Was Dylan ever really a protest singer – even in the 1960s?

by Tony Attwood

Of late I have been working my way through the songs Dylan wrote in the 1950s and 1960s.  (There’s an index to the articles at the end of this piece). I make it 262 songs written and co-written, starting from the three 1969 songs, and ending with “Living the blues” in 1969.

This list is enhanced beyond the number of songs written in other years because it includes all the songs on the Basement Tapes (which in other circumstances might not have been recorded or might not have survived given that some were just improvisations, or sketches) plus the “New Basement Tapes” based on the notebook in which Dylan created a set of lyrics for songs he did not go on and finish.

By way of comparison, most commentators credit Paul McCartney with 200 songs in his entire career.  The only songwriter of renown who exceeds Dylan’s output appears to be Irving Berlin who is often quoted as having written 1500 songs in a 60-year career.  The exact dates of many of his compositions cannot be stated with certainty as they were copyrighted in batches, but it is generally agreed that he wrote approximately 95 songs between 1917 and 1921 (probably his most active period of writing), which averages 19 songs a year.  However, it appears that the sketches that would be Berlin’s equivalent to the Basement Tapes have not survived – for the most part we only have details of the final copyrighted songs.

What I have been doing in the articles in this series about Dylan’s song writing from 1959 to 1969 is listing the songs in chronological order and assigning a simple topic or theme to each song in order to categorise them.  The totals are for the entire period by category are…

  • Art: 3
  • Being trapped/escaping from being trapped (being world-weary): 10
  • Blues: 8
  • Betrayal: 1
  • Celebrating a city 1
  • Change: 4
  • Death: 3
  • Depression: 1
  • Disasters: 1
  • Disdain: 7
  • Eternity: 1
  • Future will be fine: 2
  • Gambling: 2
  • Happy relationships: 1
  • How we see the world: 3
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Individualism: 8
  • It’s a mess: 3
  • Leadership: 2
  • Look after yourself: 1
  • Lost love / moving on: 30
  • Love, desire: 31
  • Lust : 1
  • Moving on: 9
  • Nothing changes: 4
  • Nothing has meaning: 2
  • Party freaks: 3
  • Patriotism: 1
  • Personal commentary: 2
  • Protest 20
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Rebellion: 1
  • Relationships 1
  • Religion, second coming: 2
  • Sex (country life): 1
  • Social commentary / civil rights: 6
  • Slang in a song: 4
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • The tragedy of modern life: 3
  • WH Auden tribute: 1

Of course, many of these topics could be joined together to make broader topics but I’ve kept them apart thus far to keep a record of the original totals I came up with, and in case I have the strength and tenacity to repeat the process with the 1970s.

Here are the subjects that have 10 or more songs attributed to them.

  • Being trapped: 10
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 11
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 13
  • Surrealism, Dada: 15
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 16
  • Protest: 20
  • Lost love / moving on: 30
  • Love, desire: 31

What does interest me particularly, is that this was the decade when Dylan became known as not just a protest songwriter, but THE protest songwriter of the modern age.  Yet even in this period of his life, protest songs were only third on the list of topics, and greatly outnumbered by his songs taken from what are generally considered the traditional pop subject matter of love, lost love and dance.  Of course Bob didn’t bother himself with dance, but he did write a third more love and lost-love related songs during this time, than protest songs.

Thus on this analysis, jJust under 8% of the songs Dylan wrote in the period 1959/1969 were protest songs.  Even if some of the categorisations that I have given are challenged, that percentage is still going to be very low.

Here is the list of the most popular categories for Dylan’s songs in this period as a percentage of all the songs written during this era.

  • Being trapped: 4%
  • Randomness (including Kafkaesque randomness): 4%
  • Humour, satire, talking blues: 5%
  • Surrealism, Dada: 6%
  • Travelling on, songs of leaving, songs of farewell, moving on: 6%
  • Protest: 8%
  • Lost love / moving on: 11%
  • Love, desire: 12%

By this analysis the great protest singer/songwriter of the age wasn’t dedicating himself to challenging the status quo: he was a singer and creator of songs about love, who also took on some protest songs along the way.

