“Only A Pawn In Their Game” – Dylan and The 60s

This past September 11th marked the fiftieth-anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan’s 1962 eponymous album, Bob Dylan. Fittingly, Dylan marked the occasion with the release of his thirty-fifth studio album, Tempest, an album Rolling Stone Magazine recently gave five stars, calling it “one of his weirdest albums’, and adding, “It may also be the single darkest record in Dylan’s catalog”. Tempest, rather than being an exception to the trend, is a continuation of the creative resurgence that Dylan has experienced over the past decade, proving that even though he’s now one of rock music’s elder statesmen, his advancing age has not urned him into a mere nostalgia act, but rather has served to cement his legacy as a true musical icon. Despite his prolific touring schedule and studio output, the period that is still most often associated with Bob Dylan is the early 1960s, specifically his involvement with the Civil Rights movement and his influence on the popular culture of American society.
Louis Masur says that, “it was what Dylan sang, said, did and represented for a few years in the 1960s that continues to draw the public’s attention and ignite the imaginations of new generations of listeners”. In a three- ear period, Dylan went from being an unknown singer/guitar player to full on protest anthem composer. As a descendant of Jewish race, Dylan was also able to sympathize with visible minorities in ways that others were not able to. He wrote some of the most influential music of the time and would to turn his back on it all, only to reinvent himself. Masur summarizes it perfectly, saying “Dylan embodied two revolutions within three years, two seismic cultural shifts. Before they ended, and ever since, writers have inquired into the meaning of Bob Dylan”.
Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman, the son of Jewish American parents, n Hibbing, Minnesota. His father and uncles owned an electrical store and one of Dylan’s first jobs was helping his father collect on late payments or repossess equipment in situations where payment was long overdue. Growing up in Mid- western America and being Jewish in a town that, as he put it, “had a certain prejudice against Jews,” left him feeling very isolated and misunderstood. An old high school flame, Echo Star Helstrom explained, “the other kids, they wanted to throw stones at anybody different. And Bob was different. He didn’t fit in. Not in Hibbing”.

In order to cope with the growing feelings of isolation, Dylan turned to music and learned to play to play the guitar that he found in the home his father had bought. He would stay up late at night, listening to a radio station transmitted from Shreveport, and it was on that station that he first heard the music of Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. These artists left Dylan with a desire for more as he “absorbed not only these sounds but the promises of independence, individuality, and freedom that (their) music seemed to carry”.
In an interview with Jeff Rosen that acts as the backbone or Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan, reflecting on the popular music of the time said, “nobody liked country or rock and roll, rhythm and blues. That kind of music wasn’t what was happening up there. The music that was popular was ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window? ’. But that wasn’t our reality, our reality was bleak to begin with, our reality was fear”. The 1950s were a tense time, and the young Dylan found that rock and roll was a good outlet to work through and express what youth were feeling. He formed a few band throughout high school, and his stated goal in his senior yearbook was “to join Little
Richard”. In a voice over scene in No Direction Home, one of Dylan’s high school teacher tells a story about having to pull the curtain because the principal didn’t feel that “Robert’s piano playing was appropriate for the audience”. Though Bob’s first love was rock-and-roll, he would soon become infatuated with folk music. Folk music’s foundations were laid in the early part of the twentieth century by the International Workers of the World, or the IWW. The first members of the IWW penned songs as part of the effort to establish workers equality and rights, and would sing protest songs while marching in demonstrations.
However, during the Red Scare following WWI, state and federal authorities raided the IWW offices and shut down the organization. Folk music was rescued in large part thanks to Woody Guthrie, a poor farmers son who left home at sixteen to discover his homeland. Working odd jobs, Guthrie made it through the Depression and eventually became a radio personality in Los Angeles, reading radical news of KFVD. Within two years, he was living in New York making regular contributions to Communist publications, and went on to join the Navy during the Second World War. Upon returning to the US, Guthrie settled into New York City and wrote ountless songs, including “This Land Is Your Land”, “Tom Joad” and “Pastures of Plenty”, all songs with strong socialist sentiments.
