A Never-Ending Quarrel - Bob Dylan and Society

Term Paper 2006 13 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of contents


Folk, protest and retreat

From the motorcycle accident to the Seventies

The born-again Christian

The Eighties

The Nineties until today


Works cited


“I was born a long way from where I belong. I’m on my way home.”[1]

Bob Dylan looks back on an uninterrupted career of over forty years. From 1960 – dating his arrival in New York City – up until now, time has brought considerable changes to politics, society, and cultural life including music and artistic life. It must not be confirmed that these parts of society have always been in connection and interaction with each other. Music influences fashion, comments on politics, moral values and numerous contemporary issues - to name only a few of them. Of course this is also the case vice versa. The extend to which an artist relates to and identifies with these connections can vary considerably between direct reference and subconsciously adapting the spirit of the times. Bob Dylan has always been a difficult case here. People have called him folk singer, political songwriter, Judas, Messiah, nihilist, sarcastic eccentric and poet at the same time, always referring to corresponding periods in his life. Though Dylan must be seen quite conscious of his role as an artist, he seems to dislike clear statements concerning his position and attitude towards these descriptions of himself. On the other side he deliberately stays in touch and plays with the issues of his time, considering them in his songs - especially in his lyrics - sometimes accepting and denying them at the same time. One might question the purpose of that. One might ask what Bob Dylan really is. People could call him a cynical nihilist, declare him opportunistic, hungry for fame and success. Others might say he is a genius, who is completely conscious of his position. To find out more about the development of his character and his attitude as an artist towards political and social issues is the aim of this paper. But the most important question will be: Considering all that Dylan is and was - What has he achieved?

As main sources will be considered the two documentative movies Don’t Look Back (1967) and No Direction Home (2005) backed by information from several biographies and essays published on him.

Folk, protest and retreat

Bob Dylan’s first album can not only be seen as a starting point of his career but also serves as a good example of what he had done in the time before its release in 1962. Featuring mainly folk songs and traditionals written by other people, Dylan puts himself in the role of a folk singer, “an innocent out of the West.”[2] In fact there are only two songs on the record that are originally written by himself. One of them is a “Guthriesque talking blues”[3] called “Talking New York” the other is entitled “Song to Woody” - a homage to his idol Woody Guthrie. On the one hand this simply shows his affection for that specific musical style, but on the other it is a distinct proof, that he already felt courageous and confident enough to publish his own material. Considering this first point, Bob Dylan - from the beginning of his career, or maybe even earlier - had a personal desire to make his own way, at least his own music. “It was standard practice within the folk music community to borrow a tune in homage”[4], adds McKeen, but at that point of time Dylan had already gone further, performing more and more of his own songs.

It was probably also his manager Albert Grossman who strengthened this confidence after the release of the first album. It was time for Dylan - he said - to turn his back on the coffeehouses and consider himself a concert performer.[5] Grossman’s role in Dylan’s life became quite important and he was in charge of most organisational affaires. But still it was Dylan himself who found his way and changes and - as Grossman once remarked - “he would have made it without anyone.”[6]

The effects of the McCarthy Era strongly affected Dylan’s song writing and made him what some people began to call a protest singer. His songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (released on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963) and “Only a Pawn in the Game” (The Times They are A-Changin’, 1964) were the most characteristic and also the most successful of that time, concluding to criticize the issues of the American society as a whole (as the title “Only a Pawn in the Game” already indicates), instead of being concerned with a couple of single problematic incidents. “I was taking all the elements I’ve ever known to make wide sweeping statements which conveyed a feeling that was the general essence of the spirit of the times. And I think I managed to do that”[7], Dylan says in an interview.

Being increasingly pushed in the role of leading figure of the civil rights movement, - and this is probably a point where distinct features of his developing philosophy and character can be observed for the first time - Dylan begins to react with retreat. When the Emergency Celebreties Union (which was involved in left wing progressive politics) nominated him for the Tom-Paine Award in 1963, he refused the honour (though not the prize): “There’s no black and white, left and right to me any more. There’s only up and down. And down is very close to the ground. And I’m trying to go up without thinking of anything trivial such as politics.”[8] In a more recent interview he says: “ They were trying to make me an insider to some kind of trip they were on. I don’t think so!”[9]

These changes affected not only his behavior in publicity but also his songs and lyrics, which by the time became more and more surrealistic, complex and grotesque. As an example may serve “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Bringing it All Back Home, 1965), which is a lot wilder and chaotic than its predecessors, including the line “Don’t follow leaders / Watch the parking metaws” and hints towards turning inside one’s self instead of participating in mass movements (whatever sorts they may be). This came closely together with Dylan performing electric concerts - for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where he was backed by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. There was uproar among his fans: “Backstage Mayhem was going on”, says Maria Muldaur in a recent interview, ”[…] Pete Seeger had an axe and was gonna go cut the electric cables.”[10] Whether there is all truth in such anecdotes or not is questionable. It is important though to remark, that Dylan continued playing with electric guitars, leaving his former style behind, without caring too much about large parts of his fans booing at him.

All these assumptions and changes can also be observed among the design of Dylan’s album covers. Monteiro remarks that on the cover of Bringing it All Back Home“Dylan himself appears foppish, decadent: An Oscar Wilde of the mid-‘60’s. […] He sits holding, not a guitar, but a decidedly improbable cat.”[11] This is a complete change compared to the folk-oriented design of - roughly - his first three records and also leads on to English newspapers beginning to call him anarchist – because he doesn’t offer solutions.[12]

Dylan’s way of giving statements and talking in interviews is quite remarkable and hard to describe, but if there is one thing it is not, it is clear. This fits particularly well into what was said above. Regularly these interviews ended up with Dylan posing the questions, and the interviewers shakily trying to answer. One example will be given:


[1] No Direction Home. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Bob Dylan. Spitfire Pictures, 2005.

[2] George Monteiro. “Dylan in the Sixties.“The South Atlantic Quarterly 73 (1974): 161.

[3] William McKeen. Bob Dylan: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993. 17.

[4] McKeen. Bob Dylan. 17.

[5] Robert Shelton. No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. 30.

[6] Shelton. No Direction Home. 163.

[7] No Direction Home. Spitfire Pictures, 2005.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Monteiro. „Dylan in the Sixties“. 163.

[12] Don’t Look Back. Dir. D. A. Pennebaker. Perf. Bob Dylan. 1967.


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Never-Ending Quarrel Dylan Society American Music Cultural History Bob

Title: A Never-Ending Quarrel - Bob Dylan and Society