Bob Dylan is one of the most influential figures in music. After more than four decades, this talented poet and gifted songwriter remains to be relevant in the music industry. However, the influence of this amazing musician goes beyond the realm of music. He is also an important part of American history, specifically of the civil rights movement. How and why is Dylan’s music significant to the said movement? Bob Dylan is a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement because he provided the songs that clearly defined the issues of the era.
Moreover, the majority of his songs are political in nature, even if he wrote outside the context of the movement. This research paper aims to discuss the crucial contribution of Bob Dylan to the American civil rights movement and politics in general, through his music and lyrics, Before there could be a discussion on Bob Dylan’s participation, it is necessary that a discussion on the beginnings of the American civil rights movement be made. The civil rights movement was established based on a series of events that occurred in the duration of several years.
These events are characterized with the injustice and discrimination towards African-American citizens, and these resulted in the movement itself. The first significant event happened on May 17, 1974, when the Supreme Court affirmed the unconstitutionality of segregation in public schools (Brunner & Haney). On August 1955, a African- American teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till was kidnapped, killed and dumped by two Caucasian men (Brunner & Haney). These men were acquitted by a Caucasian jury, and later flaunted their immoral deeds in a magazine interview.
On December 1st of the same year, a woman named Rosa Parks declined to give her seat to a Caucasian passenger. This refusal resulted in her arrest, which prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Brunner & Haney). In September 1957, integration of races was tested in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (Brunner & Haney). The school was formerly an all- Caucasian institution, and when nine African-American students tried to go, they were refused entry. President Eisenhower had to arbitrate for the students, who assumed the title “Little Rock Nine” (Brunner & Haney).
On May 4, 1961, the “freedom riders” began their mission (Brunner & Haney). “Freedom riders” was the name attributed to volunteers who proved the effectivity of the anti-segregation laws in transportation by riding in buses and trains (Brunner & Haney). Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi, was killed outside his house on June 12, 1963. All these events were crucial for the movement, but it was the Washington March on August 28, 1963 that proved to be the most important milestone (Brunner & Haney).
About 200,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (Brunner & Haney). One of the performers present in that said gathering was Bob Dylan (“Biography”). The civil rights movement was primarily about the struggle for equality by African -Americans. So how does a Caucasian musician like Dylan participate in such a cause? At that time, the voices of African-Americans were not heard. Those times characterized the African-Americans’ ongoing struggle to gain equal rights.
Through his songs, Dylan provided the avenue in which the sentiments and the grievances of these people could be heard. He may differ from them in terms of skin color, but it is he who best represented their voices. His undeniable talent captured the essence of a particular moment in history (“Politics”). His songs reflected the problems of the era; he gave the civil rights movement a soundtrack. The people’s awareness of the struggles of African-Americans for equality was largely due to Dylan’s songs (Chapman). Indeed, the issues of racism and discrimination are problems of the African-Americans.
Obviously, these are not the concerns of Caucasian Americans. Nonetheless, through Dylan’s efforts, the grievances of African-Americans had reached a larger audience. Because of his songs, other Caucasian Americans have recognized the plight of their fellowmen, and have started participating as well. In a time when skin color hindered one’s voice to be heard, Dylan was instrumental in giving African-Americans a voice through his music (Chapman). Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, was popular primarily because of the protest songs he penned (“Politics”).
The folk singer made the protest genre famous in the sixties, and he brought it to the masses (“Politics”). He is even considered as the “laureate of a social movement” (“Politics”). His protest songs spoke of poverty, war and racism; these very songs prove to be anthems in such a cultural milieu (“Politics”). One of Bob Dylan’s songs that was significant to the Civil Rights Movement was entitled “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (“Politics”). Dylan wrote: Come senators, congressmen Please heed the call Don’t stand in the doorway Don’t block up the hall For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled There’s a battle outside And it is ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows And rattle your walls For the times they are a-changin’ (“Lyrics”). This song is a tribute to the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, as the lyrics express the affirmation that despite the apparent obstructions, social changes will indeed take place (“Politics”). In this stanza, Dylan implies that whatever the politicians do, the fight for equality will continue Regardless of further hindrances by the authorities, it is inevitable that there will be social change in the future.
One year prior, Dylan wrote a song that was also considered as a civil rights movement anthem. The song is entitled “Blowin’ in the Wind” (Chapman). The song is a social commentary about the prevalent racism in the sixties. The song questions the circumstances African-Americans must face before they can be considered as equals in American society. It asks a series of questions: What should an African-American do to be recognized as a human being and not be judged by his or her skin color? How many more lives must be lost for change to occur? Will these questions ever be answered? Dylan wrote: How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky? Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry? Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows That too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, The answer is blowin’ in the wind (“Lyrics”). Another song that was born out of the civil rights movement was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (Chapman). In this song, Dylan gives a warning, as his words present the repercussions of racial discrimination in America: I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains, I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways,
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests, I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans, I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard, And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall (“Lyrics”). One of Dylan’s songs that exhibit obvious reference to the civil rights movement is “Only A Pawn in their Game. ” This song was inspired by the demise of Evers prior to the Washington March (Chapman). Dylan wrote the song about the underlying origin of racism, which is believed to be class rule (“Politics”; Chapman).
This song does not point the finger to either the victim or suspect; he recognizes that the two are only a part of a greater scheme. Dylan wrote: A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood. A finger fired the trigger to his name. A handle hid out in the dark A hand set the spark Two eyes took the aim Behind a man’s brain But he can’t be blamed He’s only a pawn in their game (“Lyrics”). “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is another song that reveals the injustices that the civil rights movement denounced: William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’. And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him As they rode him in custody down to the station And booked William Zantzinger for first-degree murder. But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, Take the rag away from your face. Now ain’t the time for your tears (“Lyrics”). The ballad narrates the true story of how a wealthy Caucasian man had killed an innocent African-American maid by relentlessly beating her up with a cane.
As if that was not enough proof of injustice, Zantzinger was given a sentence that only lasted for six months (Chapman). The five aforementioned songs are examples of how Dylan represented the era of the civil rights movement. His songs were social commentaries; all of which presented the inherent problems in American society. He dealt with a range of issues, from class conflict to social injustice to social change. Dylan did not need to be African-American to recognize the problems that plagued American society in the sixties. As part of that said society, he was very aware of the struggles of his fellowmen.
He then wasted no time in using his musical and poetic gifts to express his feelings about the matter. As a result, Dylan had created many songs that had captured the mood of the sixties, specifically the civil rights movement. It has been established that Dylan’s songs in the sixties were social commentaries. The songs are about racism, class conflict, and the struggle for equality. However, the social characteristics of these songs are founded on the political nature of Dylan’s compositions. The social context of a country is usually always intertwined with the political atmosphere.
Hence, in most of Dylan’s songs, not only are his songs socially relevant but also political accurate. This is the reason why his music is said to be involved in a lot of politics, simply because it is inherently political. Dylan’s compositions, which veered away from the influence of the civil rights movement, still prove to be political in nature. The song “Maggie’s Farm” still delivers a political commentary, as it delves into the issue of labor (“Politics”). The song asserts how the authority of employers is derived from two sources: ideology and state (“Politics”).
In one line, Dylan states how ideology can be used to tolerate such unjust labor practices: “Well, she talks to all the servants/ About man and God and law (“Lyrics”). In another, Dylan affirms the influence of the state on such unjust employers: “The National Guard stands around his door” (“Lyrics”). Lastly, the song also depicts how the government promotes conformation as opposed to individuality: Well, I try my best To be just like I am, But everybody wants you To be just like them (“Lyrics”). Even the political climate during the Vietnam War was also included in Dylan’s compositions.
He never spoke openly about it, but his sentiments about it were expressed in two of his songs. In “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan wrote: Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored He was tryin’ to create a next world war He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before But yes I think it can be very easily done We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun And have it on Highway 61 (“Lyrics”). The other song that expressed Dylan’s Vietnam War sentiments was “Tombstone Blues. ” Here Dylan describes the American president as such: The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry” And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky Saving, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken” (“Lyrics”). Bob Dylan is one of the world’s most gifted musicians and songwriters. He has been a part of the music industry for the more than forty years, and his music still proves to be as effective then as it is now. Dylan did not put to waste his God-given gifts, as he utilized his songwriting skills to further the causes of the civil rights movement. Despite being Caucasian, Dylan recognized and understood the struggles of his African-American fellowmen in the sixties.
He then wrote songs that captured their sentiments and the overall social atmosphere of the era. In the process, Dylan helped define the historical moment that marked one of history’s most difficult times through the music he created. His music encouraged the demonstrators and activists to continue their fight for equality, while it made other people aware of the current situation. The civil rights movement is greatly indebted to Dylan for his musical contributions, just as he should be indebted to the movement for his popularity. Works Cited
Bob Dylan Lyrics. 28 Feb. 2008 <http://www. bobdylanlyrics. net/>. Brunner, Borgna and Elissa Haney. Infoplease. 2007. 28 Feb. 2008 <http://www. infoplease. com/spot/civilrightstimeline1. html>. Ayoub, Chuck. “Biography. ” Bob Dylan Lyrics. 28 Feb. 2008 <http://www. bobdylanlyrics. net/bob-dylan-biography. htm>. Chapman, Robert. “African American Culture and Bob Dylan: Why He Matters. ” Edlis. org. 24 Aug. 1997. 28 Feb. 2008 <http://www. edlis. org/twice/threads/why_he_matters. html>. Red Pepper. 28 Feb. 2008 <http://www. redpepper. org. uk/article561. html>.