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Cynical Protest
DEFINING BOB DYLAN’S TENSELY SYMBIOTIC
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FOLK PROTEST MOVEMENT
PROMPT NO. 2; EXAM NO. B147094
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Bob Dylan is an icon. His music holds profound significance and is often credited with
revolutionary influence – and yet, his ultimate legacy remains muddled and imprecise. Though Dylan’s
fans see him as a grassroots revivalist folk protest hero, the musician’s career is often tainted by
accusations of cynicism and ideological betrayal. These critiques pinpoint Dylan’s 1965 performance at
the Newport Music Festival as the moment he turned his back on the left-wing folk protest movement,
arguing that after this point the artist can no longer be considered a ‘protest singer.’ This is an assertion
that carries with it substantial connotative baggage, and to effectively understand what it contends – much
less gauge its accuracy – we must first recognize it for the two substantive theses it actually is. The claim
that post-1965 Dylan cannot be labelled a ‘protest singer’ stems from the belief that the musician ‘sold
out,’ another phrase often heard in critical discussions of the artist’s career. I posit, however, that these
are two entirely distinct concerns, and attempt to dissect both in the following paper. While Dylan never
ideologically perjured himself and so did not ‘sell out,’ he simultaneously cannot be considered a ‘protest
singer’ after his 1965 Newport performance.

Denotative clarity

It is important that we begin this exploration of Dylan’s artistic and political evolution by
establishing clear understandings of our terminology. A ‘protest song,’ for instance, is not simply any
song that voices feelings of protest about some injustice or event. Rather, it must be explicitly associated
with a movement for social or political change.1 Similarly, a ‘protest singer’ is an artist who openly
participates in and supports a broader movement – not every musician who writes politically conscious
commentary is a protest singer. Consequently, suggesting that Bob Dylan was ever a protest singer
implies not that he simply wrote songs about social or political injustice, but that he was an engaged, full-
time member of an actual social movement (in this case the early 60s folk protest movement). This is an
important distinction to make and understand for the rest of this analysis.

This dialectical clarification is incredibly important when dissecting the oft-heard assertion that
Dylan’s rejection of his early left-wing folk protest roots symbolically and musically manifested itself in
the musician’s electric evolution, an argument I think is essentially extraneous to the actual question at
hand. Those who emphasize Dylan’s turn to electric instrumentation as indicative of his ideological
cynicism only do so out of a heuristic association between electric music and the popular music
establishment, which is just not a valid argument. Not all electric music is popular music, nor is it all
establishment-approved. Radical left-wing electric music is a real and well-documented phenomenon.
Conversely, folk music is not synonymous with left-wing political ideology. Although the folk protest

1
Janou Kraaijvanger, Bob Dylan as a Political Dissenter, 2017, page 13.
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movement co-opted the genre for political purposes, it was originally – and still can be – very much
apolitical.

All of this is not to suggest that Dylan’s decision to abdicate his folk roots in favour of a different
sound is meaningless. It is just to, as succinctly as possible, rebuke and dispatch the argument that this
conversion in and of itself means that Dylan’s status as a protest singer is up for debate. To fully
understand why Dylan cannot be labelled a protest singer after the mid-60s – and how he made this shift
without ever truly selling out – it’s imperative that we assess his relationship with the folk protest
movement from its very conception.

Dylan goes folk

When he first turned to folk music, Dylan had no political agenda. He played blues-based,
quintessentially authentic music that chronicled daily life and travels.2 These songs had strong lyrical and
instrumental similarities to other, established folk performers – notably Woody Guthrie, an early hero of
Dylan’s. Guthrie, like Dylan, wrote and performed both political and non-political folk music.

But despite his admiration of Guthrie, Dylan paid only lip service to his icon’s life and career.
Dylan never travelled in the same way that Guthrie did, though he affected that certain persona when
performing. Dylan didn’t stick to the story-spoken blues, either, evidenced both early and late in his
career. Most importantly, Dylan diverged with Guthrie politically – although Dylan shared the same
appreciation for the common person and rejection of oppression, he was never as engaged or involved in
the sphere as his idol (who was in fact a long-time supporter and member of the Communist Party).3

Dylan’s politics in the early 60s were fairly blasé. Richard Farina, which whom Dylan lived at the
time, once characterized the musician’s politics as feeling “the intolerability of bigoted opposition to civil
rights.”4 Dylan perceived opposition to such basic rights as literally absurd – there was absolutely no
nuance to the situation for him – and so he, consequently, found it easy to write about. It was black and
white, open and shut. It made easy content for songs like “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a
Pawn in Their Game,” and “Masters of War.” Dylan saw these political issues and events as fodder for his
music; injustice didn’t drive him to write and create, he wrote and create using political issues primarily
because he recognized their power to elevate his reputation and status, secondarily because he believed in
them. It was, ultimately, a relatively cynical approach to politics.

