Remembering Bob Dylan’s 1964 sympathetic speech about John F. Kennedy murderer Lee Harvey Oswald
Bob Dylan recently shared his first original material in eight years in the form of ‘Murder Most Foul‘ where he sang at length about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So, we thought that it was worth revisiting the speech he made just weeks after the event, a time when the singer sympathised with Lee Harvey Oswald who famously committed the atrocity.
On December, 13th, 1963, Dylan was an attendee at a dinner event in New York hosted by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee who had awarded its annual Tom Paine Award to Bob Dylan for his contribution to the fight for civil liberties.
It’s safe to say that Dylan had consumed a beverage or two to settle his nerves by the time he eventually took to the stage. He then delivered an unprepared controversial speech in which he expressed sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who, just three weeks previous, had killed John F. Kennedy.
The line in his ‘speech’—although you probably call it some half-hearted rambling— was met by a chorus of hisses and booing by the people in attendance, with Dylan’s drinking perhaps damaging his ability to get his point across coherently, coupled with Kennedy’s death still being very raw at the time of the speech, the room had suddenly gone cold.
Dylan shared at the podium: ’I’ve got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where — what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone — I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me — not to go that far and shoot.”
The reaction then turned extremely hostile as you can imagine, with Dylan then wrapping up his speech fairly quickly: “You can boo but booing’s got nothing to do with it. It’s a — I just a — I’ve got to tell you, man, its Bill of Rights is free speech and I just want to admit that I accept this Tom Paine Award in behalf of James Forman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and on behalf of the people who went to Cuba.”
The speech was then met with hysteria from the worldwide press who were angered with Dylan’s comment. It led to him issuing a written statement about the incident. It wasn’t a half-hearted apology and retraction, it was an explanation.
On the topic of Oswald, Dylan wrote in the letter: “When I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times, I was not speakin of his deed if it was his deed. The deed speaks for itself but I am sick, so sick at hearin “we all share the blame” for every church bombing, gun battle, mine disaster, poverty explosion, an president killing that comes about. It is so easy t say “we” an bow our heads together I must say “I” alone an bow my head alone for it is I alone who is livin my life.
Adding: “I have beloved companions but they do not eat nor sleep for me an even they must say “I” yes if there’s violence in the times then there must be violence in me, I am not a perfect mute. I hear the thunder an I cant avoid hearin it, once this is straight between us, it’s then an only then that we can say “we” an really mean it… an go on from there t do something about it.”
He also writes: “I do not apologize for myself nor my fears. I do not apologize for any statement which led some to believe “oh my God! I think he’s the one that really shot the president.” You can find the full transcripts of both Dylan’s speech and his written statement here.
‘Murder Most Foul’ is proof that Dylan’s is best with words when he has time to carefully craft each word together to form a masterpiece rather than thinking on his feet which can is prone to on occasion, land him in hot water.