Pop Culture, Politics, and the Social Movements: Bob Dylan and The Civil Rights Movement

“Now the significance of this song to me is that it’s a song that will last unfortunately for a long, long time. And when I say “unfortunately”, I’m talking about the fact that it will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours. In the 60s the song related to the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. In the 70s, Watergate, Steven Deco and the struggling South Africa. In the 80s still, relevant to the fighting against the apartheid in South Africa, the fighting to end starvation. Today in the 90s the song is still very relevant, as you think about who you should vote for, I want you to vote for that person that is going to commit to bring unity to all people, not only throughout the world but in this country. Vote for the one who is going to commit to open up his heart to those that are from the minorities that make up the majority of this country” – Stevie Wonder, before performing “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Show (1992)

There is nothing to say about Bob Dylan that hasn’t already been said by the music critics, social and political activists, fellow musicians, and millions of fans worldwide alike. From a songwriting and lyrical point of view, one can distinguish between two eras of popular music: the pre-Dylan era and the Dylan era – as Mr. Robert Allen Zimmerman is still touring and recording music at the age of 73. This 20th century popular music timeline-disjuncting statement is backed by a staggering list of artists who were influenced by his politically-driven lyrics, witty social commentary, frequent harmonica playing, and raspy nasal singing style.

If it weren’t for Dylan, The Beatles wouldn’t have approached political themes in their songs (like in the case of “Taxman”), The Who’s Pete Townshend would have never written “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, Bruce Springsteen would hardly get contract from a major label (as in the first part of his career he was regarded as “The New Dylan”) and probably play more innocent rock ‘n’ roll songs, The Clash’s Joe Strummer would have never tackled social and political commentary in his Punk Rock rebelliousness , and John Lennon’s timeless masterpieces “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” would lack lyrical depth. However, saying that Bob Dylan was entirely original is an overstatement – even in the early 1960s when he first stepped into the spotlight, he was a “young man in old man’s clothes” – a disciple of the likes of Woody Guthrie (a left-wing political activist who is famous for writing “This machine kills fascists” on the body of his guitar) and a watchful observer of the work of other famous artists like Hank Williams, Pete Seeger, and Robert Johnson.

Also, Dylan did not invent folk music, but he has renewed it by writing the words that would eventually help it reach a new mass audience. His voice, even though it never sounded as pleasant and smooth as that of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash, became much more than a resonator of feelings, as it bore a strong message that could be understood and passed on even with a debatable musicality. Bob Dylan is a cerebral singer who sounds natural, strained, but meaningful: even when his singing is flat, he still keeps the audience attentive and entertained with the words.

Dylan, while filming the music video for the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

His rise to fame was granted by his allegiance to the Civil Rights Movement, which provided him both topics and motifs to write songs about, but also an audience to perform for. His careful, youthful and wise song crafting style has spawned early protest songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “The Times, They Are  A-Changin'”, “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, and “Masters of War” – which became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement and, on the long run,  laid the foundation of Dylan’s international superstardom. What made Dylan stand out from the other representatives of the folk movement was the universality of the lyrics: he did not sing about a certain instance of injustice (well, not until later in his career), but has used Woody Guthrie’s mantra of wisdom  to turn issues like nuclear warfare, freedom of the individual and infringement human rights into large-scale, old-yet-still-contemporary problems. Moreover, even though his second album (“The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”) contains songs such as “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, that humorously describe a post-apocalyptic world that suffered nuclear annihilation, fingers are never pointed in order to designate a person’s or an entity’s guilt. Dylan satirizes actions and events that are in the human nature and have either occurred or are very likely to occur. Thus his purpose becomes that of creating a sense of awareness towards what can happen unless “they (cannon balls, nuclear weapons, abuses towards other human beings) are forever banned”.

I said, “Hold it, Doc, a World War passed through my brain”
He said, “Nurse, get your pad, this boy’s insane”
He grabbed my arm, I said, “Ouch!”
As I landed on the psychiatric couch
He said, “Tell me about it”

Well, the whole thing started at 3 o’clock fast
It was all over by quarter past
I was down in the sewer with some little lover
When I peeked out from a manhole cover
Wondering who turned the lights on

– “Talkin’ World War III Blues”, from the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963)


But Bob Dylan did not get into the protest songwriting scene due to being oppressed or subjected to injustice. And even though some argue that he was the right person at the right time and took advantage of the Civil Rights Movement to make a name for himself, the general consensus is that he was driven to join the movement by his stoicism.  According to many accounts, when Bob arrived in New York in January 1961, he was a complete profane in the bourgeoning field of the civil rights movement – to the extent that he had no stance on the issues. It was his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, daughter of leftist union organizer Joachim Rotolo (who was also a member of the American Communist Party) and volunteer for Congress of Racial Equality, who took Dylan by the hand and helped him plunge into the world of activist singing.

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan"

Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”


A great accomplishment of immense historical significance of the troubadour is that on August 28th 1963 he warmed up the crowd for Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. It was on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial that actor Ossie Davis had introduced Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who performed a duet with the songs “When the Ship Comes In” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game”.

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop, it’s President Kennedy callin’ me up. He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”. I said, “My friend John: Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren” – “I Shall Be Free”, from the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963)



However, the 22 year-old Dylan did not feel happy with his role as a political activist and in December 1963, while receiving an award from the Emergency Civil Rights Committee, he had expressed harsh criticism towards the way in which the protests had been managed and depicted: “I looked around at all the Negroes there and I didn’t see any Negroes that looked like none of my friends. My friends don’t wear suits.” (When addressing his view on the march from Washington, to an audience of suit-wearers; during the same speech, he said that he and Lee Harvey Oswald have a lot in common, and left as the audience displayed hostility). Bob Dylan did not want to be just the poster boy of the movements and the songwriting demagogue who sings about what his crowd expects to hear. However, his release from January 1964, “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, did feature memorable protest songs that emphasized on the gap between generations and the divided political views of the 1960s United States of America. The title track is still one of the most appreciated and quoted Dylan classics (as it attempted to present social change from the point of view of a very careful observer), “With God on Our Side” is an ironic reflection on the futility of war and the way in which religion is used to legitimize military actions and minimize fundamental human values, whilst “Only a Pawn in Their Game” presents a different perspective on the class warfare – as those who are convicted for crime against people of different race or ethnicity do not bear the sole guilt, since the rich white elites benefit from the situation by strengthening their own status. Music critics have noticed that “The Times, They Are a-Changin'” is a transitional album, as Dylan shifts from universal themes and personal humorist stories, to stories of unfortunate events that involve real or fictional characters. Around the time, the artist was becoming increasingly immersed in the symbolist and beat poetry of the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Rimbaud, and Francois Villon.


January 1964 – The times weren’t the only ones changing, as Dylan was evolving into a more personal and subjective lyricist.


That is why his next album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, has presented the artist’s affinity for French modernism – his songs no longer were literal and strainght-forward, but featured a more vivid and politically-absent imagery.By August 1964, Dylan was a whole new artist, and his metamorphosis was due to some of the events that occurred in the meantime: he embarked on a trip from New York to California in order to gather experiences of people working in coal mines and drinking in bars, and the Beatles have arrived in the USA around the same time and started topping the charts. Zimmerman didn’t only have a different point of view for his lyrics (he reportedly wrote “Chimes of Freedom” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” during his trip), but had another musical approach to tackle – with different chord patterns and vocal harmonies. Furthermore, he had toured Europe with the German artist Nico, and throughout his journey he wrote most of the songs for his fourth studio album. Dylan’s transition from a topical poet (who was usually given the topics) to an open-eyed traveling poet was now complete.

Folk purists of the time were harsh and tried to explain how Dylan did not live up to the protest songwriting expectations. Some even speculated that he had been a part of the civil rights movement just to capitalize on the opportunities and reach fame. And rightfully so, the album featured many love songs, out of which one (“Ballad in Plain D”) presented his break-up with girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Bob also makes a strong statement against his protest songwriting days, as the song “My Back Pages” presents the artist in a vulnerable position: he apologizes for claiming that he knew everything and preached in his previous political works, while also questioning his own ability to tell right from wrong. It is generally regarded as Dylan’s departure from protest songs, and a presentation of his disillusionment with the 1960s Social Rights Movement. “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now“.

Another Side

By late 1964, the man who helped revive folk and bring protest songs to the attention of a larger audience was disillusioned with the Civil Rights Movement and was moving into a more personal territory of songwriting. “The Voice of a Generation” had to endure harsh criticism from folk purists.

From the mid-1960s and moving onwards, Bob Dylan’s musical legacy had been established, as every single one of his 35 studio albums released to date has laid the foundation of a remarkable cultural landmark. The troubadour would go on to tackle many other musical genres, from rock n roll and country to blues and gospel – but his early protest songs would always remain vivid in the minds of those who stand against social and political injustice. Since 1963, many cannonballs were fired, yet they had never been banned. In the year of 2014, there are people who still exist and aren’t free, whilst people turn their heads and ignore the inequities and abuses. Yet some of us know where to seek the answer.

“Dylan was revolutionary – the way that Elvis your body, Bob freed your mind. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical, it did not mean that it was anti-intellect.” – Bruce Springsteen, while inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, 1988














Image Sources:







Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.