Peter Dreier: The Political Bob Dylan

Roundup: Talking About History

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College.

When the makers of Hollywood movies, documentary films, or TV news programs want to evoke the spirit of the 1960s, they typically show clips of long-haired hippies dancing at a festival, protestors marching at an antiwar rally, or students sitting-in at a lunch counter, with one of two songs by Bob Dylan—“Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’”—playing in the background.

Journalists and historians often treat Dylan’s songs as emblematic of the era and Dylan himself as the quintessential “protest” singer, an image frozen in time. Dylan emerged on the music scene in 1961, playing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses after the folk music revival was already underway, and released his first album the next year. Over a short period—less than three years—Dylan wrote about two dozen politically oriented songs whose creative lyrics and imagery reflected the changing mood of the postwar baby-boom generation and the urgency of the civil rights and antiwar movements. At a time when the chill of McCarthyism was still in the air, Dylan also showed that songs with leftist political messages could be commercially successful. Unwittingly, Dylan laid the groundwork for other folk musicians and performers of the era, some of whom were more committed to the two major movements that were challenging America’s status quo, and helped them reach wider audiences.

By 1964, however, Dylan told friends and some reporters that he was no longer interested in politics. Broadside magazine asked Phil Ochs, another “protest” singer-songwriter, if he thought that Dylan would like to see his protest songs “buried.” Ochs replied insightfully: “I don’t think he can succeed in burying them. They’re too good. And they’re out of his hands.”...

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