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Suze Rotolo's Influence on Dylan’s Music

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From “The Death of Emmett Till” to “Boots of Spanish Leather”, Suze Rotolo had immense amounts of inspiration in Bob Dylan’s songwriting as well as his pathway to folk music fame. Dylan also had a reciprocating influence on Rotolo, who ultimately would part ways with Dylan at the young age of 19 due to the “pressure, gossip, truth and lies that living with Bob entailed” as stated in her memoir (qtd. in Greene 2011). Ultimately, Rotolo didn’t just influence Dylan in writing his masterful protest songs and love songs that captivated entire movements and people of the 1960’s, but that same influence would be a great reason behind Dylan’s fame and success for the entirety of his life and generations to come.

As a young adult traveling to Greenwich Village to join the folk music scene, Bob Dylan hadn’t exactly had any experience with protest songs. He was mainly focused on channeling his inner- Woody Guthrie and covering and performing classic folk songs of past and present. As much of an influence Woody Guthrie had on the young singer-songwriter, Rotolo may have had similar amounts of influence. Of course, this was barely apparent even when they met for the first time in the Riverside Church and spontaneously at the local clubs and gathering spots around Greenwich Village (Rotolo 94). Upon meeting Suze, Dylan wasn’t overly interested in politics. But with Rotolo striving towards the political forefront, there was bound to be some overlap of her interests with his.

In Dylan’s first written protest song, “The Death of Emmett Till”, which he played by a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) benefit concert booked by Rotolo, addressed the brutal Mississippi murder of 14 year old Emmett Till from Chicago by white racists in 1956. Till’s murderers ended up walking free, causing outrage amongst the activist community (Marqusee 52). This was just the start of a slew of political protest songs all originally inspired by young Rotolo’s interest.

From here, Dylan would go on to write over 200 songs in the next two years. As Marqusee describes in Wicked Messenger, these compositions would be composed of topics such as poverty, race, war, class, violence, outcasts, prisoners, social change, friendship, and love (53). When Dylan wrote another famed racial protest song “Oxford Town” which appeared on The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan, he addressed the events at the University of Mississippi where after prospective African-American student James Meredith attempted to enroll, where many white citizens and even Governor Ross Barnett denied Meredith’s entrance. In fact, the Kennedy administration and federal guards intervened by escorting James Meredith to his dormitory. Local and regional police along with white students at the University stormed the federal guards in a mob scene yielding led pipes and Molotov cocktails, where as Dylan explained in the lyrics, “Two men died ‘neath the Mississippi moon”. Another 28 were shot, 160 wounded, and only 1 time was the song played live by Dylan in that “Oxford Town” in 1991 (Marqusee 66).

As stated previously, racial violence wasn’t the only protest topic that Dylan had penned since his relationship with Suze Rotolo developed. After “Oxford Town” Dylan poetically wrote about “John Brown” who was a young soldier sent off to fight for his country. In the song, “John Brown’s” mother was proud of her son for going off to fight as a soldier and “hold a gun” and that he’ll earn medals. Dylan writes and “John Brown” explains to his mother:

“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?

I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’

But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close

And I saw that his face looked just like mine.”

“John Brown” came back from war after a cannonball left him essentially unrecognizable, but before turning away from his mother he handed over the medals she had promised he would win (Marqusee 67). The song’s popularity wasn’t only celebrated in the activist culture of the 60’s and 70’s, but also more recently when Dylan appeared on MTV Unplugged in November of 1994 (Williamson 218). The idea that a song like “John Brown” transcends decades and entire generations unanimously shows not only how meaningful Dylan’s songs are but also how willing and devoted his listeners are. A song like “John Brown” is still relative to mothers, soldiers, and people today – as many of Dylan’s songs can be.

The longevity and meaning of Dylan’s Rotolo-influenced love songs of his early career are just as strong as the songs about political protest and activism. Not only did Rotolo influence Dylan’s song lyrics and writings but also she famously appeared on the cover his arguably most famous album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In 1962 when Rotolo left for Perugia, Italy, a heart-broken Dylan wrote three of his most famous love songs; “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (NPRMusic). As Marqusee describes in Wicked Messenger, “Don’t Think Twice”, along with other love songs of Dylan’s, was self-consciously modern and broke ground in the way male-female relationships where portrayed in popular music (184). Dylan also comes off brutally honest at times such as in “Don’t Think Twice” when he writes, “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told / I give her my heart, but she wanted my soul / Don’t think twice, it’s all right.” We see this honesty and sincerity again in “Ballad in Plain D”, which was based off a fight that Suze Rotolo and her sister had with Dylan, when he writes, “For her parasite sister, I had no respect / Bound by her boredom, her pride to protect.” Dylan of course later on in his career would disagree with the release of “Ballad in Plain D”, the song that Williamson criticized to be “maudlin, vicious and self-pitying but as irresistible as rubbernecking a motorway crash” (179). However, this song would ultimately end Suze and his relationship permanently, so his bitterness and self-pity can be wholly justifiable (Williamson 179).

The connection between both of these different kinds of songs of love and of protest can be seen in their lyrical styles as well, not just the fact that they were all directly or indirectly influenced by Suze Rotolo. As Marqusee so rightly points out in Wicked Messenger, all of these songs were written around the same time, and all of these songs are “moodily aggrieved and tenderly utopian at the same time” (54).

So although Dylan would educate and develop his own artistic style throughout the course of his career, there seems to be one direct source of the interests that inspired him to ultimately write the songs that would bring him to the top of folk music culture. This one direct source of his early interests once coming to fame in Greenwich Village and beyond is Suze Rotolo. Many can argue that he would have found his way to the top and would have been claimed to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time no matter the course of events in his early adulthood, but the facts are there and those facts show that Suze Rotolo was the muse of Bob Dylan’s early workings. She would be the one to inspire him to get into political activism and to inspire him to write his classically finger-pointing social protest masterpieces. Not only was Suze there to influence his interests of the time, but also she was there to influence his love life and romance songs due to their close and complicated relationship.

So in conclusion, some may argue, that if Suze Rotolo had never given Dylan the time of day, or if Dylan saw her as just another face in the crowd of the folk music movement, that Bob Dylan would never have became one of the greatest songwriters of all time. But as for myself, I like to believe that Bob Dylan would have found his way all right, and to not think twice about it.

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