This month the American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan marks his 70th birthday. In the early 1960s he was reckoned to be a “protest singer”, a direct voice of the left. His songs referred straightforwardly to political issues — the black civil rights movement in the USA, anti-militarism — and he performed at political events like the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.
Since then he has produced a long stream of new songs, and repeatedly been charged with “selling out”, first when he used an electric rather than an acoustic guitar in 1965.
He was largely off the public stage in 1966-74; became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s, but eased back into secular songs over the 1980s; has been performing on stage, in the Never Ending Tour, continuously since 1988.
As a tribute, and as an attempt to show that Dylan did not stop protesting in 1964, Peter Burton gives a brief account of some of his Sixties songs.
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
'Masters of War' is Dylan's hard hitting condemnation of the arms industry. Vested interests successfully used the Cold War and US foreign policy for profit, and military research came to dominate US research funding. The supposedly progressive president John F Kennedy poured money into the arms budget in spite of the warnings from his conservative Republican predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower about "the military-industrial complex". Dylan uses unpoetic plain language in order that the accused understand him clearly. The song is an adaptation of an old Scottish folk song called 'Nottanun Town', and was first recorded in January 1963.
'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' is an apocalyptic representation of a post-nuclear war fall-out. It was released a few weeks before the Cuban missile crisis, but the crisis gave it edge. It is an adaptation of a Scottish ballad called 'Lord Randall'. Dylan's Greenwich Village friend, the Trotskyist Dave Van Ronk, commented on hearing the song: "I was acutely aware that it represented the beginning of an artistic revolution."
'Oxford Town', jaunty in style, is about racism and civil rights - the story of the struggle for the registration of the first black person at the University of Mississippi in September 1962, James Meredith, after violent struggle and the deaths of two people. Troops remained in Oxford Town until Meredith graduated in the summer of 1963.
'The Times they are a Changin'
'The Times they are a Changin' restated in song the message Dylan had tried to make at an elderly middle-class liberal Tom Paine Award presentation in January 1964, where he said that a part of him had identified with Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin: the old and reactionary should get out of the way. It is influenced by the old Scottish and Irish ballads 'Come all ye bold highwaymen' and 'Come all ye tender hearted maidens'. It was a battle hymn for the youth whose aim was a new Republic. There are biblical undercurrents from the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Sermon on the Mount (the meek inheriting the earth), and Mark 10.31 - "But many who are now first shall be last, and the last shall be first".
'With God on our Side' was one of the most performed finger-pointing songs of the early sixties. The tune was taken from Dominic Behan's 'The Patriot Game', and sounds like a funeral march for national integrity. It deals with the distortions of history in school, the war-mongers falsely claiming to have God on their side during the course of the genocide against native Americans, the Spanish-American and Civil Wars, and two world wars, and the Cold War. It's a protest against political expediency as secular hymn and the misuse of religion by manipulative bourgeois politicians with a sardonic twist at the end: if God's on our side, then he'll stop the next war.
'Only a Pawn in their Game' was as a protest against the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in June 1963, following the successful enrolment of two black students at the University of Alabama earlier in the day. President Kennedy sent his brother Robert to the funeral and then embarked on a policy of enforced de-segregation.
What made 'Only a Pawn in their Game' stand out from other protest songs on the same subject was the sharp attack on the underlying causes of the murder - institutionalised poverty, and the divide-and-rule policies of southern politicians on the make.
'When the Ship comes in' is a driven, uplifting, vindictive and self- righteous warning of the eventual fate of those who rule. It was sung at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. Some have taken the biblical imagery to mean support for the foundation of Israel, but as with many Dylan songs it is almost certainly open to at least two interpretations.
'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll'. "William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled round his diamond ring finger." From that first line Dylan goes on to expose the way that the state is not neutral in a class- based, hierarchical capitalist society, how the institutions of the rich shamelessly close ranks against the poor no matter how bad the crime. The well-connected William Zanzinger got only a six-months prison sentence for the murder.
Another Side of Bob Dylan
'Chimes of Freedom' was written during a drug-fuelled cross- country road trip in February 1964 which took in the Mardi Gras. Dylan and a friend are caught in a storm and dive into a doorway to take cover as church bells begin to ring out.
In form it is heavily influenced by the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, and marked a turning point away from straight-talking finger-pointing protest. Instead of support for a specific cause or individual, there are chimes of freedom for all the dispossessed, marginalised and downtrodden.
Bringing it all back Home
'Subterranean Homesick Blues' is full of Beat cynicism and drug paranoia. There is a street nihilism about the song. The militant underground group Weatherman would take its name from the line: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". The song was used in the Pennebaker documentary "Don't Look Back", with Dylan throwing cards on the ground while Allen Ginsburg looks on. Joan Baez thought the song nihilistic, but a whole generation of youth identified with it.
'Maggie's Farm' was possibly influenced by Pete Seeger's 'Penny's Farm', a song that criticised the meanness of a landlord. Dylan expands this out to condemn the whole system of industrial relations. Worker alienation is the main issue of the song. It indicts all those in power who impose their uniformity causing human estrangement in the process. The song went through a revival during Thatcher's early years in office.
