Bob Dylan Voice Of A Generation

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With little doubt, Bob Dylan has been one of the most influential characters in popular music within his 40 year career. Although he has experienced significant success in his later work, it has been his sixties material that has caused the biggest impact. His songs of protest were extremely popular in the sixties, particularly among the hippie subculture that was so prominent at the time.

As his career and popularity soared, Dylan was soon branded as “the voice of his generation” and became synonymous with the anti-war and civil rights movements at the time.

How Dylan managed to be branded with this tag and how he became to embody the movement is comprehensible through an analysis of his work. Dylan began his career as part of a vibrant folk scene that was happening in America at the time. His popularity soared within this scene after his first self-titled album that was a tribute to his musical influences. In his second album, (The Freewheelin’ released in 1963) Dylan began to write songs that would be considered “protest songs”, and these shot Dylan to global fame and recognition, particularly among the newly rising “hippie” movement.

In order to look at why Dylan’s work captured the voice of this subculture, one must look at the social and political conditions of the time and how his music commented on these conditions.

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The sixties was a time of great political commotion in America, from tensions in the Cold War, to the cries for civil rights by Americas black community. By the time of Dylan’s second album, the cold war tensions and the civil rights movements were at their peak. Dylan’s first protest song, and perhaps his most famous, was called “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1) and became adopted by the civil rights movement at the time.

Voices Of A Generation

Through its rhetoric, the song comments on social injustices and inequalities as well as questioning the action of war. Through this song Dylan asks the question “how many years can some people exist before they are allowed to be free? ” and continues to ask “how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? “. Many felt that this question was related to the civil rights movement at the time, and although Dylan never mentioned the movement in the song, it soon became adopted as a song of the civil rights movement.

They felt that these lines reflected the oppression felt among the black community, and questioned the integrity of those who see these injustices but do nothing to stop them. Another song on the album that focuses on the trouble of racism is entitled “Oxford Town” (2) that contained the lines “he went down to Oxford town, guns and clubs followed him down, all because his face was brown” and “he couldn’t get in because of the colour of his skin”.

Many felt that this summed up the social injustices that blacks faced in America at the time. The segregation of whites and blacks in everyday life was a prominent grievance of the civil rights movement, who felt it unfair that blacks should have to use inferior facilities like having to sit at the back of a bus because the more convenient front seats were reserved for whites. These lines were certainly perceived by the civil rights movement as relating to their cause and Dylan became very popular with the movement.

Dylan became actively involved within the movement, performing at the “March on Washington” where Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech, which only proved to enforce the feeling that Bob Dylan was a protestor and a voice for inequalities. This was one of the only times Dylan was actively involved in politics, yet his association with politics was predictable as he continued to write more protest songs. The main feature of his protest songs was the strong anti-war sentiment that allot of his songs carried.

His song “Masters of War” (3) was a clear attack on those who instigate war and those who build “the death planes, those who build all the bombs”. He also commented on the economic ironies of war as he claims “you sit in your mansion, while the young people’s blood, flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud”. The song depicts the instigators of War to be prosperous, while they get others to do the fighting and “sit back and watch, as the death toll gets higher”.

This was a song that particularly liked by the anti-war movement that was protesting against the current Cuban missile crisis, and continued to be used as protests flared against the Vietnam war in 1965. His other anti-war song from this album was “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” (4) which was written at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. This “hard-rain” that Dylan describes was viewed as a reference to nuclear war that so many Americans feared was impending.

The fear of nuclear destruction was prominent in the minds of many Americans at the time, especially during the Cuban missile crisis when tensions were high among the two nuclear superpowers of the USA and Russia. The “ban the bomb” campaigns awakened a new generation of young activists, who were almost predominantly young students. This young rebellion provided Dylan with his first audience, who felt that the subjects in his music directly related to their agitations. Dylan then released an album called “The Times They Are A-Changin’” which many regard as the finest protest album of all time.

The opening song also called “The Times They Are A-Changin’ (5) became a generational anthem. The song is based on the principle that the movement for social change is inevitable and that history will eventually conform to morality. Dylan writes for “senators and congressmen please head the call” and continues to add “there’s a battle outside raging, we will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls for the times they are a-changing”. This line in particular is very provocative, describing an almost revolutionary image, an image that the young rebellious youth arguably related to.

