Bob Dylan: 1960s Political and Social Movements
Bob Dylan, a folk rock singer-songwriter, started his career in the early 1960s with songs that defined social issues such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. During this time the rebellion against mainstream society was rising amongst the youth as they adopted alternative lifestyles as a way of achieving self-transformation. According to James Dunlap, folk music was generally viewed, “as a way to understand or promote the common beliefs and aspirations of entire social groups,” which provided a way for young people to express their discontent with the mass culture and their parents’ values (549). Through his songs, Dylan challenged the accepted beliefs of American society, focusing on the feelings of individuals rather than entire social groups. This lead him to become known as the unofficial spokesperson for the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s and many young people looked up to him for their ideas concerning social ideas (Rebel).
Bob Dylan was born in Minnesota in 1941. As a child, Dylan made friends with those who were less fortunate than he as. This led him to find that those who lived a lifestyle without material objects, obtained higher values and found pleasures in the simple things (Dunlap, 556). While attending the University of Minneapolis in 1959, he joined the on campus folk scene during the time when awareness of political and sexual freedoms increased among students. Dropping out two years later, Dylan moved to Greenwich Village in New York where he played local gigs before getting signed by Columbia records in October of 1961.
Emmett Till, 1954
In January of 1962, Dylan began to use his music in order to show the experiences of injustice within American society. Jake Rae claims that, “Bob Dylan made it clear that the political problems in the United States are not out of the reach of the general public, but are actually the problems right by out side and we could help to solve the problems.” These political protest songs, also known as “finger-pointing songs,” drew attention to a specific incident or a political issue such as Dylan’s song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” Emmitt Till was a young black man who was killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1955 while visiting his family in the South. In the song Dylan explains when the case was brought to trial, they confessed to killing him but due to the fact that the jury consisted of men who helped them, they were found innocent and no one seemed to mind. With this song Dylan calls out to America, questioning how they could allow such injustice to take place.
As politicians continued to send more and more troops to Vietnam, Americans began to question the involvement of the United States and expressed their disapproval openly. In April of 1963, Bob Dylan recorded, “Masters of War,” as an angry protest song that signified the ideas of the students and young people who were protesting against the war. He explains the brutality of war, explaining how the government builds the guns, death planes and big bombs. Speaking out to the government, Dylan argues that they only build in order to destroy, “You put a gun in my hand/And you hide from my eyes/And you turn and ran farther/When the fast bullets fly.” This represents how little concern the U.S. government seems to have for the number of deaths caused by the war because their only interest is winning. By wishing death upon the ‘Masters of War’ at the end of the song, Dylan emphasizes the deep feelings the protesters had about putting an end to the war and creating peace within society (Bob Dylan & 1960s).
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” is another example of Dylan’s protest songs. He wrote this song after reading about her death in the newspaper. Hattie Carroll was a black maid in Baltimore who murdered by her owner, William Zanzinger and after being tried for first-degree murder, he was only given six months of jail time. Dylan tells people not to cry for the unjustly death of the maid, but cry for the fact that the killer, who belonged to the upper class, was only given a six-month sentence. Dylan wrote this song to express the disturbance he found knowing that if the murderer was black, or the victim was white, the consequences would have been more severe. This song calls out to those who want to try and justify the actions of Zanzinger. The lyrics read, “But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears.” Dylan aims these words at “liberals who provide socially acceptable responses to problems, such as telling people not to be afraid of things they don’t understand” (Dunlap, 560). These songs were influenced by the political uproar of young people during the civil rights and ban the bomb movements and according to Mike Marqusee, “For Dylan, youth itself – that vast new social demographic – had become the touchstone of authenticity.” Apart from correcting social injustices, Dylan wants to awaken the conscience of his listeners and provoke honest feelings.
When Bob Dylan joined the social movement he recorded the song, “The Times They Are A-Changin,” which allowed him to become “the voice of the generation” during the 1960s when the American youth was going through a cultural rebellion. Dylan said, “This was definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it to” (qtd. in Bob Dylan & 1960s). He calls out to mothers and fathers with the lyrics, “And don’t criticize/What you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin.” This explains the generation gap as the youth began to rebel against the conformity of mainstream society. This song is a representation of the youth calling out for their own freedom; while Dylan advises the parents to let them be, that way they can form and express their own ideas because the times are changing and new ideas are becoming more accepted.
The songs of Bob Dylan during the 1960s represented the concerns and ideas of the rebellious youth counterculture that were dealing with issues like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Songs such as, “The Death of Emmett Till,” and “The Death of Hattie Carroll” were written in order to demonstrate the racism and inequality experienced within the United States. His lyrics came right out of the song with a really deep message for the audience to think about. Unlike other folk singers of his time like Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, Dylan sold his lyrics outside the normal folk audience and reached the mass teen public (Bob Dylan, ThinkQuest). The generation of youth began to see the signs of racism and all of the hatred and violence within society. They created alternative lifestyles in order to promote a peaceful change within society. The music of Bob Dylan appealed to them because he openly expresses his disapproval of the American political and social system in order to encourage his audience to move in a direction for change.
" Bob Dylan." 2012. Biography.com 05 Oct 2012, 11:56 http://www.biography.com/people/bob-dylan-9283052
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---. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Times They Are A-Changin.” The Times They Are A-Changin. Columbia, 1963.
Dunlap, James. “Through the Eyes of Tom Joad: Patterns of American Idealism, Bob Dylan, and Folk Movement Protest.” Popular Music and Society, 12 Dec. 2006, 29:5, 549-573. Proquest. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.
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