2
Janou Kraaijvanger, Bob Dylan as a Political Dissenter, 2017, page 17.
3
Andrea Cossu, It Ain’t Me Babe, 2012, page 30.
4
David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street, 2011, pages 47-52.
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This refusal to fully incorporate political issues with his public brand indicates that Dylan never
truly, absolutely conformed to folk protest ideologies. First and foremost, he was an artist – his songs
were using political issues, not the other way around. Dylan’s participation in the folk protest movement
was symbiotic; although he did genuinely believe in the cause and morality of the movement, he also
needed the fame and success it promised to eventually have enough freedom to do what he wanted
artistically.

Political evolution

The phrase ‘sold out’ is dialectically loaded in that its use implies another: ‘bought in.’ You can’t
sell out unless there’s some oppositional entity or establishment to accept. Consequently, when we ask if
Dylan sold out, we are asking if he bought into the political establishment. To be clear: Dylan selling out
is not a prerequisite for his abdication of the folk protest movement, though that’s often the assumption,
but a distinct tangential concern that must be addressed of its own merit.

It’s true that Dylan’s relationship with the folk protest movement, and particularly the civil rights
aspect of it, became observably and tangibly strained in the mid-60s.5 The tension had been a long time
coming, and is evident in both Dylan’s music and behaviour at the time. It stemmed from a personal
disenfranchisement with the primarily white folk protest movement’s approach to obtaining civil and
social justice. Dylan – along with contemporaries like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger – was at this point very
much an integral part of the gradual approach to improving civil rights that President Kennedy approved
of.6 He was a figurehead of the folk protest movement and performed often at freedom rides and voter-
registration drives.

Dylan quickly grew disheartened by the glacial pace of this approach to liberal progress. This
dissatisfaction was fuelled by Jim Forman, Secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee, whom he met at a 1963 voter registration drive in Greenwood, Mississippi.7 Forman’s
critique of slow-moving Kennedy reforms and outrage at Kennedy’s refusal to protect voter-registration
workers struck a chord with Dylan, who had already been questioning his role in the movement. Dylan
debuted his song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” while in Greenwood, the story of the murder of NAACP
activist Medgar Evers, and his changing attitude seems evident in the lyrics. The death wasn’t just the
murderer’s fault – “it ain’t him to blame” – he’s only a pawn in their game; i.e., there was a much bigger

5
Mike Marqusee, Wicked Messenger, 2006, page 12.
6
Janou Kraaijvanger, Bob Dylan as a Political Dissenter, 2017, pages 25-27.
7
Mike Marqusee, Wicked Messenger, 2006, pages 80-81.
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problem here that could not be addressed by the nonconfrontational approach championed by the folk
protest movement.8

By the time he performed at the March On Washington, Dylan’s involvement with the folk
protest movement was on its last legs. The naivete he believed the movement showed, as well as the
authoritative way it was run, pushed him over the edge. In an award-acceptance speech given later that
year, Dylan not only compared himself to Lee Harvey Oswald and insulted bald politicians, he attacked
bourgeois Negroes for wearing suits on the platform at the Great March on Washington.9 Although he
eventually wrote a public apology to the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee for his words, his message
was clear: he was rejecting the liberal, white-led folk protest movement.10 Dylan was radicalized beyond
his origins; he now supported direct action led by young, black Americans as the only viable solution to
civil rights problems.

This sudden realization forced Dylan into making a choice. He could split with the folk protest
movement that had figuratively birthed his career in favour of more direct political action, or he could
split with the movement in favour of his own artistic work and career. The choice was obvious, if you
remember and understand that Dylan’s involvement in the political realm was always secondary to his
music. Besides, the political clarity that had once made it so easy for Dylan to write protest songs was
gone – his new, more nuanced approach to civil rights would not make for good material. So he changed
track.

