Bob Dylan didn’t know what to expect when he accepted an invitation to visit future U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
He didn’t know that Carter was a big music fan, and he was astonished to hear the politician reciting his lyrics back to him.
The incident took place when Carter was governor of Georgia, prior to his four-year stint in the White House starting in 1977.
“When I was governor, we had three sons of college age, so we were immersed in Bob Dylan, who was a hero of my children,” he said in the 2020 movie Jimmy Carter: Rock ’n’ Roll President. ”When he came to perform in Atlanta, I invited him out to the governor’s mansion. He came and brought the band with him. At that time, he was going through a personal challenge of deciding between whether he should be a Christian or not. He and I went out in the garden and spent a good amount of time talking about his religious phase. So Bob Dylan was a special favorite of us at the time.”
Elsewhere in the movie, the politician reflected, “Music is the best proof that people have one thing in common.”
In the film, Dylan recalled his version of events, saying, “When I first met Jimmy, the first thing he did was quote my songs back to me. And that was the first time that I realized my songs had reached into basically the establishment. I had no experience in that world.” He added, “He put my mind at ease by not talking down to me and showing me he had a sincere appreciation of the songs I had written.”
Director Mary Wharton cited a particular Dylan song that meant a lot to the governor, telling CNN, “Carter talked about when he heard the song ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and how — as someone who grew up the son of a farmer, the son of a landowner — it was the first time he really truly understood the perspective and the plight of the working man, the guy who works on the farm as opposed to the guy who owns your farm.”
She also revealed that Willie Nelson’s music had helped Carter through the two-year Iran hostage crisis that played a role in ending his presidency in 1981. “[It] was obviously the most difficult challenge that he had ever faced,” she said. “And he was able to get through that by listening to a Willie Nelson gospel record. Not even his aides knew about that […] [T]here was a musical connection to how he managed to get through that crisis with such grace and humility and the ability to make the hard choices to be sure that those 52 American hostages came home alive.”
“His presidency was killed by it, but those Americans came home alive, and that was all he cared about,” she continued. “The fact that music was the thing that helped him get through that is one of the linchpins, I think, of what makes this concept of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll president’ hang together.” Wharton added, “Carter connected with the fact that these artists are truth tellers, and I think that’s one of the things that Carter was always known for. He stood firmly behind the truth. He told America the truth even when they didn’t want to hear it.”