Bob Dylan on Jimmy Carter: "A kindred spirit to me of a rare kind"
1974-01-21/2, Omni, Atlanta, GA
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In 2020, Bob Dylan, not a talking head you see pop up in many music documentaries, appeared in the Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. “He’s a kindred spirit to me of a rare kind,” Dylan said of Carter. “The kind of man you don’t meet every day, and you’re lucky to meet if you ever do.”
Carter, for his part, called Dylan “one of my best friends.”
Their relationship began 50 years ago today, after the first of two Tour ‘74 shows in Atlanta. Carter, then the Georgia Governor and three years almost to the day from being inaugurated as President, invited Bob and The Band to visit his house. Rolling Stone wrote at the time:
Carter, a Democrat who entertains 1976 vice-presidential hopes, sent Dylan a hand-written invitation last December, promising that any gathering would not be open to the press. “It was not an effusive note,” Carter said later. Dylan accepted, through tour-producer Bill Graham, with a special request for some real down-home cuisine.
At the show, Graham had told Carter that Dylan had been impressed by the fact that Carter had traveled to Israel in 1972. Paul West, the local reporter who wrote that Rolling Stone story, emailed in after the inaugural entry of this 1974 series ran. He told me about what happened after his article ran. It relates to that paragraph I just quoted.
I was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, covering the state legislature, when I wrote the Rolling Stone piece. I bumped into Carter's son Chip near the state Capitol right after it ran. "Dad didn't like your story," he said. I didn't ask Chip why and he didn't say. Probably it was because the article said Carter was running for vice president. Of course, he wasn't; he was running for president. But nobody, even in Georgia, seriously believed at that point that an obscure, one-term southern governor could get nominated, much less elected. So, the thinking went, Carter must have been running for president in order to get picked for the ticket by the ultimate nominee. It wasn't the last time Jimmy would prove the doubters wrong.
The visit, West reported in his original article, was in fact Chip’s idea. Chip was a Dylan superfan who even travelled to Woodstock in 1968 to shake the man’s hand. In the documentary, Carter explained, “When I was governor, my sons were living in the governor’s mansion with me. Bob Dylan’s music permeated the governor’s mansion. My sons and I were brought closer together through Bob Dylan’s songs. Chip knew every lyric of every Bob Dylan song that had ever been written.”
In his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire, Levon Helm recalled the visit from his perspective:
Richard [Manuel] and I drove out in a limo, enjoying a smoke and the three-man motorcycle escort. The Carters made a family party out of it, and I got to meet the governor, and he gave us a tour of the mansion. But the part that Richard and I liked best was when Rosalynn made breakfast for us. Bob Dylan sat down and ate, and I think he enjoyed a good southern breakfast with the Carters as much as any of us.
Apparently they stayed for two hours eating grits, scrambled eggs, and country ham, not leaving until 1:30 AM (shortly before Gregg Allman turned up at the door, and Carter himself came downstairs to tell him he’d just missed the party). Carter reported that, despite his reported request for “some real down-home cuisine,” Dylan himself stuck to orange juice and vegetables.
Dylan recalled his initial encounter with Governor Carter this way in the doc:
“When I first met Jimmy, first thing he did was quote my songs back to me. It was the first time that I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world. I had no experience in that realm, never seen that side, so it made me a little uneasy. He put my mind at ease by not talking down to me and showing me that he had a sincere appreciation of the songs that I’d written.”
Carter, meanwhile, recalled this:
“I was honored because Bob Dylan asked me to go out in the garden, as a matter of fact, and have a private conversation with him. The only questions he asked me were questions about my Christian faith and what it meant to me.”
The two Atlanta shows themselves featured no new songs. A trend now, as we’ve seen; the wild early days of the tour are long gone. The first show does feature the final "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” though, and the second a relatively rare “It's All Over Now Baby Blue” in the acoustic set.
One fun thing you can hear on the tape of the first night, though, is Bill Graham’s onstage intro for the show. Usually the tapers start when the musicians actually come onstage. Not that anything Graham says is wildly fascinating—keep the aisles clear, mostly—but it helps put you in the room:
One thing you can’t hear on the tape, but that West reports in his Rolling Stone article, is some drama during “Like a Rolling Stone” on the first night:
As the house lights went up during “Like a Rolling Stone,” the crowd, which had been kept under extremely tight control all evening, began flowing toward the stage. With each “How does it feel?” the powerful spots, normally used to light sporting events, were turned on, creating new waves of energy. A fight suddenly broke out next to the governor’s seat and police hauled away an excited young man.
Almost unnoticed in the frenzy of thousands standing and shouting from their seats, a young man pushed his bearded friend in a wheelchair toward the stage, highlighting the quasi-revivalist spirit of the evening, as Dylan encored with a reprise of “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (I’ll Go Mine).”
PS. Here are Carter and Dylan’s remarks about each other from the Rock & Roll President documentary, excerpted by Harry Hew. In addition to the bits above, it includes Dylan unexpectedly quoting Lynyrd Skynyrd: