devastated, and as Shankar outlined the situation for concert-goers, Dylan helped to draw them, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” as well as a handful of more apolitical songs. Not long after the concert, on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was shot to death during an alleged prison escape and Dylan would once again pluck his subject matter from the headlines, returning to his roots as a social and racial justice singer. One could suggest it was Harrison’s and Shankar’s example of engaging with the world outside their door that inspired Dylan’s subject, though perhaps it was more a matter of his coming to terms with his own gift for topical songs.
Dylan’s relationship to the political world and the matters he chooses to champion or protest have been the subject of much debate, discussion, and inspiration for over 50 years; his life and songs have been over-analyzed and well-examined, but the 1971 single, “George Jackson,” a remembrance for the radicalized convict and Black Panther who died in a San Quentin prison shoot-out remains one of his most intriguing cuts. Not only does “George Jackson” mark the songwriter’s return to topical song form and to touring, its subject remains almost mysterious and misunderstood to the general audience as the singer himself.
Landing in California following a life on the streets of Chicago, a 70-dollar robbery is what landed Jackson in state prison, his sentence indeterminate. Jackson immediately found trouble on the inside too when guards took an instant dislike to him and his sentences were extended following events occurring at Soledad State Prison in which three Black inmates and a white guard were killed. Using his time in solitary to educate himself, Jackson studied psychologist Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Marx, and Mao, and came to understand the incarceration of poor Blacks for petty crime in a political context. A leader in moving prisoners to radicalize, Jackson joined the Black Panthers and became one of the group’s most celebrated members. However by 1969, J. Edgar Hoover had declared the Black Panthers to be public enemy number one and set out to decimate them. Nevertheless, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson was published in 1971 and was greeted by a positive reception by intellectuals and political progressives. That Jackson had been framed for conspiring to kill a guard in the Soledad incident was a widely held belief; his defenders were vocal and his case was a cause célèbre. But a few days before the Jackson trial was to begin, a riot broke out in San Quentin in which inmates and guards were again slain and Jackson was among those killed as he ran across the yard in an alleged escape attempt.
Less than a month after the prison shooting in California, a historic event at Attica Correctional Facility wherein prisoners took control of the prison to protest its poor conditions resulted in more fatalities—an unmistakable call for prison reform. Perhaps it was the call to which Dylan was responding when in November, he cut and released “George Jackson”, a 45-rpm record that reached the Top 40 in January of 1972. Opening with the blues trope, “I woke up this morning,” Dylan’s “George Jackson” is not a typical blues song, though it surely addresses the larger topic of racial and socio-economic oppression from which a certain style of blues was born. It also leaves a record of Jackson and his story.
“The power of George Jackson’s personal story remains painfully relevant to our nation today, with its persistent racism, its hellish prisons, its unjust judicial system, and the poles of wealth and poverty that are at the root of all that,” wrote historian Howard Zinn in an updated version of Jackson’s Soledad Brother. Wresting larger truths from the events of 1971, Dylan delivered his summation in these often quoted lines from “George Jackson”:
Sometimes I think this whole world
Is one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners
The rest of us are guards
Dylan cut two versions of “George Jackson” for a double sided seven-inch: A “big band” version featuring Kenny Buttrey (drums), Ben Keith (steel guitar), and Leon Russell (bass), and a solo acoustic version. Among the various issues of the single—and there are many—is a picture sleeve with an image of Dylan performing at the Concert for Bangladesh; it remains sought-after by record collectors.
The details of the George Jackson case are still debated today by scholars, historians, and those who remember the events. Last year, the last incarcerated member of the San Quentin Six, Hugo Pinell, was killed while serving his life sentence, much of it in solitary confinement.
The following is a live recording of Joan Baez singing “George Jackson.”
Filed under: Black Power,, Bob Dylan, California, Civil Rights, video, Black August, George Jackson, Joan Baez, Prison reform