Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s former girlfriend and muse, died last Thursday after a long illness. I came to admire her a great deal while researching my book. As a so-called “red diaper” baby and member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), she had the radical upbringing that Dylan lacked and she prodded his political conscience into life. Without her input, it’s by no means certain that Dylan would have ever have written Blowin’ in the Wind or Masters of War. She even illustrated several of Dylan’s protest songs when they first appeared in Broadside magazine. After the couple split, and Dylan began to divest himself of what he saw as political baggage, she continued to work as an activist and artist. Here’s the relevant section from my book, the scene being Greenwich Village, 1961:
In some ways, the most important person Dylan met during those first few months in the Village was not an industry figure, but a smart, beautiful seventeen-year-old named Suze Rotolo. They were introduced in July and fell in love almost immediately. At the apartment they shared on West 4th Street, Rotolo fed her boyfriend’s gargantuan appetite for new stimuli with the likes of Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Graves and Bertolt Brecht: he devotes five pages in Chronicles to the ‘outrageous power’ of Brecht and Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ and its terrifying black freighter. Crucially, Rotolo also awoke his political conscience. She was working as a secretary for CORE and came home each night with stories about the civil rights struggle. One day towards the end of January 1962, with a CORE benefit show looming, Dylan composed ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’, about a black fourteen-year-old who had been beaten and shot to death in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Bob Dylan the protest singer was born.
Dylan denies he was ever a protest singer, but then he didn’t think Woody Guthrie wrote protest songs either. He argued instead in terms of ‘topical songs’, like those written by his Village contem- poraries Tom Paxton and Len Chandler. ‘He didn’t read or clip the papers and refer to it later,’ Rotolo told Dylan’s biographer, Anthony Scaduto. ‘With Dylan it was not that conscious journalistic approach. It was more poetical. It was all intuitive, on an emotional level.’
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