This is the point where Dylan stops being a protest singer. It has nothing to do with his 1965
Newport performance, although that outwardly marks the moment the folk protest movement recognized
he was no longer one of their champions. Importantly, however, this rejection of a protest singer label
does not mean that Dylan sold out. His music was still intensely political, in a sporadic and less explicit
way, it just wasn’t attached to any established movement. His music became what it never was before –
art, separate from any political use.

That’s not to say Dylan stopped writing political songs entirely. But now they were commentary,
not protest songs, and they became increasingly vague. Dylan’s 1965 album “Bringing It Back Home”
tells listeners not to follow leaders, himself included.11 “Maggie’s Farm” eviscerates wage labour.12

8
Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” track 6 on The Times They Are a-Changin’, Columbia Records, 1964,
compact disc.
9
Bob Dylan, “Remarks at the Bill of Rights Dinner,” 1963.
10
“A Message,” Bob Dylan to the E.C.L.C., 1963.
11
Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965, compact disc.
12
Bob Dylan, “Maggie’s Farm,” track 3 on Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, 1965, compact disc.
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Dylan’s music became political commentary, disassociated from any established movement, but still
visceral and scathing attacks on politicians and perceived oppressors.

Perhaps the most concentrated musical representation of Dylan’s evolved political ideology is his
1965 hit song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” A brilliantly lyricized indictment of modern society,
the song wholly condenses Dylan’s political thought into one digestible message. Contrasting the
peaceful folk protest movement with more direct approaches – “As some warn victory, some
downfall/Private reasons great or small/Can be seen in the eyes of those that call/To make all that should
be killed to crawl” – Dylan implicitly rejects collective action as a viable solution to the inequality that
plagues our country. “An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged,” he writes, “It’s only people’s
games that you got to dodge.” Dylan also confesses to turning his back on his former folk protest peers,
singing “And if my thought-dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.”13

Dylan continued writing politically charged songs late into his career. His 1971 single “George
Jackson” is evidence of that, as is his 1975 track “Hurricane,” a detailed critique of the miscarriage of
justice surrounding boxer Reuben Carter (wrongly convicted of murder). Even years later, Dylan is aware
and open about the failure of the folk protest music in his lyrics, writing “If you’re black, you might as
well not show up on the streets.”14 Again, he shows his evolved, nuanced understanding of our broken,
damaging political system – a clear contrast to his early folk protest movement days of advocating
nonconfrontational action within the system.

Conclusion

When we ask whether Bob Dylan can be considered a protest singer post-1965, we are
subconsciously implying that he sold out (or bought in) to the liberal political establishment. But these are
not synonymous statements. Dylan cannot be considered a protest singer because he consciously split
with the folk protest movement responsible for his success – but he didn’t sell out. If anything, his
experiences with the civil rights movement radicalized him to a point where he couldn’t simultaneously
balance his ideological evolution and his music. Dylan continued to write politically charged, socially
conscious music long after his conversion to electric sound; he just did so sporadically and less explicitly
than he had when attached to the folk protest movement.

13
Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” track 10 on The Times They Are a-Changin’, Columbia
Records, 1964, compact disc.
14
Bob Dylan, “Hurricane,” track 1 on Desire, Columbia Records, 1976, compact disc.
Bibliography

"A Message." Bob Dylan to The Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. 1963. https://www.corliss-
lamont.org/dylan.htm.

Cossu, Andrea. It Ain't Me, Babe: Bob Dylan and the Performance of Authenticity. Routledge, 2012.

Dylan, Bob. "An Interview in Austin, Texas." Interview by Nora Ephron and Susan
Edmiston. Retrospective (Austin, Texas), 1965.

Dylan, Bob. Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia Records, 1965, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. “Hurricane.” Track 1 on Desire. Columbia Records, 1976, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding).” Track 10 on Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia
Records, 1965, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. “Maggie’s Farm.” Track 3 on Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia Records, 1965, compact
disc.

Dylan, Bob. "Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Track 6 on The Times They Are a-Changin’. Columbia
Records, 1964, compact disc.

Dylan, Bob. "Remarks at the Bill of Rights Dinner." Speech, December 13, 1963. https://www.corliss-
lamont.org/dylan.htm.

Hajdu, David. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña,
and Richard Fariña. New York: Picador, 2011.

Jones, Tudor. Bob Dylan and the British Sixties: A Cultural History. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019.

Kraaijvanger, Janou. Bob Dylan as a Political Dissenter. Master's thesis, Radboud University, 2017.
Nijmegen: Radboud Repository, 2017.

Marqusee, Mike. Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. New York City, NY: Seven Stories,
2006.

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