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

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.


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