Bob Dylan: the protest singer. Well, not really.

By Tony Attwood

Go back to the early part of his career and Bob Dylan was known, in the UK at least, as a protest singer.   Which raises the question, “what is a protest song?”  And the follow-up question, “Was Dylan really writing protest songs?”

Of course “protest song” was just a simple identification phrase that gave the guys who wrote for music magazines a short cut label.  Sometimes called “political anthems” protest songs dealt with racial hatred, war and the need to stop it, the demands for justice and equality and indeed all that was wrong with society.

Where the protest song is about individuals it is about leaders and the powerful who are leading society down the wrong route, and misusing the power that they have either been given or have taken because they feel they are the right people to show everyone else the way.

But although no one ever prescribed what a good protest song should be, there was a general feeling that it should not only describe what was wrong, it should also speak of how these wrongs can be put right.  If it didn’t fulfil this second function, then it was social commentary, rather than protest.  If it was just complaining about how life is for the poor, the downtrodden and the disenfranchised, then it was the blues.

Protest songs and political anthems were not new to the 1960s – some trace their origins back to song like “Strange Fruit” in the 1930s,  through “This land is your land” by Woodie Guthrie and so on.  By the time Bob Dylan arrived, the concept was pretty well understood.

As a result of this maturity of the form Dylan was able to recognise it and do as he wished with it.  Thus from the start he didn’t follow the route of the standard protest song at all.  Indeed his earliest real protest song in fact was comic…

But Dylan did quickly move to a commentary on the serious issues of the day as with Emmett Till…

and yes here Dylan is a protest singer in the classic mould.

But at the same time he was working on songs like the Ballad of Donald White which are about life as it is – the working man being put down by the system.  We might call them ballads rather than protest songs.

And now, around half a century later, as I go back through our list of early Dylan compositions in chronological order, I increasingly get the view that what Dylan was interested in at this time was not changing the world, but of rather noting it from a variety of different perspectives.  Occasionally he lets his feelings stray into the song, but even then he is just reflecting his personal position.

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

No one is rising up, there is no call to arms, there is just the celebration of the death of an evil person.

In fact shortly after giving us Donald White, Dylan came right out and said that there was no answer (or at least no answer that he could give) because, “the answer is blowing in the wind,” which is the absolute antithesis of any thought of rising up and rebelling – the antithesis of the protest song.

If we take a sequence of songs that Dylan wrote in 1962…

we can see that Dylan was not dominated by protesting about the evil in the world, let alone with thoughts of changing the world.  Rather he was fascinated by the painting musical pictures that tell us how it is.    “Hard Rain” tells us the next war is going to kill us all, “Hollis Brown” speaks of the desolation and despair of honest, hard working traditional farmers, and “Don’t think twice” says that the singer is getting up and going on his way because there is nothing here to hold him.   And John Brown reflects on the tragedy of the mother, so proud of her son going off to war.

Yes, in a sense Dylan is protesting against the state of American society in which there could be nuclear fallout, in which farmers are not paid a living wage and so on, but he is not saying “rise up and stop all this” – he is just telling us, this is how it is.

Of course sometimes Dylan does suggest a better life might be round the corner, as with Paths of Victory

Trails of troubles
Roads of battles
Paths of victory
I shall walk

The trail is dusty
And my road it might be rough
But the better roads are waiting
And boys it ain’t far off

And for a very short while Dylan continued the theme of the singer being part of the battle as with  Train A Travellin’  where he was very much at the centre of the protest

And yes it is true sometimes Dylan just stands up and says “no, no more” as with Ye Playboys and Playgirls 

But then when we get back to Oxford Town wherein the message is simply: this is how it is.   It is not a case of rising up and overthrowing the status quo, but rather just noting this is how it is.  Here’s verses four and five…

Me, my girl, my girl’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Going back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Everybody singing a sorrowful tune
Two men died beneath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Yes, somebody better investigate soon.  Not rise up my fellow citizens and reclaim this land from the racists.  Just “somebody…”  And even if that is seen as a satirical quip against the government, that is still a long way from raising the banner and protesting.

In short my argument is that most of the time when Dylan has moved into the lyrics that are thought to be the preserve of the protest movement, he is just pointing at the situation as an observer, a painter or photographer, not as a person who is aiming to change the political or social environment.

And to be clear I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that, simply that this is how it is.

When this theme is combined with so many songs about moving on, the effect is reinforced as being that of the observer rather than the revolutionary.

Eventually, however, Dylan wrote two songs one after the other, in which he stressed that action was not what he was talking about  When the ship comes in and  The Times they are a-Changing

In the former Dylan tells us that change is going to happen – it simply is, because “The time will come up”.  It is, if not written in the Bible, then somehow predestined.  And this is repeated in “Times they are a changing” in which the old road is rapidly fading not because we are redrawing the map, but because, well, that is how it is.

Indeed the point is more clearly made in “Times” than in any other song.  The wheel is turning, and there is nothing any of us can do about it.  It is, perhaps, the natural course of events, the social equivalent of spring following winter.

Thus it appears Dylan can point out the horrors of the armaments but not a route to the population rising up and stopping masters of war.  For justice to come, it will God’s vengeance.

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

And so Bob ends by standing over the grave making sure the evil bastards are dead.

In many ways this approach to reality reflects back to the days of the early folk singers with their message that life will all be fine on the other side.  The meek will indeed inherit the earth – which is not normally thought of the approach of the protest singer.

As for poor Hattie Carrol, all we can do is cry, for there is no way to put the world right.  And if that message were not clear enough, while Bob ended 1963 heralded as a protest singer, as a composer he ended up by turning his back on the world some commentators thought he was protesting about.

Oh a false clock tries to tick out my time
To disgrace, distract, and bother me
And the dirt of gossip blows into my face
And the dust of rumors covers me
But if the arrow is straight
And the point is slick
It can pierce through dust no matter how thick
So I’ll make my stand
And remain as I am
And bid farewell and not give a damn

I really do think it is worth paying as much attention to those last three lines as to “The times they are a-changing”.  The difference is not between Bob the revolutionary and Bob the wanderer, but simply in “Restless Farewell” there is an arrow that can point out to others what is wrong.

Dylan is saying, “There are words that can be said or sung to reveal what is going on, and I will continue to say or sing these words, and I really don’t care what you think about that, because I am just me.”

And we are left with this feeling that maybe it will all be ok in the end, but the guy who pointed out the great ills of our society and the horrors of the behaviour of individuals, may well not be there to see it change.  He has said his piece and moved on.

And by 1964 Bob had moved on so far that not only was he able to tell us that it wasn’t him that we were looking for, but no matter what it looks like when we open our curtains, no matter how dark the skies appear, “it’s life and life only”.

As the man had already said

But it’s not to stand naked under unknowin’ eyes
It’s for myself and my friends my stories are sung

If you appreciated this article you might also like Bob Dylan and the Blues: leaving town in all directions at once

What else is here?

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *