Bob Dylan And The Protest Movement Of The 1960's

2442 words - 10 pages

The 1960s were a period of dramatic change from what seemed the simplistic 1950s. You could sense that when John Kennedy, the leader of Camelot and all that it represented, was assassinated in Dallas that an age of innocence in the United States (USA) was ending. However, while the tragic demise of Kennedy and his replacement by Johnson who appeared a throwback to an earlier era seemed to signal changing times, the issues were emerging before this. The first baby boomers were now teenagers and they seemed alienated from the conservative world of their parents. The Civil Rights movement was well underway and the Cold War seemed to be without end. A far away place called Vietnam was starting to impose itself on the consciousness of a nation and a generation. A thread of popular music evolved that was dramatically different from the contemporary music scene of three chord guitar songs centered on the problems of high school life and young love. The new music was concerned with the social issues of the day and played a huge role in the culture of the era by helping to rally support to the emerging protest movements and to help keep up the spirit of the youthful protestors.One of the musicians who played a defining role in the music of the 1960s was Bob Dylan. Dylan was perhaps an unlikely person to assume such a role as he was raised as Robert Allen Zimmerman in the small city of Hibbing in Northern Minnesota.# This city was a mining town and was far removed from the mainstream of American life and American music. After finishing high school in 1959, Dylan left Hibbing for Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. His time in Minneapolis seemed more focussed on folk music than school and he dropped out of university in 1961 and left for New York City where he lived in Greenwich village and played in small folk clubs.# He was quickly noted by a industry talent scout and his first album (Bob Dylan) was released by Columbia in 1962.# From these beginnings, Dylan became one the most influential poets, singers and guitarist in American music history. One source identifies him as America's greatest writer of popular songs.#His impact on the protest movements of the 1960s can be seen through an examination of his songs of that time. Blowin' in the Wind and The Times they are a Changin' became near anthems of the civil rights movements and became wildly popular. Other songs such as Mr. Tambourine Man perhaps focussed on the emerging drug culture and captured the sense of the times.5 This paper examines Dylan's impact through an analysis of the lyrics, context and impact of these three songs.Blowin' in the WindThis song, which was released in 1963, was written as a protest song and was central to the civil rights movement. While originally recorded by Dylan, it became a huge hit when recorded by the folk group of Peter, Paul and Mary. My father remembers seeing on television the song being performed by Peter, Paul and Mary at massive protest movements. Having others "capture" his songs was a pattern that would continue as Dylan's singing voice has been described as "flaying harshness" and "very much like a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire."#The second verse of this song seemed to speak to the civil rights movement.Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man haveBefore he can hear people cry?Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knowsThat too many people have died.#Dylan used to speak fondly of the civil rights movement and was certainly helpful to it. His personal political philosophy was left leaning perhaps due to his upbringing in a Jewish family in Northern Minnesota, which has a Democratic tradition. He appeared with his friends Joan Baez and Rabbi Joachim Prinz at Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington in 1963.# This type of visible support could also reinforce the use of his music as the anthems of protest.The popularity of Blowin' in the Wind was such that it also became a song of the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Some of the lyrics are certainly appropriate for its use as an antiwar song.Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls flyBefore they're forever banned?The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the windThe answer is blowin' in the wind.#This crossover between protests is perhaps understandable due to both the enormous popularity of the song and its general "protest theme" and the fact that the opposition to the Vietnam War was based also based on campuses. This is interesting as those who actually went to Vietnam were, for the most part, working class kids or African Americans who did not have the benefit of the automatic draft deferral for going to college.1# The civil rights era started before the opposition to the Vietnam War but the two movements did overlap in time so it is not surprising the music also did.The Times They are a-Changin'Dylan's 1964 song The Times They are a-Changin' voiced his view that his generation needed to change the political system. A quote from Dylan captures this view. "I am bored with the atom bomb. I am bored with our Government. I do wish someone in our government had a beard just to be different".#1 This was a time of conflict when rallies did not always end peacefully. Many people when listening to this song believed that Dylan was writing about the war in Vietnam. It is much more likely that he was writing about the conflict h saw occurring in the USA between the protestors and the government.1# The lyrics are very direct:Come senators, CongressmenPlease heed the callDon't stand in the doorwayDon't block the hallFor he that gets hurtWill be he who has stalledThere's a battle outsideAnd it is ragin'It'll soon shake your windowsAnd rattle your wallsFor the times they are a-changin.1#He signalled through his lyrics the popular view of youth that they wanted to change the system of their parents and that resistance was futile. Parents needed to conform or at least not stand in the way.Come mothers and fathersThroughout the landAnd don't criticizeWhat you can't understandYour sons and your daughtersAre beyond your commandYour old road