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Bob Dylan as The Political Voice of a Generation

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Music has constantly played an important role in constituting American culture. Music and media are an integral part of establishing cultural identity, which in turn plays a huge role in how history is written and recorded. This is a relatively contemporary phenomenon, which can be analyzed by through the lense of Rock & Roll history. As one analyzes the pantheon of Rock & Roll, icons such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix come to mind. Even Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain were figures of extreme emotion few could ever hope to replicate. He may not be the first rockstar that comes to mind when you think of the ‘60s, but we cannot underestimate Bob Dylan’s impact towards the counterculture. Although he hardly missed a chance to express his dislike for being referred to as the ‘political voice of a generation,’ he is one of the most essential artists from that decade. Although overshadowed by some of his more musically gifted peers such as Jimi Hendrix, few could encapsulate such emotion like Bob Dylan. The ‘60s were a revolutionary period of time with great social and technological change. Acts of protest such as the civil rights movement, second wave feminism, and anti-war protests came to symbolize the generation’s desire for change. The ‘60s was a contested decade for the United States; not just because of the stagnant conflict in the wilderness of Vietnam, nor the looming threat of nuclear war with Soviet Russia, but because America was transforming domestically. Bob Dylan’s lyrics encompassed the sentiments of the decade like no other. He turned into the voice of a whole age, and an improbable symbol in the midst of one of the tensest periods in American history. Dylan created the songs “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, both of which were revolutionary in their own respects, and because Dylan held the mirror up to face society, it helped urge Americans to investigate the government’s true intentions. This leads to the question: to what extent was Bob Dylan really the ‘political voice of a generation’?

Dylan’s work can be divided into different periods. The first phase, we may refer to as the ‘protest phase’, is the period in which Dylan released his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in May 1963. This was Dylan’s breakthrough as a songwriter, and many songs on this album were labeled protest songs as the trend of writing socially conscious music was topical, and very much at the forefront of counterculturalism. Bob Dylan was one of the faces of the countercultural movement and few artists from the folk era, and genre as whole, have been as impactful on popular culture. In preceding decades, popular music was limited in terms of subject variation, due to societal conservatism. Despite this, people have expressed themselves through music during flourishing and turbulent times. Such strong relationship between music and culture can be seen throughout history: In the ‘30’s, swing music created a platform for audiences to vent their emotions in the midst of Great Depression and political unrest, however it was not nearly as incriminatory towards specific government decisions, like music of the ‘60s. The ‘60s were the age of youth, as millions of children from the post World War II era became teenagers, and rebelled against the conservatism of the ‘50s. In the ‘60s, popular music grappled with civil rights demonstrations, drug experiences, interracial dating, war, and explicit sexual encounters. Elements which had always been a part of everyday life for teenagers all over America, but never widely broadcast through music or other means of popular culture for the masses to be exposed to.

The music of Bob Dylan provided a soundtrack to the social and cultural movements of the ‘60’s. Though other artists like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez also released popular music standing for the ethos of the ‘60s, Dylan is considered the quintessential representative of the genre. Dylan’s ‘protest phase’ reeled in the youth of America. Dylan’s lyrics encouraged them to open their eyes to what was going on in their world, and not to simply accept what they hear on the news or read in newspapers. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan featured ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and “Masters of War”, two of Dylan’s most well-renowned pieces. “Blowin’ in the Wind” became an anthem for the civil rights era, while “Masters of War” effectively expresses fear and worry about the state of the United States, and more generally the world around them during the Cold War and Vietnam War eras. Bob Dylan increased the political influence the music industry has over American society regarding opinions they hold over important current events.

The song “Blowin’ in the Wind” implies that in order to combat issues like racial discrimination the population must first recognise the injustice and take the initiative to be proactive and seek the answer. Some of the questions Dylan poses are more open-ended:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?


Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist

Before they’re allowed to be free?


Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head

And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Perhaps Dylan is referencing one the many civil rights movements of the time (African-American, Native American, Latin American, Women’s Rights, or Gay Rights) and that these groups of people have done a great deal to still be denied essential human rights.

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Dylan uses the reference of the “white dove” to denote peace and unity. It can also be seen as metaphor for life, more specifically, the two white doves flying from Noah’s Ark across after the flooding of the earth to look for a place to rest. Some lyrics leave no room for interpretation:

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they’re forever banned?


Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?