'Bob Dylan's 115th dream' uses surreal imagery to parody Christopher Columbus's discovery of America. Captain Ahab abandons his obsessive quest for the whale for an equally obsessive mission of establishing landed private property in America, with bloodshed against the Native population. Chaotic images are used to expose nationalism, the police, religion and capitalism itself. The narrator passes Columbus on the way home sardonically wishing him "Good Luck".
'Gates of Eden' is another song using dream imagery and is probably influenced by Blake's 'The Gates of Paradise and William Burroughs' writing style. Far from being Eden, this is more like Milton's' Paradise Lost, a place that has become decayed and corrupt. It is a hell of cold urban centres and capitalists with secret power, a land where people try vainly to escape their fates.
'It's Alright Ma' is a variation on the Blues singer Arthur Crudups' 'That's alright, mama'. Dylan sings about a manipulative Corporate America that cares only about profits and never about the damage done to people and their mental health. Some of the lines have become part of the language - "Money doesn't talk, it swears," "Even the President of the United states sometimes has to stand naked".
Highway 61 Revisited
When 'Highway 61 Revisited' was finished, Dylan commented: "My records are not gonna be better from now on... Highway 61 is just too good. There's a lot of stuff in there which I would listen to'.
'Like a Rolling Stone' was a turning point for Dylan, original in its lyrics and musical style - and in its length, over six minutes. Dylan's audience of young people expanded enormously with this one record. There has been much speculation over the years as to who the main character is, but whoever it is, he/she is an aloof, rich, cocooned individual suddenly hitting the bottom with Dylan repeatedly, tauntingly asking how this feels.
'Highway 61 Revisited'. Highway 61 is the longest Highway in the US, beginning in Ontario, Canada, going down through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas alongside the Mississippi river, into Louisiana, and ending at the Gulf Mexico in New Orleans. It's the highway those escaping the Depression travelled from to find work in the industrialised Northern cities of Chicago and Detroit. They brought with them the country blues music of the Delta, which was then electrified for an urban audience by Muddy Waters in Chicago and John Lee Hooker in Detroit.
There is a strong blues feel to this track - a theological satire combines with images of drifters, gamblers, chancers as well as some of the poor people who can be seen by the roadside in old documentary footage of the migration North. Amidst the dodgy characters are 'Mack the Knife' and 'Louie the King' - a dig at the entertainment promoter who considers staging World War Three on Highway 61.
'Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues' deals with the issue of how sometimes human beings deal with their alienation in self-destructive ways. 'Juarez', in the first line of the song, is a border town in Mexico where Americans would go to party.
'Desolation Row' – Dante's' Inferno with flamenco backing – is an alternative national anthem, a 'Gates of Eden' only more surreal.
A long list of named historical, literary and unknown characters is deployed, sometimes juxtaposed, to conjure up a nihilistic world of deceit and futile activity when they are ripped out of their historical context and placed within contemporary American culture. The song has Dylan's by now familiar group of targets - shameless academics, cold-hearted elite figures, faceless bureaucrats, hypocritical religious leaders. Those who escape to 'Desolation Row' are the outsiders, the rebels, Marxists, anarchists. This is protest on a more sophisticated level than the pre-"sell-out" "finger-pointing" songs.
The Basement Tapes
'Million Dollar Bash' was the Millennium Dome of its day for a rural community. Capitalists out for a profit, selling one-off exciting events by keying into the alienation, boredom and humdrum feeling of a rural America in decline.
'Tears of Rage' is a bitter song about America gone wrong, greed subverting the original democratic ideal, the wasted lives of the Vietnam War made worse by survivors being made to feel guilty for the defeat - it's a song about the betrayal of the Founding Fathers' vision in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and the most hard-hitting song of the Basement Tapes.
John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Harding was a real outlaw figure responsible for the death of over thirty victims, getting caught and sentenced in 1877, and fully pardoned in 1894. He became a lawyer, having gained a law degree in jail. He died from a bullet in the back of the head from John Selma, a local constable in El Paso, Texas, in August 1895.
Dylan mythologises Harding into an ideal outlaw figure - a Robin Hood type individual, courageous, on the side of the poor, anti-authority, guileful, and doomed.
'I dreamed I saw St Augustine' adapts the song, 'I dreamed I saw Joe Hill', about the martyred Utah union organiser. Dylan protests about the commercialism of 1960s America. The adaptation is far more sceptical about the power of collective action than 'Hill', and also rejects the idea of any individual martyr saving humanity. The individual has to fight his own weaknesses and temptations to get to a place of morality.
'All Along the Watchtower' was written at the time of bitter arguments with Dylan's manager Albert Grossman and the record company CBS. Dylan felt they were milking him without due attention to the creative process. "Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth". Dylan goes on to use Isaiah's prediction about the fall of Babylon to convey the "thief's message" - that seeking remedy for the soul is far more important than struggles over money.
Art house cinemas are showing a number of films about Dylan in tribute. Try to catch them if you can.
• All the lyrics are at www.bobdylan.com/songs