Saturday, December 03, 2011

“The Order Is Rapidly Changin’” Bob Dylan And 1960s Protest Music

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how youth culture and music took a decidedly political and even revolutionary turn.

Racism, sexism and the environment would become the subject matter for music in the 1960s and 1970s. Established in the 1930s, the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee represented an oasis in the South, being one of the few places where blacks and whites could argue politics, share meals, and enjoy music together. Rock ’n’ roll had been the music of youth. At the Highlander school, folk music reigned. Songs performed at the Highlander School celebrated pacifism, opposed racism, and supported poverty-stricken farm workers and labor unions. Those attending the Highlander school would also have heard the protest anthems of Woody Guthrie, an Oklahoma native who began recording in the Depression era and whose songs hailed outlaws and rebels, such as the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd who often shared his take from stickups with the penniless.

Guthrie was dying of Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative neurological disease, when the 1960s began. By 1961, a 20-year-old Minnesota native and Guthrie’s most important musical heir, Robert Allen Zimmerman, was at his bedside in New York state. Zimmerman had already started performing under the stage name Bob Dylan and made clear that Guthrie was one of his biggest influences. The young man played his guitar and sang to lift Guthrie’s spirits and was soon a mainstay in New York City’s Greenwich Village folk music scene. A rock fan as a child, who loved the records of Little Richard and Buddy Holly, Dylan also drew inspiration from African American folk and performer Lead Belly, early blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Beat poets and authors like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Not everyone loved his nasal, sometimes raspy voice. But Dylan brought passion to his performances and touched the hearts of educated young people drawn by his outcast image. Early in his career, Dylan performed with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica held by a neck brace, which gave a greater intimacy to his concerts. He shared the impatience of many young people in the early 1960s. In one of his most famous songs, 1964’s ”The Times They Are A-Changin’,” he commanded the older generation to step aside if they weren’t willing to make the world a more decent, fair place:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land/
And don't criticize
What you can't understand/
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command/
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'/
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand/
For the times they are a-changin'.

Dylan gave sophisticated political analysis in his protest songs, seeing even violent racists, such as the assassin of the Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, as being manipulated by Southern politicians in a deadly game of divide-and-conquer. Politicians served only the rich and divided the black and white poor in order to prevent meaningful change, as he suggested in the song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (also released in 1964):

A South politician preaches to the poor white man/
"You got more than 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/

Most of his songs, such as the classic protest ballad, “Blowin’ In The Wind” (1963) and the surrealistic “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965) became hits only when recorded by pop music groups like Peter, Paul, and Mary and rock bands like The Byrds. Dylan was perhaps more important in how he influenced other artists than in anything he wrote or sang himself. His most important fans were the British rock band the Beatles, whose records began dominating the American music charts in January 1964. Many historians believe that the hysterical fan enthusiasm the band generated - dubbed “Beatlemania” by the press - came not only from their great songwriting talent and charming intelligence, but the proximity of their first American concert and TV performances so soon after the assassination of President John Kennedy. “On an emotional level, what Beatlemania achieved for many young people was a restoration of the feelings of hope and sheer intensity that many feared had died forever with John Kennedy,” wrote author Charles Kaiser.

Before the band landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in the United States on February 7, 1964, their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had already sold almost 3 million copies. About 40 percent of the American population watched their first performance on American television, on the variety program “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The Beatles openly admired African American blues and early rock stars like Chuck Berry, leading a much larger white audience to appreciate those artists. “It was the black music we dug,” singer, guitarist and composer John Lennon said. “We felt that we had the message, which was, ‘Listen to this music. When we came here . . . nobody was listening to rock ’n’ roll or to black music in America. We felt as though we were coming to the land of its origin, but nobody wanted to know about it.”

The Beatles also set a trend for men wearing long hair. Guitarist George Harrison’s interest in the music of India and in Hinduism intensified young people’s interest in all things Eastern. Most important, the Beatles expanded the range of issues and styles that could be explored in popular songs. Making unprecedented use of unusual electronic musical instruments like the mellotron, Indian sitars, and studio techniques like playing tapes of music performances backward, the Beatles created a richly varied sound. Beginning in 1965, Bob Dylan became a major influence in their song writing as they explored issues as varied as loneliness (“Eleanor Rigby” in 1966), teen runaways (“She’s Leaving Home” in 1967), and the dangers of political violence (“Revolution” in 1968).

The Beatles’ success inspired Dylan to transition from acoustic folk singer to rock star, which brought him a much wider audience with hits such as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965). The Beatles’ lyrics, meanwhile, became more complex (and incomprehensible to some) after Dylan introduced them to marijuana during their first meeting in August 1964 and the Beatles began openly experiment with LSD, a psychedelic drug. Lennon caused Beatles fans to frantically search for hidden meanings in his lyrics with the release of songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in 1967:

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain,
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies.
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.

Critics pointed out the initials of the song spelled out “LSD” and accused the Beatles of promoting drug use. Nevertheless, “Lucy” was just one hit off the most influential rock album of all time, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967). The mid- and late-1960s music of Bob Dylan and the Beatles made the adult world for the first time take youth culture and rock music seriously. Previously ridiculed as children’s music, rock music started getting reviewed in serious magazines like “Newsweek” and rock songs began to be studied as literature on college campuses.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.


Amelia said...

Hi! My names Amelia and I'm doing a research project on protest music (mainly Dylan and Baez) and the young civil rights leaders like the SNCC organization and specificall John Lewis. I used your blog as a source for my final product, a research paper. It was helpful to have straight forward information like the "pawn in their game" section. Thanks!

Michael said...

Hey Amelia, good luck on your research project. If I can ever help you in any way, let me know.