Bob Dylan in Sheridan Square Park, 1965 by Fred McDarrah
In awarding Bob Dylan his well-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature, the Swedish Academy explained it was "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."
Since 1964, most of that poetry has been to express matters of the heart and soul, issues unmoored in time or place.
But in the first two years of his recording career, 1961-1963, Dylan focused on the world around him, bringing a strong progressive perspective to radios and record players around the country.
It’s not just that Dylan wrote the two great political anthems of the 1960s at an absurdly young age (Blowin’ in the Wind before he turned 21 and The Times They Are A-Changin’ when he was 22). He also issued magnificent commentaries on civil rights, economic justice and militarism – all before he turned 23.
We can thank Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo, a red diaper baby who continued her family’s leftist orientation, for his political awakening. “Suze was into this equality-freedom thing long before I was,” Dylan has said, and her intellectual and ideological influence was immediate and profound.
Before Rotolo, Dylan was a quirky, charismatic singer of folk standards; it was after taking an apartment with her on West 4th St. in Greenwich Village in January 1962 that he wrote the two political albums (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Times) that made his first reputation.
Dylan’s eponymous debut, with only two original tracks, was neither a critical nor commercial success. But by the time of its release in March, 1962, Dylan had become a songwriting machine, frequently finding inspiration in newspaper or magazine articles about social ills or injustices. He unveiled what may have been his first protest song—The Death of Emmett Till—at a benefit concert for the Congress of Racial Equality in February, 1962. He tried to balance his horror with hope:
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live
Released in May, 1963—the month he turned 22—Freewheelin’ alone could have justified a lifetime of honors. Not just for the magnificent political songs (Blowin’, Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall) and the songs of love and loss, (Girl From the North Country and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right) but also for the first civil rights song he released, Oxford Town.
Broadside magazine had called for songs about James Meredith’s difficult and dangerous enrollment at the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi; Dylan offered:
He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
At the time, Dylan had never even visited the south. In July of that year, he was brought (courtesy of Theodore Bikel) to a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, part of a voter registration drive organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Surrounded by a few hundred black farm workers gathered on the edge of a cotton patch, Dylan debuted his song about the ambush murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, which had just happened a month before.
Although Dylan would later dismissively refer to his “finger-pointing songs,” Only A Pawn In Their Game is remarkable for whom it doesn’t point the finger at—the actual assassin, local Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. Instead, Dylan indicts the forces that drove De La Beckwith to be "at the back of a bush with his rifle." The words are short and simple; the understanding is deep:
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
Dylan would sing the song the next month at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom for a far larger crowd. That same day, a three-judge panel in Hagerstown, Md imposed a $500 fine and a six month sentence—deferred until after the tobacco harvest—on a wealthy young planter, Billy Zantzinger, for the manslaughter death of a black barmaid, Hattie Carroll. Dylan’s earlier hopefulness from the unreleased Emmett Till was fading:
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
Born in 1941, Dylan was a child of the Cold War with the Soviet Union; his inspiration for writing Masters of War in late 1962 was not Vietnam, but President Dwight Eisenhower’s cautionary comments in his White House farewell.
“It’s not an anti-war song,” Dylan said in a 2011 interview. “It's speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up."
Because the song is not topical—Dylan never names the masters, or any particular weapon system, or even any war—it is timeless, in a way that later anti-war songs by other writers were not:
You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
That’s why Dylan could sing it with utter conviction when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammy Awards in 1991, just days before the ground offensive in the first war in Iraq. A droning modal acoustic arrangement had become a blistering electric cacophony, but the meaning never wavered.
Dylan had long shown sympathy for the soldier, and righteous scorn for those, both close and remote, who sent him to battle. Around the time of Masters of War, he chronicled the tragedy—and the universality—of the infantryman John Brown:
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play
And through the roar and smoke, this string it finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand
But even at the bleakest moments, at a time of duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelters, Dylan remained defiant. In Let Me Die In My Footsteps (1962), he declared:
There’s been rumors of war and wars that have been
The meaning of life has been lost in the wind
And some people thinkin’ that the end is close by
’Stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground
Although he would later be criticized for leasing some of his finest songs for commercials, Dylan has always shown a concern for social and economic justice. In Ballad of Hollis Brown, on Times, he empathized with an impoverished South Dakota farmer—“Your children are so hungry/That they don’t know how to smile”—whose desperation drives him to massacre his family.
Three tracks later, in North County Blues, he focused on how capitalism was causing the decimation of the iron ore range of his Minnesota youth:
They complained in the East
They are playing too high
They say that your ore ain't worth digging
That it's much cheaper down
In the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothing.
So the mining gates locked
And the red iron rotted
And the room smelted heavy from drinking
Where the sad silent song
Made the hour twice as long
As I waited for the sun to go sinking
In the fall of 1962, shortly after officially changing his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dylan married the imagery of the French symbolists to the structure of the English ballad Lord Randall to produce the apocalyptic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, with its litany of war, famine, pestilence, racism, and more.
“A song of desperation,” he called it, “a song of terror.” And it was, a catalogue of crises ending in a declaration of prophetic faith:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Two years later, on the transitional Another Side of Bob Dylan, he went from the apocalypse to the Beatitudes, celebrating those Chimes of Freedom, which were “flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight / Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight / An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night.”
Empathizing with the “luckless, the abandoned and forsaked,” worried about “the outcast, burning constantly at stake,” sending succor to “the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail,” Dylan closed with an exaltation of the individual in community:
Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
He was just turning 23. Over the next two years, he would release Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde—and be firmly on a path to a celebration in Stockholm.
Stu Levitan, host of Books & Beats on WXXM-FM 92.1, is the author of the forthcoming Madison in the Sixties (Wisconsin Historical Society Press).