This line is primarily directed towards the Vietnam War. Dylan asks “how many deaths” it must take for America to take a stand against this war killing innocent soldiers for a seemingly unnecessary cause. It could also apply more generally to conflicts between groups such as race, age, gender, economic status or beliefs within America. “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a very slow tempo, suiting the lyrics of the song because Dylan implies people aren’t able to find solutions to serious problems because they aren’t willing to seek out the truth. He believes answers exist, somewhere, surrounding everyone, yet going unnoticed:

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Perhaps Dylan wants the world to slow down for a little while to try to understand what is going on. The entire idea of something “blowing in the wind” is very peaceful and the calm tempo of the song relates well to this concept. Despite having obviously strong ties to the civil rights movement, Dylan has never given a specific interpretation of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, leaving the meaning of the song to more elusive. When asked about the song’s inspiration in an issue of Broadside, a magazine publication devoted to folk music, Dylan said: “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs. (…) I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.” As much as that statement may be true, the fact remains that the something this particular somebody was saying was directly associated with the race problems that were prevalent in the ‘60s. His lack of affiliation allows Dylan’s message to have the broadest influence possible, because it has no inherent bias.

Contrastly, the track “Masters of War” is vastly more incriminating towards the government and their corrupt policies, sending a much more direct message to the American public. Written in the winter of 1962-1963, the nation was stuck in a conflicting time period; one in which many Americans were uncomfortable with the status of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Dylan, 30 at the time, was one of the first to stand out and voice his opinion against politicians and war profiteers. The song was a bold, direct protest to the Cold War which appealed to the culture’s desire for change. Dylan also notes the motivation of money. By describing selfish actions and motivations of the government:

Come you masters of war

You that build all the guns

You that build the death planes

You that build all the bombs

You that hide behind walls

You that hide behind desks

I just want to know

I can see through your masks.

Dylan singles out perpetrators of war who ‘hide behind desks’ while soldiers risk their lives fighting, and those who try to ‘deceive’ Americans into thinking that ‘a world war can be won’. Although Dylan’s exact culprits are the somewhat unspecific, it is understood through the context of song Dylan’s ‘they’ represents corporate and bureaucratic establishment. Dylan is saying that political leaders hide in the safety of their offices as they send soldiers out to risk their lives and do their dirty work under the illusion of loyalty to the state.

You that never done nothin’

But build to destroy

You play with my world

Like it’s your little toy

You put a gun in my hand

And you hide from my eyes

And you turn and run farther

When the fast bullets fly.

The people in charge of the war act as if war is a game, this explains when Dylan says: “You play with my world, like it’s your little toy”. Dylan views war as a matter that must be taken very seriously. He thinks military leaders should be more cautious with the lives of their soldiers. Masters of War was a cold protest song to the Cold War and the leaders whom made the important military decisions from inside the safety of their offices.

You lie and deceive

A world war can be won

You want me to believe

But I see through your eyes

And I see through your brain.

Dylan states the leaders of our military try to feed the citizens of the US with lies, characterizing the government as distrustful. Dylan’s Masters of War aroused a massive emotional response from its listeners. It provoked distaste for the government by revealing the harsh realities of war. Through this song, Dylan attempted to enlighten his audience by telling them that the leaders controlling our military (“the masters of war”) are corrupted and only motivated by money, not protecting the soldiers.

You fasten all the triggers

For the others to fire

Then you sit back and watch

When the death count gets higher

You hide in your mansion

While the young people’s blood

Flows out of their bodies

And is buried in the mud.

Dylan’s assessment is that those with political power are quick to seek out war; however, the epitome of this corruption lies in the fact that the poor who are blindly following the establishment are the ones who are sent out to fight, while the powerful elite are able to live comfortably and safely away from the front lines. Those in command are never forced to directly engage in the conflicts that they cause, instead they “fasten the triggers for the others to fire.” Since these political leaders “hide in [their] mansion[s]/As young people’s blood Flows out of their bodies And is buried in the mud,” they are rarely concerned with the suffering and death that is caused, so long as the result of the mission is lucrative or somehow serves to benefit the elite.

You’ve thrown the worst fear

That can ever be hurled

Fear to bring children

Into the world

For threatening my baby

Unborn and unnamed

You ain’t worth the blood

That runs in your veins

The Cold War and the Cuban Missile crisis were events amplified by fear: both the United States and Soviet Union feared taking action. This was not something that people did not want live with, and especially not bring their children into.

You might say that I’m young

You might say that I’m unlearned

But there’s one thing I know

Though I’m younger than you

That even Jesus would never

Forgive what you do.

