Bob Dylan was a writer and singer of protest songs for, at a generous estimate, a period of a little less than 18 months between late 1962 and early 1964. Only a single album from his entire career consists primarily of what could accurately be described as “protest songs”. That’s one out of thirty-five studio albums and counting. The fact that, to this day, mainstream news stories mentioning Dylan will almost always describe him as "legendary protest singer Bob Dylan” says all that really needs to be said about just how important that relatively tiny handful of songs, written 50 years ago, has been to the development of 20th century music.
Anyway. The beginning. A young Robert Zimmerman – soon to change his name to Dylan, for reasons that have never been adequately explained (the usual story has it as a reference either to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas or, less popularly but possibly more plausibly, to the character Matt Dillon from the TV Western series ‘Gunsmoke’) - arrived in New York from Minnesota early in 1962. To cut a long story short, he fairly quickly established himself as a prominent name and face in the then-thriving folk music scene in Greenwich Village, NYC, rapidly developing into an accomplished performer with an extensive, ever-growing catalogue of traditional folk songs at his command. His first album, the imaginatively titled ‘Bob Dylan’, features a reasonably representative sample of the sort of material he was playing in cafes and folk clubs at the time, including two fairly unremarkable original compositions: ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song To Woody’. The latter is a tribute to Woody Guthrie, the legendary American folk singer who was, at the time, dying in a hospital not far from NYC. Dylan visited him several times, playing several of his own songs to Guthrie from his hospital bedside (this is frequently described as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to a new generation’s folk/protest icon, a beautiful and romantic notion only slightly marred by the fact that Dylan would almost entirely abandon the genre within two years).
As debut albums go, it’s not bad - hardly a harbinger of the outpouring of genius that was shortly to follow, but a creditable piece of fairly straightforward early ‘60s folk music. The most impressive thing about it, to my ears, is that these ancient songs of death and misery are being sung by a kid who’s barely turned 20. His voice is soberly, effortlessly timeless – there’s a weight and maturity to the singing which is hard to reconcile with the baby-face on the album cover.
This playlist only includes one of the many, many traditional songs Dylan was performing at this time – ‘Moonshiner’, an old folk ballad about bootlegging alcohol which is mainly notable for featuring what I think remains one of the best vocal performances he ever recorded in a studio. The warm, intimate recording captures just how tight a control Dylan had over his vocal phrasing, even at this early stage. It’s not an especially melodically demanding song, but the precision of the breathing and sustained notes is nonetheless impressive. Anyone who can persist in the popular line of nonsense about how Dylan “can’t sing” after hearing this is clearly beyond hope.
The record wasn’t much of a success, but that didn’t matter for long - by the time it came out Dylan himself had already moved on. On his next record, 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan', recorded only a few short months later, the ratio of original songs to covers was neatly reversed. Two traditional songs, buried towards the end of Side 2, surrounded by eleven Dylan compositions. These new songs – and a dozen or more others written and recorded at around the same time, many of them still officially unreleased – are still among the best, most memorable songs Dylan has ever written, forcing themselves out at an astonishing rate in his first real flush of sustained creativity. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Girl From The North Country’, ‘Masters of War’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’…these are inarguably some of the most significant songs in the American songbook, covered countless times by countless artists. But Dylan had barely even begun.
Alongside the more personal and intimate lyrics, like the delicate ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, there are several tracks on ‘Freewheelin’ which undoubtedly deserve the “protest song” tag – the self-explanatory ‘Masters of War’, a brutal dissection of the military-industrial complex, or the rather less self-explanatory epic ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, a journey through a dream landscape of visions and possibilities glimpsed under the fearful shadow of an impending – possibly nuclear - holocaust. Comparing this with an earlier composition on a similar theme – ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’, one of Dylan’s earliest self-penned songs – is striking. ‘Let Me Die In My Footsteps’ is a strong, well-crafted piece of writing, set to a good melody with an assured performance, but there’s a literal, earth-bound quality to it that ultimately leaves it a less artistically satisfying piece of work than the more abstract later piece. It’s because of this that I can’t help but view his next album – 1964’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ – as a small artistic step backwards, even as it represents a pronounced step forwards for his social conscience.
At the start of this essay I mentioned that only one album in Dylan’s catalogue could truly be described as a “protest record” from beginning to end. ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ is that album. It’s a dour, dark record, and to be honest I don’t actually listen to it terribly often – there’s a cold, unforgiving quality to a lot of the “finger-pointing” songs that can make the album uncomfortable to listen to outside the context of its time. The sound, too, is harsher than on the preceding two albums - Dylan's simplified guitar playing and piercing harmonica providing a driving rhythmic pulse of accompaniment to a new singing voice that lacks much of the warmth heard on 'Freewheelin'...', a new-found starkness echoed in the high-contrast black-and-white portrait seen on the album cover. That’s not to say that it isn’t an excellent collection of songs, of course - the writing is focused, sharp and to the point, pulling away from the more lyrical, poetic imagery of ‘Freewheelin’…’ to tell a set of stories of injustice and cruelty, many of them pulled straight from contemporary headlines.