One can of course argue that Dylan’s most popular or most memorable songs were the protest songs, and so to consider this point I’ve pulled together the protest songs that I found in my first reviews by subject.  Then to try and overcome any arguments that my categorisation was not fair, I went back and added ten more songs that might perhaps be called “protest” by some analysts.  I have left the details of the categories that I assigned as I worked through the decade in the earlier articles.

This now gives me 31 songs out of 262, or 12% of his total output.   Here is the full list, and in case the argument is put that although the number of protest songs was small, they were the most important songs that Dylan composed in the era, I’ve included the full list.

I would add that I have even included “Times they are a changin” which I have often argued is not a protest song at all, but rather a song that the lyrics of which say that change is happening no matter what we do.  This is quite contrary to the general understanding of a protest song in which the key point is that people (often young people) should rise up in order to change the world order.

Here’s the expanded list with the descriptions that I assigned each song, on compiling the original articles…

  1. Man on the street (Tragedy of life, the lack of humanity in urban communities)
  2. Hard times in New York Town (a satire on urban life)
  3. Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues (Right wing protest)
  4. Death of Emmett Till (social commentary: racism)
  5. The Ballad of Donald White (social commentary)
  6. Let me die in my footsteps (anti-nuclear war; stand up and be proud)
  7. Ain’t gonna grieve (civil rights)
  8. Long Ago Far Away (nothing has changed)
  9. Hard Rain’s a gonna fall (War protest)
  10. Ballad of Hollis Brown (Rural protest)
  11. John Brown (War protest)
  12. Train A Travellin’  (Stand up and protest about what’s going on around you)
  13. Ye Playboys and Playgirls  (Stand up and change the world)
  14. Oxford Town (Racism Protest)
  15. Masters of War (War protest)
  16. Who killed Davey Moore?  (Boxing, Inequality)
  17. Walls of Red Wing (Protest: life is a matter of chance)
  18. You’ve been hiding too long. (Our leaders have betrayed the ideals of our country)
  19. Seven Curses (Absolute betrayal of justice)
  20. With God on our Side (Protest)
  21. Talking World War III Blues (Protest, surrealism)
  22. Only a pawn in their game  (Social commentary, protest)
  23. North Country Blues (Rural protest)
  24. Gypsy Lou  (Art, Protest)
  25. When the ship comes in  (Protest)
  26. The Times they are a-Changing (Protest)
  27. Percy’s Song (The failure of justice)
  28. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (Protest, racism)
  29. Chimes of Freedom (Protest)
  30. Gates of Eden (Protest, Individualism, A world that makes no sense)
  31. Desolation Row (Political protest; It’s not the world, it’s how you see the world).

Conclusions

What I take from this little exercise is that

a) The range of subjects Dylan tackled was huge and incredibly varied – it is one of the things that marks him out as a songwriter.

b) Any attempt to categorise him, or this era in his writing, as being dominated by protest songs, is completely false.

c) During the decade Dylan meandered around his chosen subjects.  Some, such as “being trapped” clearly relate to his condition at the time (ie in the Basement) while others seem to take his interest for a few songs, sometimes just one song, and then are left as he once more moves on.

d) The output is phenomenal and I suspect far above even the most prolific time in the life of the other American songwriter of great merit with a massive output, Irving Berlin.

e) As the decade ended, Dylan moved into new areas of writing, such as the Kafkaesque lyrics of the JWH album, followed by the country inspired love songs at the end of the decade, which were so very different from his earlier work.   But Dylan was experimenting all the way through the decade. Those 41 categories that I have used above to classify all of Dylan’s songs from the era do not simply establish as a varied writer, they also reveal him to be a writer who wants to explore, who wants, within his work to travel to all possible places, who wants to see what happens if one tries that, this or something else.

I’ve no idea if anyone else has found this exercise interesting, but I must say that when I started it, despite having spent several years catalouging Dylan’s writing through his entire career, I had no idea just how varied the subject matter of Dylan’s output was in this era, nor which subjects would turn out to be his main areas of interest.  For that alone, I’m rather glad I was able to find the time to do it.  It fascainted me, even if no one else.

I might even have a go at the 1970s next.

Dylan’s songwriting in the 1960s: the series

What else is on the site

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 594 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 Tony@schools.co.uk

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, links back to our reviews

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