The real politics of Bob Dylan

By Tony Attwood

Ask someone who knows some Dylan songs (maybe has listened to the lyrics, but is not necessarily a great aficionado of the man’s works), about Bob Dylan’s politics, and the chances are that somewhere in the answer you might get a mention of The Times they are a-Changing.

And that’s fair enough, up to a point –  Bob told us that change was happening all around us and it is ongoing and no one knows where this is going to stop.  A vision that has by and large come true – the change is still going on and on and on, it is accelerating constantly, and there is still no telling where it is going to end.

But listen to the rest of the album and a lot of the change that is mentioned therein is pretty horrible and hopeless.

In track two –  The Ballad of Hollis Brown – the family are starving so Hollis Brown kills them all and then himself. Track three tells us of the futility of claiming we act With God on our Side .   And when we get to One too many mornings we are in the traditional world of the drifter who just keeps on moving on.  In fact there is only one song on the rest of the album that speaks of a bright new future, and that is not a future born out of political change, but rather one of a religious nature with When the ship comes in.

And listening to those two songs together gives me a horrible feeling, much as I adore Dylan’s work.  Because in neither Times nor When the Ship do we work for the change.  In Times the change is inevitable, it is destiny.  And indeed with “When the Ship” once again it is inevitable.  There’s no political movement only inevitability.

Of course inevitability is a well-worn vision.  Marx predicted the inevitable destruction of capitalism and Revelations predicts the inevitability of the Second Coming.  It’s a favourite message of those who truly believe they right.

When Bob did write about what is wrong with the world he meandered. Blowing in the wind   told us that the answer is out there in a rather Zen like manner.  Hard Rain’s a gonna fall gave us the opposite of the ship coming in – I’ve seen it all and its all going to end.  And indeed much of the time, as with Hollis Brown he told us just how bad the world is, not how to make it better.

Only a pawn in their game  Masters of War, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll just tells us this is all utterly awful.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; excellent songs indeed with a very clear message – but it is not saying “rise up my fellow countrymen and overthrow this corrupt and terrible system”.

So when Dylan said, “I don’t want to write for people anymore – you know, be a spokesman…I’m not part of no movement…” he was dead right.  It wasn’t that he abandoned a movement – he was never in one.  An early song like Oxford Town sharpens our awareness of the situation at that moment, but it doesn’t say “rise up.”

And this is the theme – Dylan the observer.  He’s saying, “Look guys, do you realise what sort of world you are living in?” but he is not saying anything about how to sort it out.  In that regard he is not the slightest bit revolutionary, for he was not trying to cause change, he was just observing something that clearly needed change.

In My back pages Dylan tells us he regrets the folly of his youth in suggesting that… well, what?  He tells us in the last verse:

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

But did he ever do that?  Maybe, but if so, only in passing.   “God on our side” says the industrial-military complex is bad, but I think we knew that.

For me, in this regard, Dylan was highly reflective of what was going on in the 1960s and 1970s.  Go on a big demonstration, take control of the streets, shout and chant a lot and then… go home and see if the TV cameras got a picture of you and your mates – or at least your banner.

And so Dylan went home and observed the outside world in a way that was indeed very interesting, often incredibly exciting, and which struck a chord with so many people – but it wasn’t about change.  Indeed It’s all right ma  is just about life as it is – just listen to the end – “it’s life and life only”.  There is nothing else to be done but to endure.

Yes he might think about revolutionary things, but they stay in his head.  And with this we enter a mainstream of Dylan – the observer, seeing the world in a way that is of interest to us, it is a point of view well worth considering – but it is not revolutionary.

Dylan was the observer looking in, with “Times they are a changing” and he is still the observer looking in with Desolation Row.  And there is nothing wrong with that.   The British poet Adrian Mitchell wrote “The only reason for writing is to change the world,” but that has not been Dylan’s view.  He writes because… well because he can, and he’s good at it, and he has interesting visions, but he’s not been trying to found a movement.  He’s not been working hard for social reform all these years.  He’s been working to write songs and perform them.

And why was that?  Because the protest songs are also just observations.  Songs don’t normally make people get up and overthrow the state or disembody their landlord.  They just express a feeling of annoyance.

What Bob Dylan did was take this to another level.  Desolation Row does not express annoyance at the selling of postcards of the hanging but it just reminds us it happened and the level of hatred that caused that is still there (as we can most certainly see today).  And yes if we want to rise up, fine, but please don’t take any photos or make a recording of the concert.

And although “to live outside the law you must be honest” is one of Dylan’s most famous lines, I am not sure too many people who quote that admiringly actually follow it’s suggestion.

However I do feel Bob has left us clues as to what really occupies (or has occupied) his mind about the human condition.  If you are a regular reader of this site you’ll know of my passion for that fairly obscure piece Drifter’s Escape  – and I highlight this song over and again because it expresses something that explains Bob’s distance from the whole notion of changing society.

In “Drifter’s Escape” cause and effect break down – the drifter rambles into town and gets accused of something, and then by chance gets away.  It just happens.  There is no revolution, there is no plot, it is just that stuff happens.   And as if to to cement this idea I would point to Dylan’s one song of 1968 – his country is tearing itself to bits and he writes Lay Lady Lay – an elegant song indeed, but unrelated to the reality around him.

And when do we get to the politics again?  Well, I suppose with “George Jackson” in 1971 – but really Bob is mostly concerned with himself – the two songs composed immediately before George Jackson were When I paint my masterpiece and Watching the river flow

But even this passes because by the end of 1973 Dylan composed Wedding Song – a song that rejects labelling and is about setting oneself free.

By 1974 he was getting real personal with Idiot Wind and yes occasionally he did get a trifle political as with Joey but most of the time, no.  And so it continued until 1979 when it really was all over.   Bob found a way of sitting and observing the world around him and commenting on it, in a perfect belief that this was all that was needed.  Because you Gotta Serve Somebody and you can do that by telling the audience to follow the Lord and make sure that when all hell breaks loose (literally) you’re on the right side.

Bob did eventually find a cause he really wanted to support in Farm Aid, and that of course takes us back to Hollis Brown.

But as for politics, well,

We live in a political world 

World of wine, women and song

You could make it through without the first two

Boy without the third you wouldn't last long.

Politics for most people is about changing the world for the better – for some it is for the better of everyone, for others it is for the benefit of their race or class or nation, because their race, class or nation is inherently superior to the rest.  But after religion got a lot less important, the revolution was all over. By 1996 it was Not Dark Yet but it sure was getting there.   By 1999 Bob tells us he used to care but Things have Changed.

And Bob ultimately summed it all up so clear saying, “to myself alone I sing”.  There are no politics.  There is no revolution.  There is no change.  It is what it is.  “I’ve nothing more to tell you now.”

Indeed how could it be any other way?


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  1. “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”

  2. This is absolutely the best thing I’ve read on your site and the most insightful piece about Dylan I’ve read in years. You’ve expanded my mind and that would be a high compliment to me if I were the writer.

  3. Your take on The Times They Are A-Changin’ doesn’t account for the songs that DO end with a call to action. He’s not explicit about it. He’s moved past speaking to “all us folks that thinks alike.” But it’s there, just as it is in “Hard Rain,” which is not at all about passively watching how things end: it’s about accepting the call, taking all he’s seen and heard and met, and speaking out about it, letting all souls know. In “Hattie Carroll,” when William Zanzinger gets the justice his family paid for, “you who philosophize disgrace” can snuffle into their handkerchiefs, but the song isn’t really meant for them, though it’s addressed to them. It’s meant for those who think a little more than that is called for. “Only a Pawn in Their Game” describes a world as deterministic and cyclical, for Medgar Evers’ killer, as that inhabited by Hollis Brown or the woman in “North Country Blues.” But Evers himself didn’t accept that world. He worked to break that cycle, and it will break. His killer is anonymous; Medgar Evers is buried as a king. “When the Ship Comes In” describes a biblical vengeance, but it’s not a vengeance left to God; the song is sung by someone who’s very much looking forward to carrying it out himself. (It sounds rather like something Vikings would sing in their ships the night before they sacked an abbey.)

    There is a strong sense of inevitability on the album, a knowledge that a revolution is only a turn of wheel. But that doesn’t have to mean passivity or helplessness. If change is inevitable, one can still be an agent of inevitability. It’s better than being drenched to the bone and drownded in the tide. Which is all a long way of saying that you can see the seeds of Dylan’s renunciation of politics on The Times They Are A-Changin’, but it’s still a genuinely political album.

  4. This made me cry. I have never been so soothed and inspired by a personality such as I am by Bob Dylan. Thank you for this insight

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