SPEAKER: In May 2011, Bob Dylan turned 70 years of age. Few, if any, singer-songwriters of his generation, or of any generation, have had as profound an impact on music, or for that matter, on society or on the times. One can hardly think of the last 50 years without a song by Bob Dylan coming to mind.
Dylan was born in May, 1941. His given name was Robert Allen Zimmerman. He grew up in Minnesota, and as a youngster, began to play the piano and the guitar. At night he'd pick up radio stations from Little Rock, Chicago, and Shreveport, listening to country music and the blues.
By the time he was in high school, Dylan had formed a band with two friends calling themselves The Shadow Blasters and later, Elston Gunn and the Rock Boppers. He was graduated from high school in June, 1959 and that fall entered the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
He spent a year and a half taking classes, but not much time studying. He did, however, frequent the folk scene in what was known as Dinkytown, the Twin Cities' equivalent of Greenwich Village. It was then that he took the name Bob Dylan after the poet Dylan Thomas and also began learning how to play the harmonica.
In January 1961, he hit the road. He found a ride to New York City, his ostensible goal to meet the legendary Woody Guthrie, who was then hospitalized in New Jersey suffering from Huntington's chorea. He arrived in New York that January. And over the course of the next year, Dylan met and sang with Woody Guthrie, visiting him at the hospital in New Jersey where he resided. He performed not only in Greenwich Village coffee houses like The Cafe Wha? and Gertie's Folk City, but also uptown at the Carnegie Chapter Hall, though only 51 people were in attendance.
He signed the contract in October with Columbia Records, and in November, cut his first record. And most important of all, he began writing his own songs. Many of those songs would involve a critique of political, social, and class inequities, and above all, of racial injustice. Others would deal with foreign-policy issues, such as the exaggerated fear of communism and the very real danger of nuclear war.
Some of these songs dealt with highly-visible problems that were front page news at the time, but others dealt with problems that were no less real, poverty, violence, the cruelty of the prison system. No one had ever produced so many songs of such emotional power in so short a time. In the space of only two years, 1962 and '63, Dylan wrote about 20 such songs. And at the same time, he was writing scores of other songs that had nothing to do with politics.
All in all, this represented a creative outburst from a 21 and 22-year-old that is simply breathtaking. I'll be discussing and performing seven of Dylan's songs that deal with political or social issues in 1962 and 1963. I'll be joined by my son, Michael, who will be playing the guitar, and the 12-string guitar, and the mandolin, and my good friend, Annie Burns.
Dylan wrote one of his first protest songs, The Ballad of Donald White, in February, 1962. It deals with a victim of society, not an innocent person, but rather with someone who committed an awful crime, murder. Yet Dylan's criticism was directed not at the criminal, but rather its society for having ignored his pleas for help.
(SINGING) My name is Donald White, you see. I stand before you all. I was judged by you a murderer, the hangman's knot must fall. I will die upon on the gallows pole when the moon is shining clear. These are my final words that you will ever hear.
"The Ballad of Donald White," however, is in all likelihood, fictional. There are several accounts that claim Dylan wrote the song after watching a February 12th television documentary called A Volcano Named White about a 24-year-old black man sitting in his prison cell in Texas awaiting execution. Dylan himself once claimed he first came across the name of Donald White in a Seattle newspaper in about 1959 and later saw the TV program about the case.
But none of these accounts, I think, are credible. No such TV program aired in February 1962 according to TV Guide. No Donald White was among the 14 people Texas executed between the time Dylan wrote the song in February, 1962 and when the state called a temporary halt to executions in 1964. And no one named Donald White was ever electrocuted in the state of Washington, which undermines Dylan's claim about the Seattle newspaper.
(SINGING) If I had some education to give me a decent start I might have been a doctor or a master in the arts. But I used my hands for stealing when I was very young. And they locked me down in the jailhouse cell. That's how my life begun.
The song paints a highly sympathetic, but also a most improbable portrait. Donald White explains that he was released from an earlier prison sentence against his will because of overcrowding, that he asked to be let back in but was told there wasn't any room, that he murdered a man for no specific reason, on Christmas Eve no less. That he supposes people will be relieved when he's on that hanging tree, but neither Texas nor Washington any longer used hanging as a means of execution.
(SINGING) And I'm glad I've had no parents to care for me or cry. For now they will never know the horrible death I died. And I'm also glad I've had no friends to see me in disgrace. They'll never see that hangman's hood wrap around my face.
But even if the song isn't about an actual person, it concludes with Dylan asking a crucially-important question, whether those on death row aren't the victims, rather than the enemies, of society.
(SINGING) There's just one question, before they kill me dead. I'm wondering just how much to you I really said concerning all the boys that come down a road like me. Are they enemies or victims of your society?
(SINGING) I will not go down under the ground, for somebody tells me that deaths coming round--
The next song Dylan wrote in February, 1962, Let Me Die In My Footsteps, concerned the threat of nuclear war. And in it, Dylan dismissed-- in fact, condemned-- the notion that civilian defense in the form of fallout shelters offered any protection against nuclear weapons.
The push to have Americans build their own backyard or basement fallout shelters was, I believe, one of the most ill-conceived ideas of the new John F. Kennedy administration. JFK's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had been opposed to a national shelter system fearing it would turn the country into a garrison state. But JFK, following a most unfriendly meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Berlin in July 1961, pressed forward.
He proposed, and Congress agreed, to a $200 million plan to identify and stock buildings that could be used as shelters. In September, the same month that the Soviet Union ended its three-year moratorium on nuclear testing, Life Magazine published a photo essay encouraging people to construct homes shelters, even presenting building plans with a message from JFK saying there was much that individuals could do to protect themselves.
(SINGING) There's always been people that have to cause fear and talking of war now for many long years. Read all their statements and have not said a word. Now, Lord God, let my poor voice be heard. Let me die in my footsteps before I go down under the ground.
Throughout the fall and winter of 1961-1962, there was a widespread public debate over the moral questions posed by shelters. Whether, for example, it would be right to turn away neighbors seeking safety in one's own small family shelter. Willard Libby, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote a series of articles entitled, "You Can Survive Atomic Attack," featuring a poor-man's shelter he claimed he'd built for less than $30 out of railroad ties, old tires, and bags of dirt.
As Kenneth Rose wrote in his study of the subject, One Nation Underground, Libby's argument for the viability of the poor-man shelter was undercut somewhat when the structure was subsequently destroyed in a brush fire. When a leading critic of fallout shelters, nuclear physicist, Leo Szilard, heard about the fire he said it proved not only that God exists, but that he has a sense of humor.
With the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in late 1963, the push to build shelters collapsed. But in the meantime, Dylan had written a powerful song, a sort of generic anti-war song, that counter-posed death, graves, fear, and war on the one hand, with on the other, mountain streams, wild flowers, waterfalls, and of course, peace, or as he put it--
(SINGING) Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace. Let me die in my footsteps before I go down under the ground. Go out in your country where the land meets the sun, see the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run. Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho. Let every state in this union seep in your soul. And you'll die in your footsteps before you go down under the ground.
In April 1962, Bob Dylan wrote the song that would make him famous, Blowin' in the Wind.
(SINGING) How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? Yes, and how many seas must the white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand? And how many times must the cannon balls fly before they're forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
Apparently, he wrote it in just a few minutes, while sitting in a coffee house in the Village. A few weeks later, the lyrics appeared in Broadside, a small folk-music magazine founded that year which published many topical songs all with a left-wing outlook. Dylan wrote in the magazine, "I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those who turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it's wrong. I'm only 21 years old, and I know that there's been too many wars."
(SINGING) How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky? How many years must one man have before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
Dylan's recording of the song wasn't released until May 27, 1963, more than a year after he wrote it. A few weeks later, Peter, Paul and Mary's cover version came out and sold an astonishing 320,000 copies in only eight days. So the song appeared shortly after the famous civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama which produced horrifying images of peaceful, black demonstrators being attacked by police dogs and assaulted with powerful fire hoses.
Dylan's lyrics, which included the line, "How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?" were perfectly suited for the times. Those lyrics also incorporated biblical rhetoric, thereby strengthening its appeal. Ezekiel in the Old Testament, for example, spoke of those which have eyes to see and see not. They have ears to hear, and hear not. And in the New Testament, Jesus cites that passage and Mark, "having eyes, see ye not? And having ears, hear ye not?"
(SINGING) How many years can a mountain exist before it's washed to the sea? Yes, and how many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free? And how many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn't see? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
The genius, the power, of Blowin' in the Wind derives not only from its use of scriptural themes, but also from its skillful blending of anti-racist and anti-war messages. After all, how many songs have been covered by Elvis Presley, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, and Marlene Dietrich, Leontyne Price, and Bruce Springsteen? Surely not very many.
In the fall of 1962, Bob Dylan wrote four more songs that sharply criticized racial and economic injustice as well as America's Cold War foreign policy that relied on a strategy of nuclear deterrence. Dylan wrote the first, A Hard Rain is Going to Fall, in September as a long, free-verse poem, which he soon set to music and sang at a Carnegie Hall hootenanny on September 22nd.
In November, Dylan wrote Oxford Town about the violence that had erupted when James Meredith, a 29-year-old black student and an Air Force veteran, attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi. A song written in October, John Brown, took dead aim at what Dylan saw as the twin evils of militarism and jingoism.
It's the story of a boy who goes off to war with the approval of his mother, who is proud of her son and boasts to all her neighbors. But when he finally returns, she is, of course, shocked at his condition and can hardly bear to look at him. "Oh, his face was all shot up, and his hand was all blown off, and he wore a metal brace around his waist."
Another song Dylan composed during that astonishingly-fertile fall was the Ballad of Hollis Brown.
(SINGING) Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town. Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town, with his wife and five children and his cabin falling down.
It used the tune of the old folk song, Pretty Polly, and told a horrifying story of the ways poverty could drive a person mad.
(SINGING) Your baby's eyes look crazy, they're tugging at your sleeve. Your baby's eyes look crazy, they're tugging at your sleeve. You walk the floor and wonder why with every breath you breath.
The song is full of terrifying images, ravenous rats, diseased horses, crying babies, blackened grass, and cold coyotes. Dylan's song was composed and publicly performed months before Michael Harrington's book, The Other America and Dwight Macdonald's essays in The New Yorker began to focus public attention on the issue of poverty and helped eventually lead to the war on poverty.
(SINGING) The grass is turning black. There's no water in your well. The grass is turning black, there is no water in your well. You spent your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells. Way out in the wilderness, an a cold coyote calls. Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls. Your eyes fix on the shotgun that's a-hanging on the wall--
As raw as the song is, it nevertheless captures the ravaging effects of poverty, the desperation which it can, under the worst circumstances, lead. So Dylan had been singing about oppression based on race and on the victims of militarism, now he was singing about the casualties of social class.
(SINGING) There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm. There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm. Somewhere in the distance, there's seven new people born.
In December, 1962, Bob Dylan made his first trip to Europe. While in England, he visited several folk clubs, and he also wrote his classic-- in some ways, the classic-- anti-war song, Masters of War, basing the tune on an old ballad, Nottamun Town. He sang it publicly for the first time, appropriately, at Gertie's Folk City in the Village on January 21st, 1963.
(SINGING) Come you masters of war, you that build all the guns, you that build the death planes, you that build the big bombs, you that hide behind walls, you that hide behind desks. I just want you to know, I can see through your masks.
Dylan's song tapped into a long tradition of blaming munitions makers for pushing the country into war. In the 1930s, the commonly used term was merchants of death, businessmen who were thought to have invested so heavily in the Allied cause in the First World War that they maneuvered the Wilson administration into declaring war on Germany in 1917, not to make the world safe for democracy as Wilson claimed, but rather to make the world safe for Dupontcracy.
And in 1960 in his Farewell Address, President Dwight Eisenhower had warned against the danger of a military-industrial complex which could acquire unwarranted influence over policy making.
(SINGING) Like Judas of old, you lie and deceive. A world war can be won, you want me to believe. But I see through your eyes, and I see through your brain, like I see through the water that runs down my drain.
So Dylan's argument wasn't entirely new, but the manner in which he made it was especially forceful. His bitter diatribe against the arms industry denounced those, the old, the rich, the privileged, the cowardly who kept themselves safe from harm while sending young men to fight and to die for nothing. For nothing, that is, except their own profits. Here he was dealing not merely with the danger of war, but rather, with what he saw as one of its root causes, the profits to be made from it.
(SINGING) Let me ask you one question. Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could? I think you will find when your debt takes its toll, all the money you made will never buy back your soul.
The final verse was, one commentator has said, morbidly unforgiving. Dylan wishes for the death of the masters of war and their burial. And he gloats, "then I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead."
(SINGING) And I hope that you die and death will come soon. I'll follow your casket in the pale afternoon. And I'll watch while you're lowered down to your deathbed, and I'll stand over your grave till I'm sure that you're dead.
Dylan continued to write songs about the threat posed by war, but by the spring of 1963, the nation's attention had turned to the issue of civil rights. In July, civil rights workers in Greenwood, Mississippi were mounting a voter registration drive. The actor and singer Theodore Bikel persuaded Dylan to visit the town. It was the first time Dylan had ever seen whites-only water fountains and restrooms.
He attended a rally and performed the song he'd just written about the murder of NAACP Mississippi official, Medgar Evers, Only a Pawn in Their Game. The song said that racist violence was the product of political manipulation and an unjust social system in which poor whites were kept in line by being told they were better than blacks. It emphasized the link between poverty and racism. And rather than merely condemning the murderer, Dylan saw him as a product of institutionalized racism and endemic poverty, a victim of demagogic politicians. As the song put it, "It ain't him to blame. He's only a pawn in their game."
On August 28th, Dylan took part in the March on Washington. There he heard Odetta, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary sing Blowin' in the Wind. Dylan also sang for the 200,000 demonstrators. A month later, on September 15th, a church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed, killing four young girls and injuring 23 other people. One of the men responsible, a KKK member, was arrested and tried but found not guilty.
In September 1963, Dylan was given a newspaper clipping about the sentencing of a man named William Zanzinger who was accused of the death of a black woman, a 51-year-old barmaid named Hattie Carroll. Zanzinger, a 24-year-old tobacco farmer, assaulted her on February 8th at the Spinsters Ball, an annual charity event in Baltimore. Drunk, wearing a top hat and carrying a toy cane, he ordered a drink from Mrs. Caroll. Zanzinger felt she delivered the drink too slowly, so he began hitting her with his cane. She was taken to the hospital saying she felt deathly ill where she lost consciousness and died of a hemorrhage the next morning. Zanzinger was indicted for homicide. He turned himself in, but was soon out on bail.
(SINGING) Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen. She was 51 years old, gave birth to 10 children, who carried the dishes, took out the garbage, and never sat once at the head of the table. Didn't even talk to the people at the table, just cleaned up all of the food from the table, who emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level, got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane, that sailed through the air, came down through the room, doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle and she never done nothing to William Zanzinger. But you philosophize disgrace, criticize all fears. Take the rag away from your face. Now ain't the time for your tears.
At the trial, before a three-judge panel, his lawyers argued that the stroke could have resulted from hypertension, not the beating. And so he was only convicted of manslaughter, not murder, and was sentenced to six months in the county jail. Dylan composed the song in October while visiting Joan Baez in California. He recorded it on October 23, 1963, and sang it at his Carnegie Hall concert just three days later.
The lyrics never say that Carroll was black and Zanzinger was white. They don't have to. The legal system, Dylan is saying, is complicit with class bias and distorted by racial prejudice.
(SINGING) In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel to show that all is equal, that the courts are on the level, that the strings in the books ain't pulled and persuaded, that even nobles get properly handled. Once that the cops have chased after and caught him, that the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom. Staring at the person who killed for no reason, who just happened to be feeling that way without warning. And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished, and handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence. But you philosophize disgrace, criticize all fears. Bury the rag deep in your face, now is the time for your tears.
At the same October 26, 1963 sold-out Carnegie Hall concert at which she sang about Hattie Carroll, Dylan introduced a song he'd just written which was destined to be one of his most famous, The Times They Are A Changin'.
(SINGING) Come gather round people, wherever you roam. Admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone if your time to you is worth saving. So you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone, for the times they are a changin'.
"I wanted to write a big song," Dylan said at the time, some kind of theme song, and that's exactly what he did. Recently Dylan's original lyrics for The Times They Are A Changin', hand written on a smudged, discolored piece of paper, were put up for auction at Sotheby's. It sold for $422,000. An original copy of Thomas Jefferson's notes on the State of Virginia from 1781 went for considerably less.
The song became an anthem for the young, which is just what Dylan meant it to be. For in it, more than any other song of the period, he is self consciously speaking as the voice of his generation, laying down, as perhaps only a 22-year-old could, a generational challenge to his elders.
(SINGING) Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticize what you don't understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.
The song not only prophesies social, political, and cultural change, it also incites such change. I'm not sure when the famous '60s phrase, the generation gap, was first used, but there is little doubt that Dylan's song was based on the assumption that such a gap existed. In Dylan's view though, the gap was anything but unbridgeable, for the song was a plea to intellectuals, and to parents, and to politicians, to recognize the idea that fundamental change was inevitable, to accept it rather than obstruct it. Biblical in its use of prophecy and redemption, the song paraphrases Jesus' words in the Gospel of Mark when it concludes, "The first one now will later be last."
(SINGING) The line is drawn, the curse, it is cast. The slow one now will later be fast as the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fading. And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changin'.
When Dylan wrote the line, "The order is rapidly fading" in October, 1963, no one could have predicted that less than a month later, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, much less that the remainder of the decade would be marked by the twin themes of rage and violence, the horror of the war in Vietnam, the murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, the race riots that convulsed urban ghettos, and the white backlash that followed, the failure of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and the election of Richard Nixon.
Viewed in hindsight, Bob Dylan's lyrics appear positively optimistic. They express confidence that the change that's inevitably coming will be a change, not for the worse, but for the better. Was there ever a singer-songwriter who accomplished so much in such a short time, at such a young age, as Bob Dylan? I can't think of one.
And Dylan's work wasn't only political. He was writing songs about love, and about friendship, and about life in general, including such great songs as Boots of Spanish Leather, Don't Think Twice, It's All Right, He Was a Friend of Mine, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, The Walls of Redwing, One Too Many Mornings, Percy's Song, Restless Farewell, Walking Down the Line, and Tomorrow is a Long Time.
An interesting program, you know, could be done just on Dylan's non-political songs in the early '60s. But the most memorable songs from those years, I believe, the ones that are likely to be sung over and again when he celebrates his 70th birthday are the ones that he used to call his finger-pointing songs, those that identified political, economic, and social evils, racism, and injustice, poverty, and inequality, militarism and war.
And we'll sing his songs and keep on singing them not because we've overcome those problems, but precisely because we haven't. And who knows, perhaps never will. They may assume different forms in different generations, as they certainly have over the past 50 years, but sad to say, they don't ever wholly disappear. And as long as they remain with us, they'll always be room for, and more importantly, a need for songwriters and singers like Bob Dylan.
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Professor Richard Polenberg discusses Bob Dylan's critique of political, social, racial and class inequities in the early 1960s. He discusses Dylan's view of racial injustice and such foreign policy issues as the exaggerated fear of communism and the very real danger of nuclear war.
While some of Dylan's songs dealt with highly visible problems that were front-page news at the time, others dealt with problems that were no less real, such as poverty, violence, and the cruelty of the prison system. Dylan called them his "finger-pointing" songs. Polenberg not only describes the historical context in which the songs were written, but sings and plays a number of them as well, including "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changing."
He is joined on some of the songs by Annie Burns, and is accompanied by his son, Michael, who plays guitar, 12-string guitar, and mandolin.