Week 2: Bob Dylan’s confusing and controversial role in protest music

Apr 17, 2020

Hello again! I have been making my way through Dorian Lynksey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute. Bob Dylan figures prominently in the reading I’ve done over the past week, and my view of him has been completely shifted. 

I came into this project assuming that Dylan was a proud leader of American protest music, and one purely dedicated to the cause of protest. But according to Lynskey, he viewed himself as an artist, not a protest singer. By 1965 he had become cagey and upset with his popularity as the latter. Lynksey argues that Dylan wished to avoid glorification because it removed the meaning of his songs. 

With his vaguely political, poetic lyrics, Dylan intended to make his audiences introspective. When audiences would chant his famous “The Times, They Are a-Changin’”, Dylan felt that some of if not all the introspectiveness was lost, seeing himself as wrongly in control of the audience. As Lynksey writes, concert goers knew when to clap, boo, and sing along. With this in mind, was Dylan justified in his discomfort? Did listeners hang onto Dylan’s every word, not so much as ideas but politically-charged entertainment? For example, when Barry McGuire’s song “Eve of Destruction” rose to the top of the charts, many from the left-wing folk establishment complained that it was just a pop-culture item and not a protest song. Another explanation is that Dylan was just being narrow-minded. You could argue that whether he liked it or not, he was a protest singer. His songs undeniably fueled activism. Coming to New York to pursue folk music in January 1961 with an intense admiration for Woody Guthrie, was Dylan being hypocritical? He looked up to Guthrie just as listeners looked up to him. Or did he see Guthrie in a different way than everyone else? This invites a discussion about the ubiquitous desire to be unique within modern culture.

As I read more and more, I realized that my question is going to have a more complex answer than I previously thought. Divisions even existed within the folk scene itself. Dylan once told protest singer Phil Ochs (who respected Dylan greatly), “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” When Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he only played 3 songs, but this set went down in history. While performances at the festival pretty much only consisted of soft, acoustic music up to that point, Bob Dylan took to the stage with twangy electric guitars and loud drums. Pete Seeger was furious, and the crowd both booed and cheered.

Over the course of his career, Dylan wished to draw back to folk music’s more poetic roots, but his music was treated as politically charged. The controversial statements of Bob Dylan allow for a discussion about what constitutes protest music. It’s an interesting topic for sure. Thanks for reading!

One Reply to “Week 2: Bob Dylan’s confusing and controversial role in protest music”

  1. Lois W. says:

    Although I am not into folk music, your blog has sparked my interest in wanting to know more about folk musicians 🙂

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