Bob Dylan never was a writer and performer of protest songs

By Tony Attwood

First point: what is a protest song?

These four definitions are taken from various on line dictionaries.

Definition 1: a song that expresses disapproval, usually about a political subject

Definition 2: Term which gained currency (first in USA) in 1960s for song which voiced feelings of protest about some social or political injustice, real or imagined, or about some international event which aroused strong emotions, e.g. American part in Vietnam war. A famous example is ‘We shall overcome’.

Definition 3: A protest song is a song that is associated with a movement for social change and hence part of the broader category of topical songs (or songs connected to current events). It may be folk, classical, or commercial in genre.

Definition 4: Protest songs are songs to encourage social movement toward social change. These songs protest about issues such as war, women’s suffrage, civil rights, immigration or current events in the world today.

Now there is a distinction those definitions – because the first two stress the fact that the song highlights some wrong doing or bad state of affairs.  The last two talk of the song as part of the movement to change the world.  The songs encourage change and urge action.

This resonates with me a lot because when I was a very young and incredibly inexperienced writer, I worked with Adrian Mitchell, a leading pacifist and writer about social issues.  Ultimately we wrote a musical together – it was my first published work of music.

He was many years my senior and I was very much in awe of him and listened with great care to his views on the world, which is why I still remember one of his phrases: “The only reason for writing is to change the world”.  That sums up definitions three and four of protest music.

Now Definition 2, with its mention of “We shall overcome” could be seen as writing to change the world – except “We shall overcome” continued “some day”.  It is about belief in the inevitability of historical progress, not in our own ability to change the world.

Of course when it comes to Dylan I have no idea of what he thinks – although it seems to me that the songs like Hurricane are very much about making change happen.  But in terms of a “movement towards social change” which crops up in the definitions above, Hurricane is not so much about social change as about getting one man released from prison (although he was there, Dylan says, because of racial issues).

Indeed I do have a problem with a number of Dylan songs that are called “protest” quite often, but for which there is no attempt to consider where there protest is leading.  As an example I’d quote “Only a pawn in their game” which clearly protests against the system, but in no way suggests anyone can do anything.

In the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll we have the famous ending

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

If we take this at face value Dylan is just telling us to cry at the betrayal of our hopes and dreams by a bent legal system.  There is no call to the masses to rise up and fight.  There is no hope for change.  In fact in both these songs Dylan tells us that the political and legal system in which we live is broken, but he makes no suggestions at at as to whether we can do anything about, whether we should do anything about it, and if we should, what we should do.

Indeed it is a point Dylan often seems to make – I am not telling you what to do.  Except, “Don’t follow leaders.”

We have the same sentiment in Hollis Brown

There’s seven people dead
On a South Dakota farm
Somewhere in the distance
There’s seven new people born

These are desperate, desperate, awful images, the painting of bleak hopelessness.  And all given without solution.

What is so curious about these early works from a protest point of view is that Times They Are A Changing which is itself seen as a protest song, is actually nothing of the kind.  It is a song that says that the world is changing, and that there is nothing the old guard can do about it.  Change happens, get used to it.

At the end the song has deeply religious connotations (Matthew 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last”) but also is the warcry of every teenager who has ever looked bleakly at his/her parents and shouted “You don’t understand!”

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

But this is no call to arms.  The revolution is here.  It’s happening.  Sit down and watch the show.

If we return to earlier songs like “Oxford Town” there is a clear approach that Dylan has even then, which is to handle the protest from a distance – in this case “me and my gal” arrive, they are horrified, they depart.  (Incidentally if you have a mind to, you might like to look at that review, not because I said anything profound, but because of the background – if you don’t know it – and the comments made after by readers of my piece).

(There is one other point here – one of the correspondents writes of the link between Oxford Town and “Nottamun Town”, which I suggested in reply was not right.  What I had forgotten when I wrote that was that the very next song that Dylan wrote was very much based on “Nottamun Town”.  Listening again I think the correspondent was right, I was wrong – and not for the first time!

So straight after Oxford Town Dylan wrote Masters of War which surely we would all agree is a protest song.  And yet I think by this time he was settling into the notion of just telling people that they should see the world from another point of view.  He is not telling us to rise up and overthrow the war machine…

There are two couplets in Masters of War that utterly overwhelm me, even now, so many years after buying the original when it came out…

For even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do


I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

So Dylan again is never saying “shake off those who oppress you” nor is he saying, “don’t pay taxes, they only spend it on war”.   In fact Dylan virtually never tells us what to do.  At this moment, as I write this, without going through all the material to look for Dylan’s advice, still all that comes to mind is “Don’t follow leaders”.  I know for a while he told us to follow Jesus, but I am setting that aside for a moment because religion is normally considered a different subject from protest.

Yes of course he makes his viewpoint clear at the end…

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 o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

But he is hoping for their deaths, he is not raising the flag and fighting the cause.

When we get to With God on Our Side (and I do know I’m jumping around in the order the songs were written!) we get an even clearer statement of where Dylan has got to…

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

Whether it is social change or economic change or political change or the misuse of religion to support inequality, Dylan is the observer.   And this is how he stays, for much later there is Union Sundown

the car I drive is a Chevrolet
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day

And North Country Blues

it’s much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.

He’s observing, not telling.  He’s making his position absolutely clear, but he is not saying, go out and smash the system.    There is of course occasional hope

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

But it is just hope, a dream, not a call to arms, not a message of action.

It is also interesting that one of the few times Dylan did touch on the political protest movement (Gypsy Lou) he seems to have been making fun of the activists.  It is also interesting that the writers who were his models – such as Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas etc – were men who specialised in seeing the world in other ways, not doing something about it.

So at this stage I conclude: Dylan is not a writer of protest songs in the stronger definition.  He is more an observer of inequalities and injustice.  He looks in and often doesn’t like what he sees.


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1 Response to Bob Dylan never was a writer and performer of protest songs

  1. Ted says:

    Not only is Dylan advising “don’t follow leaders” but the next line in that song is even more telling—“watch your parking meters”!
    On the surface, this might be a throwaway rhyme with the previous lyric. Alternatively, it could be an admonition to not bring attention to yourself and may be a suggestion that one play by the rules and avoid confrontation (i.e.overt physical or vocal protest). I think your correct, Dylans music suggests that as time passes, change will occur naturally and protest movements are not the only way or the best way to achieve it. let it just happen.
    Notwithstanding this, he lets you know what he stands for and his beliefs but doesnt ask us to do anything about it.

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