is rapidly agin'Please get out of the new onIf you can't lend a handFor the times, they are a changing.1#This song does not seem to have had the impact in the protest movement of Blowin' in the Wind. While the sources I used mentioned both songs, Blowin' in the Wind got at least twice the coverage. This could be due to several reasons including over exposure to Dylan, the lack of a popular group such as Peter, Paul and Mary making The Times They are a-Changin' a huge hit, changing interests in music and the fact that civil rights was a more popular theme than changing the system. In any case, Times They are a-Changin' has a secondary position to Blowin' in the Wind as a protest song. It is important to note that these two songs were written a year apart very early in Dylan's long career but are amongst his best-known songs. They were very influential in establishing his career.Mr. Tambourine ManThis section discusses Dylan's 1964 song, Mr. Tambourine Man. This song had great success when released by the Byrds. This song must have been written at almost the same time as was The Times They are a-Changin' yet the songs are very different. While the two songs that this paper earlier analyzed were clearly protest songs, Mr. Tambourine Man was adopted on campus as an anthem of the new drug movement then appearing on campus. Gilpin describes the reaction at his campus:The word got around that in order to "get" the song, and others like it, you had to smoke this apparently angelic drug. It wasn't just peer pressure; more and more, to get access to youth culture, you had to get high. ... Without grass, you were an outsider looking in.1#An examination of the lyrics does not reveal any direct references to drugs. In fact, it is not obvious to me what the first verse means. The same is the case with the chorus.Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving freeSilhouetted by the SeaCircled by the circled sandsWith all memory and fateDriven deep beneath the wavesThat may forget about today tomorrow(Chorus)Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for meI'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going toHey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for meIn the jingle-jangle morning I'll come following you#It is a very interesting question why this song was adopted by the drug movement. One possibility was that Dylan had written a pleasant song about some obscure topic that could not be easily understood. Those people who enjoyed his music were by this time doing drugs and made an association between a singer they liked and drugs that was not intended by Dylan. It is also possible that Dylan had very definitely been considering drugs when he wrote the song. Dylan certainly was known to use drugs but was not a major drug figure like some other musicians like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison.Musicians are perhaps ahead of the population in adopting new habits or trends. Musicians led the population in their use of drugs so it should not be surprising that songs had references to drugs. Quite a number of popular songs attempted to mask or change the lyrics for a number of reasons such as trying to get it the song past censors or to get the song played by mainstream radio stations. At this time in music history, most of the major record labels were not as lenient with letting references to drugs and sex go in the artist's songs which is why the major bands went to small independent labels when they first made it big in the 1960's. This is also why these bands had to mask their lyrics in the first place. Most of the most popular groups of the time such as the Beatles had songs like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds which had references to drugs and drug trips even though John Lennon always denied that this was the case although his denials do not seem to have convinced many people.1# While drugs were beginning to be accepted on the music scene and campus, they were very opposed by society so musicians had to be very careful.Another view is that with Mr. Tambourine Man, Dylan is masking references to drugs in the lyrics. The most usual interpretation of Mr. Tambourine Man by academic scholars is that the lyrics mention transcendence, freedom and an escape from problems that are all different reasons for a person to take drugs or join the drug culture.# However, the fourth verse of the song seems to contain clear references to drugs that are not heavily masked.Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels,To be wanderin1#This song can be viewed as a protest song as it appealed to those who by using drugs. This was different form of protest than civil rights and opposition to the war as it involves criminal activity. It also recognized and stated that times were changing and that drugs were being used. This song came from the 1965 Bringing it Back Home album that was his last as a folk/rock performer.# He then transformed himself into more of a rock musician than folk singer.ConclusionThis paper considered three songs which were written in a two-year period very early in Dylan's career and which likely had a huge impact upon his career. Blowin' in the Wind and The Times they are a Changin were protest anthems of a generation and remain hugely important. Mr. Tambourine Man is a different sort of protest song in that it appealed to those people who were defying very rigid drug laws. Dylan was perhaps an unlikely hero to the protest movement as he was not physically imposing and was not a strong singer. Indeed, his songs had their greatest success when sang by others. Nevertheless, he is considered on of America's greatest songwriters.His music has also played an important role as many of the best known musicians of the last several of decades such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix played his songs which is the ultimate complement to a musician. Many of his songs have been recorded literally by hundreds of musicians that are not just a complement but would provide him with very large royalty payments. Moreover, Dylan's music played an important role in inspiring the protest movement of the 1960s that helped shape the world.


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