The song never mentions a specific rebellion or situation, yet it was certainly poignant at the time when a rebellious youth threatened the status quo which gave rise to the counter-hegemonic subculture of the hippie movement. This hippie movement treated Dylan as a prophet of sorts, constantly relating to the messages in his music. Dylan’s song from the same album entitled “With God on Our Side” (6) was a deconstruction of American nationalist fundamentalism, where he comments on the particular stages of America’s development from the war on the Indians to the present day.

Through a use of paradox, Dylan outlines how certain wars have been justified because of the notion that America has “God on its side”. Dylan relates to the present day situation of nuclear tension by writing “but now we have weapons of chemical dust, if forced to fire them, then fire them we must, one push of the button, and shot the world wide, and you never ask questions when Gods on your side”. This is a clear attack on the Christian fundamentalism that exists in America’s history and politics, as well as an attack on the fundamentalism that Dylan felt could cause an impending nuclear war.

While this song subverted the ideology of Christian fundamentalism, it reinforced the ideologies that existed amongst the counter hegemonic subculture of the hippie movement. This distortion of the dominant ideology of Christian fundamentalism was the reason for the song being branded as a protest song, while the essence of Dylan’s popularity lay in the reinforcement of the ideologies of the hippie movement and the mass protest movements. This reinforcement of the subculture ideologies was perhaps the reason that Dylan was given the label “voice of his generation”.

Dylan’s image also tended to embody or speak for the movement. In his early protest years, he was a folk singer and remained extremely popular among the folk music tradition. The image of a folk singer tends to give the impression of the “real”, where the singer is normally solo and playing a simple acoustic guitar. Folk music is often viewed as the real songs of the people, a true reflection on the lives of the common man as well as being a very expressive form of music.

It is often a form of music that emerges from small towns and local gatherings which is perhaps why it is viewed as a pure form of expression rather than music that has been made with the sole purpose of making money. This image of a solo folk singer perhaps gave Dylan an image of being “real” and untouched by capitalist marketing pressures, an image that would have been popular amongst the hippie subculture. On “The Times They Are A-Changin’ album cover, Dylan looks very reflective yet angry, and the inside sleeve the words “what is exactly wrong?

Who t’ picket? Who t’ fight? ” are written. The image of an angry reflective youngster along with the sense of agitation from the words on the sleeve would have no doubt been popular amongst the rebellious youth of the sixties, who probably felt they could relate to Dylan’s agitated and rebellious image. Although his songs were at their most popular in the sixties, his influence and popularity still remain high to this day. In a recent magazine poll, (7) Dylan’s “Masters of War” was voted as the greatest protest song of all time by the British magazine MOJO.

His protest songs still remain popular and on November 2nd 2004 on the American election night, Dylan played Masters of War in Oshkosh, Wisconsin which had such an impact that Rolling Stone magazine asked the question “why is the song still so alive? ” (8). Even though the song was written in the early sixties, Dylan never referenced any current events in the song. This meant that the songs could have a new meaning applied to them over time. For example, at the Grammy awards in 1991, Dylan played “Masters of War” on the eve of the Gulf War and even though the song was almost thirty years old it still related to these more current events.

His work remained popular amongst other protest movements around the world which can be seen with the use of his lyrics in a republican mural in the New Lodge Road of Belfast (9). The much more recent events such as the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the war in Iraq have also given new meaning to Dylan’s work. There have been protests against the Iraq war similar to those of the Vietnam War in the sixties, which have provided a possible new audience for the protest songs of Dylan.

It may be no surprise with the current waves of protest against the war in Iraq, the sales of Dylan albums has risen significantly. His work can be easily related to these current day events and can perhaps summarize the fears and aggravations of the current anti-war movement. “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” could be applied to the current fear of attack with biological weapons while “Masters of War” could be applied to the hatred of the Iraq war. The fact that Dylan never referenced his songs to particular events is perhaps the reason that they still continue to resonate today.

His songs were often against war, hunger, oppression and inequalities, and as long as these particular grievances still exist, then his songs will always have new meaning. His songs contained a certain ideology, and as long as these ideologies still exist in society then his songs will remain popular. Today’s anti-war and global justice movements have similarities to the movements of the sixties and have given Dylan’s music a new home and a new resonance. While the current events of the present day give new meaning to Dylan’s sometimes apocalyptic songs, it is important to realise the power of music as a medium for protest.

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Bob Dylan Voice Of A Generation. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Bob Dylan Voice Of A Generation
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