Dylan’s lyrics held sentiments very much representative of the youth throughout the country. Lines such as “You might say that I’m young, you might say I’m unlearned,” are traits applicable to the segment of the population that would rise up in the ‘60s and join the marches on Washington and the Pentagon. Although these individuals were brushed off by politicians as idealistic and immature, young people would prove to the rest of America that they were impassioned, and willing to fight for change. Dylan gave dissidents a voice to rally behind, he is a unifier of people through his music. The ’60s was a decade of social and political upheaval. In spite of all the turmoil, there were some positive results: the civil rights revolution, Kennedy’s vision of a new frontier, and the breathtaking advances in space, helped bring about progress and prosperity. However, much was negative: student and anti-war protest movements, political assassinations, and riots in Los Angeles and Detroit exacerbated the population, leading to decreasing respect for government authority. In spite of the fact that these people were dismissed by lawmakers as idealistic and immature, young people of America would demonstrate that they were enthusiastic, and willing to battle for change. The tone of “Masters of War” is one of moral outrage, as government officials are rebuked for their complete inhumanity: “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” Dylan is stating that money can’t buy forgiveness for the corrupt, immoral decisions the politicians and war profiteers make to further their self-interests at the expense of others:

Let me ask you one question

Is your money that good

Will it buy you forgiveness

Do you think that it could

I think you will find

When your death takes its toll

All the money you made will never buy back your soul

Dylan’s reference to the soul conveys the message that everyone is the same in death. No amount of money can make up for a life of unjust behavior and greed once it ends. Dylan concludes the song with a straight-forward but grim message, showing genuine hatred for warmongers and profiteers:

And I hope that you die

And your death’ll come soon

I will follow your casket

In the pale afternoon

And I’ll watch while you’re lowered

Down to your deathbed

And I’ll stand over your grave

‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

Dylan’s straightforward ideology propelled his career to the heights he reached. His middle-ground politics are evident in the lyrics in “Masters of War” because there is never a specific political affiliation Dylan proclaims to support. Rather he focuses on the commonwealth and overall well-being of humankind and America’s interests as a superpower in the globalizing world. In “Masters of War” The public’s sense of apathy that was addressed in “Blowin’ in the Wind” must be thrown out and overcome. Dylan’s lyrics stand out as an adamant declaration that people will no longer passively sit by and allow themselves to be the ones who are firing the triggers blindly for the warmongers who are in charge.

Present-day conflicts can be defined by the song “Masters of War”. Similar to the way the Red Scare and Domino Theory perpetuated fear of Communism in the ‘50s and ‘60s to provoke support for the War in Vietnam, the United States invaded oil-rich countries in the Middle East under the guise that they were searching for weapons of mass destruction, in response to the attack on 9/11. The War in Afghanistan, beginning in October, 2001, is the longest war America has been involved in its history. Although it is not taking place on American soil, similar to the Vietnam War, the desire for soldiers to be removed from the conflict in Afghanistan is very real:

Americans do not deem the conflict a win for the U.S. Two in three Americans, including 73 percent of military veterans, cannot say the war has been a success. Specifically, 36 percent of Americans, including 40 percent of veterans, said the war has been unsuccessful while 30 percent (33 percent of veterans) said it has been neither successful nor unsuccessful. 

While a vast amount of people see the war against Afghanistan as a failure, the United States continues their involvement, to this day.

Dylan’s rise to fame, and the fact that themes of his music still resonate in American society today continue to prove that there is unity in the United States, even during times of extreme tension. Musicians, students, politicians, civil rights leaders, differing shades of skin, and collars of blue and white were bound by Dylan’s music. Dylan’s ability to reach as wide an audience as he did through his music was past that of his peers, and his work produced the soundtrack of change in the decade. He freely addressed social standards and provoked the residents of the world to open their eyes and concede that things are not always as they appear to be.

The applicability of subjects mentioned in “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the long-term gives justification in defining Dylan as the voice of a generation. Dylan will continue to be relevant in the future, owing to the inability to define ‘protest song’ without labelling Bob Dylan as an pioneer, but also because he was an extremist for his words against government decisions. Despite the fervent tone his music, in typical Dylan fashion, his political stances are not tied to the lyrics. Despite the fact that Dylan’s ‘60s music is political in nature, it is clear that Dylan was always more of a social commentator. It just happened that his early commentary was on issues that were politically topical at the time, such as civil rights, which subsequently, gave him the title of protest songwriter extraordinaire, and the voice of his generation. While some believe his lack of affiliation inherently downplays the ingenuity of the song, the fact Dylan’s words rang true for so many people cannot be understated. 

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