I’ve included a few of his most notable protest songs here, of which ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ (the first track on ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’) is probably the most famous. The recording I’ve chosen - over the better-known album version - is an early demo, a sparse, harmonica-free performance that more clearly shows its melodic debt to the traditional slave shanty ‘No More Auction Block’ (a performance of which by Dylan can be found on the first volume of the Bootleg Series, and is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the archaeological origins of a classic song). It’s a deceptively simple piece of work, with a timeless quality all the more powerful for the lack of answers it offers – sometimes, it suggests, it can be enough just to ask the question.
‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, based on the then-recent killing of a poor black serving woman by a rich young tobacco heir named William Zantzinger, is possibly the most direct song on ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’, and it achieves a different sort of timelessness simply by telling a powerful story in as compelling a manner as possible. It’s a devastating, brilliant and sustained lyrical assault on injustice, privilege, prejudice and corruption, summed up through a vivid (although not, to be fair, strictly and literally accurate) depiction of a single incident. As Dylan himself described it at one concert in 1965, “This is a true story…taken out of the newspaper. Nothing but the words have been changed” – a lovely, elegant little joke (what, exactly, is there to a newspaper story besides the words?) showing that even in his most serious moments, he couldn’t entirely suppress a poet’s playfulness and instinct to toy with the possibilities and limits of language.
In the wake of these early, socially aware and often prophetic songs, a contemporary audience of earnest, politically engaged young activists had begun eagerly seizing on Dylan’s every word. The burgeoning protest movement seemed determined to elect him as a spokesman and figurehead, whether he wanted the position or not…and perhaps inevitably, he rebelled. A lyricist of Dylan’s imagination and wit was never going to be able to confine himself to the sort of literal, heavy-handed (albeit powerful and literate) - writing showcased on ‘The Times…’ for too long, however good he was at it, and his next album would see the first of many, many instances of Dylan consciously and aggressively rejecting the expectations and demands of his own audience. Few of them noticed this at the time – there are a couple of vaguely protest-ish songs on the album to appease the purists – but in hindsight, the seeds of an even greater betrayal to follow are clearly being sown as early as his fourth album.
The aptly titled ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’, released in August 1964, was recorded in a single evening with the aid of several bottles of wine. As you might expect, then, it’s a less focused collection than ‘The Times…’, opening the door towards his next major self-reinvention without entirely stepping through it. To modern ears – and, one suspects, to a lot of contemporary listeners - the sound of the record, once again recorded solo with just acoustic guitar and harmonica (and a touch of piano on one song), superficially masks some of the more revolutionary aspects of the writing. ‘Chimes of Freedom’, a stunningly evocative meditation on the universal human spirit inspired by the experience of being caught outdoors in a lightning storm (the way the power of nature is carried as a sustained metaphor throughout the song very consciously echoes the works of Romantic poets like Shelley, whose ‘Ode to the West Wind’ uses a similar device) is perhaps the most substantial of these, a return to the dream-narrative seen earlier in songs like ‘Hard Rain’ but this time approaching the subject matter with a more literary, mature artistic voice. Although I haven’t featured too many songs from this album in this playlist, a quick glance through some of the titles – ‘All I Really Want To Do’, ‘I Shall Be Free No.10’, ‘I Don’t Believe You’, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ – tells a clear story about a gifted artist beginning to strain at the limits of the role in which he’s been cast. In this light, ‘My Back Pages’ is a particularly fascinating composition, with a refrain that seems to callously dismiss the concerns which had dominated his writing as recently as a few months earlier: “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now”.
The final song on ‘Another Side…’ is perhaps Dylan’s most explicit kiss-off to the folk/protest movement. ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ is a sharp, stinging but not entirely unsympathetic rebuke to a lover, or possibly an audience, who is demanding more than the singer is willing or able to offer. “You say you’re looking for someone / Who’s never weak but always strong / To protect you an’ defend you / Whether you are right or wrong / Someone to open each and every door / But it ain’t me, babe….It ain’t me you’re looking for”.
With this elegant but unapologetic farewell, a little over two years into a career that had already seen him dramatically change his persona and his artistic voice at least three times, the stage was set for his next, even more explosive reinvention. And this time, there was no way anybody was going to fail to notice it.