For music aficionados of a certain age, the decision to have Jimmy Carter present Bob Dylan with the MusiCares Person of the Year honor at the 2015 Grammys seemed rather strange. Why was this anti-establishment folk crooner being feted by a former president?
As the new documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President reveals, the two became fast friends after meeting one night in 1975.
“Bob Dylan’s band performed in Atlanta when I was governor, so I invited Bob Dylan and his band to the governor’s mansion,” Carter recalls in the film. “And my sons were very eager to be with the band, and I was honored because Bob Dylan asked me to go out in the garden, as a matter of fact, and have a conversation with him. The only questions he asked me were questions about my Christian faith, and what it meant to me. Basically the principles of it.”
The famously irascible Dylan says he was disarmed by Carter’s generosity and genuineness of spirit.
“He was a kindred spirit to me of a rare kind. The kind of man you don’t meet every day, and that you’re lucky to meet if you ever do,” offers Dylan.
WATCH: BOB DYLAN ON HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH JIMMY CARTER
This rendezvous came a whole four years before Dylan announced his conversion to Christianity in 1979—and Carter’s words appeared to have a profound effect on him. As director Mary Wharton’s documentary explores in rollicking detail, Carter frequently invoked Dylan’s lyrics during his 1976 presidential run (“We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying,” he said during a speech at the ’76 Democratic National Convention), and was the first American president to openly embrace rock and roll, with various musicians shredding away at his rallies and events.
“Young people in 1976 were very disillusioned by the Vietnam War and Watergate and were ready for a change in the leadership and direction that America was heading,” Wharton tells The Daily Beast. “By quoting Dylan lyrics in his campaign speeches and having rallies with performers like the Allman Brothers and Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett, Carter was telegraphing to those young voters that he was on their side, and the young people’s vote were a big part of what helped Carter win the election.”
“Carter was telegraphing to those young voters that he was on their side, and the young people’s vote were a big part of what helped Carter win the election.”
According to Wharton, Dylan proved to be an engaging and lively interview subject when he was interviewed for Rock & Roll President by the film’s writer, Bill Flanagan.
“He was gracious and professional, and he showed up with some great ideas about what he wanted to say about Carter,” says Wharton. “He also seemed to be enjoying himself that day and gave us a lot more of his time that I ever would have expected.”
Carter, of course, eventually won the election, and on Jan. 20, 1977, was sworn in as the 39th president of the United States. Aretha Franklin sang a stunning rendition of “God Bless America” at the ceremony—and 40 years later would refuse to perform at the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Carter did attend, however, making him the first-ever president to ring in the 40th anniversary of their inauguration.
At the 2015 Grammy Awards, Carter delivered a speech so moving that Dylan appeared taken aback.
“Bob Dylan knew how to put the essence of all the great religions into beautiful lyrics, which have been an inspiration to me and to the whole world,” said Carter. “There is no doubt that his words on peace and human rights are much more incisive, and much more powerful, and much more permanent than any president of the United States.”
CNN Films will release Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President in virtual and select theaters on Wednesday, Sept. 9.