The Politics of Bob Dylan

The protest songs for which Bob Dylan is most famous were written in a 20-month burst in the early 1960s. Within a year Dylan had turned his back on them - not in renunciation of politics, argues Mike Marqusee, but to pursue a deeper kind of radicalism

November 1, 2003
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.

Joan_Baez_and_Bob_DylanForty years ago, on 26 October 1963, Bob Dylan premiered ‘The Times They are A-Changin”, his generational anthem, to a sold-out house at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

The song is founded on a conviction that the movement for social change is unstoppable, that history will conform to morality. In its second verse, Dylan issues a brash, enduring challenge to the punditocracy: “Come writers and critics/ Who prophesize with your pen/ And keep your eyes wide/ The chance won’t come again/ And don’t speak too soon/ For the wheel’s still in spin.”

It was the unexpected achievements of the civil rights movement, a grass-roots upsurge which transformed the American political landscape, that made this challenge and the song as a whole possible and even plausible. But it was Dylan’s genius to articulate the universal spirit animating the specific historical moment.

The protest songs that made Dylan famous and with which he continues to be associated were written in a brief period of some 20 months – from January 1962 to November 1963. Influenced by American radical traditions (the Wobblies, the Popular Front of the thirties and forties, the Beat anarchists of the fifties) and above all by the political ferment touched off among young people by the civil rights and ban the bomb movements, he engaged in his songs with the terror of the nuclear arms race, with poverty, racism and prison, jingoism and war. He also penned love songs that mingled delicate regret with brutal candour (“we never did much talkin’ anyway”).

This creative firestorm gave us ‘Let Me Die in My Footsteps’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ (class rule as the root of racism), ‘With God on Our Side’ (rejecting American fundamentalism), ‘Masters of War’ (taking on the military-industrial complex), the gleefully vindictive ‘When the Ship Comes In’ and the magnificent ‘Hattie Carroll’, a clear-eyed account of a single injustice that becomes an indictment of a system and its liberal defenders.

Thanks to his sharp-edged radicalism and unique poetic gifts (as well as no little musical craft) Dylan renewed the protest genre and helped it reach a new mass audience. When The Times They Are A-Changin’ album came out in January 1964, the 22 year old from Minnesota found himself crowned as the laureate of a social movement, hailed as “the voice of a generation”.

In the meantime, however, Dylan had decided that this was not what he wanted to be. The new Woody Guthrie was mutating into something else – something that made some of his early acolytes uncomfortable. For Dylan is not only the most renowned protest singer of his era but also its most renowned renegade. In mid-1964, he explained to critic Nat Hentoff: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me …I’m not part of no movement… I just can’t make it with any organisation…”

He was in the midst of recording a song called ‘My Back Pages’, a dense, image-crammed critique of the movement he had celebrated in ‘The Times They are A-Changin”. Here he sneers at “corpse evangelists” who use “ideas” as “maps”, who spout “lies that life is black and white” and who fail to understand that “I become my enemy in the instant that I preach.” Alarmed by the discovery of authoritarianism at the heart of the movement for liberation (and within himself), he rebels against the left’s self-righteousness. He pours bile on the “self-ordained professor/ Too serious to fool”. He scorns what he sees as the dead culture of political activism: “memorising politics/ Of ancient history”.

‘Equality, I spoke the word, as if a wedding vow

But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’

This refrain – a recantation in every sense of the word – must be one of the most lyrical expressions of political apostasy ever penned. Ex-radicals usually ascribe their evolution to the inevitable giving-way of rebellious youth to responsible maturity. Dylan reversed the polarity. For him, the retreat from politics was a retreat from stale categories and second-hand attitudes. The refrain encapsulates the movement from the pretence of knowing it all to the confession of knowing nothing.

But in its assertion of youth’s autonomy, ‘My Back Pages’ doesn’t so much repudiate ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” as deepen and extend it. He was urging the young people of the sixties to reject categories inherited from the past and define their own terms. For Dylan, youth itself – that vast new social demographic – had become the touchstone of authenticity. A tremendously empowering notion for the generation whom it first infected, but also, as it turned out, a cul-de-sac, and less of a revolutionary posture than it seemed at the time.

Dylan’s break with politics and the movement that had been his first inspiration unleashed his poetic and musical genius; it freed him to explore an inner landscape. His lyrics became more obscure; coherent narrative was jettisoned in favour of carnivalesque surrealism; the austerity of the acoustic folk troubadour was replaced by the hedonistic extravagance of an electrified rock n roll ensemble. The songs depicted a private universe – but one forged in response to tumultuous public events.

It’s remarkable that so many of Dylan’s left critics failed to see the politics that infuse his masterworks of the mid-sixties. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – booed by purists at the Newport folk festival – fuses class and generational rage in an uncompromising renunciation of wage labour. Here the power of the employers is propped up by ideology (“She talks to all the servants about man and God and law”) and the state (“the National Guard stands around her door”.) The social order is experienced as intrusive, deceitful, inimical to the individual’s need for self-definition. “I try my best to be just like I am/ but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

These themes were also explored in ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, Dylan’s epic indictment of a society built on hypocrisy and greed (“money doesn’t talk it swears”). Here consciousness is the battleground; it’s where the individual struggles to extract some autonomy from the all-pervading corruption of a society ruled by commodities.

If my thought-dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine

Although Dylan never dealt explicitly with Vietnam, its escalating madness can be felt in two of the major compositions he recorded in mid-1965, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and ‘Tombstone Blues’. In the latter, Dylan portrays “the Commander-in-Chief” (it was Lyndon Johnson, but might as well be George Bush) proclaiming:

“Death to all those who would whimper and cry!”

And dropping a barbell he points to the sky

Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

In these and other songs of the period, Dylan recoils with horror (and wit) from a public world poisoned by militarist patriotism and commercial hucksterism. Far from having jettisoned politics, Dylan was redefining its scope. In compositions like ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Desolation Row’, great social themes jostle with intimate grievances. When a disappointed punter at the Albert Hall called out for “protest songs”, a frustrated Dylan replied: “Oh come on, these are all protest songs.”

“To live outside the law you must be honest,” Dylan wrote in 1966. This prophetic warning – to a generation, a movement, himself – leaps out of ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, a silly, swaggering song of sexual frustration. The next line is less well known, but telling: “And I know you always say that you agree.”

For today’s anti-war and global justice movements, Dylan’s songs of the sixties offer both a bracing protest against enduring enemies and a salutary critique of some of our own worst habits.


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.


615