“This Land Is Your Land” was actually written as a Marxist retort to “God Bless America”, and became an alternative national anthem to the New Left. When asked, about what type of songs he sang and why, Guthrie responded: “I sing the songs of the people that do all of the little jobs and the mean and dirty hard work in the world and of their wants and their hopes and their plans for a decent life”. His sentiment was expressed clearly on his instrument: “This Machine Kills Fascists”.
Guthrie soon met Pete Seeger, a fellow folk musician who had formed a musician’s union, and they began to travel the nation on an informal tour. With other musicians, they formed a leftist group called the Almanac Singers. They “promoted union organizing, racial justice, and other causes with their topical songs”, and in the late 40s, they evolved into the Weavers. Things changed in the early 1950s. The Weavers were enjoying a period of great success with the song “Good Night, Irene”, moving two million copies, making it the best selling record since the end of WWII.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t made to last. Guthrie and Seeger were both blacklisted by the studios and recording industry for their outspoken socialist views and communist sympathizing, and were eventually reduced from national stardom to playing small bars on the outskirts of cities. Things began to improve following the 1954 senate censure of Joe McCarthy, and there was a renewed interest in folk music. , beginning in the San Francisco Bay area. The Kingston Trio were instrumental in the resurgence of folk music. Formed in 1957 by three college students, the Kingston Trio proved that folk music, f marketed and sold properly, could be commercialized, and had the potential to be very profitable. In June of 1958, the Trio released ‘Tom Dooley’, an “unlikely pop/country hit” that sold over three million copies. The group was prolific in their recording, at one point having four albums in the Top 10, simultaneously. Between 1958 and 1966, the Trio would release 22 albums, 13 of which ended up in the Top 10.
Though criticized for “watering down” folk songs to make them commercially popular, and standing on the sidelines through the most political and contentious period of American history to date, the group deserves credit for elping to pave the way for the general acceptance of the older folkies, as well as helping to clearing a path for newcomers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In a 2007 interview, Trio member Nick Reynolds told The Huffington Post that the members of the group were “big fans of the Weavers”, and acknowledge that the Weavers experience had shown them that they were best to take another direction. Reynolds was quoted as saying, “We decided that if we wanted to have our songs played on the airwaves, we’d better stay in the middle of the road politically. We’d just got out of school. We didn’t want to get blacklisted” When asked if the Weavers ad warned the Trio to avoid controversy, he simply said: “They didn’t have to”. In the fall of 1959, Dylan relocated to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota, though he rarely attended class. It was during this time that the Kinston Trio were beginning to have great success, and there emerged a changing perspective amongst the youth of America.
The area surrounding the University had a bohemian element to it, and it inspired Dylan to sell his electric equipment and buy an acoustic guitar. This turn from rock and roll to folk music was significant, as it provided Dylan with an outlet to perform in small coffee shops and o meet like-minded people, a relatively new phenomenon for the outsider Dylan. Minneapolis was also where Zimmerman adopted the name ‘Bob Dylan’ when asked how he wanted to be presented on the bill at his first performance. It was around this time that he was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie and was given a copy of Woody’s autobiography, Bound For Glory. Dylan described his initial take on Guthrie in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, saying, “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them … [He] was the true voice of the American spirit. I said to myself I was going to be Guthrie’s reatest disciple”. Dylan related to Woody’s stories about the people down on their luck and no doubt correlated his experience as a repo-man, even if just subconsciously.
Guthrie’s importance was immediately clear to large number of people, and Mike Marquees has said “He was authentic because he came from and sang for the oppressed”. However, as previously stated, “Woody was an unabashed political partisan, a self-styled “full blooded Marxican” and enthusiastic class warrior”, which wasn’t a great career move in the McCarthy era. Dylan was so impressed with Guthrie that he decided to try to adopt his traits nd personality. He began wearing a corduroy hat, jeans and work shirt, imitating his Woody’s okie accent and imitating a tick he had, not conscious of the fact that he was actually imitating the symptoms of Huntington’s disease. In Guthrie’s music, Dylan found a mix of individualism and populism, humour and rage, and a general sense of the possibility of self-creation. Marquee says, “Guthrie offered an identity that was more genuinely Dylan’s own than the one his society had saddled him with”. After dropping out of University, Dylan headed east to New York, having heard that Guthrie was in a hospital, on his deathbed.
Shortly after arriving in New York, Dylan made the pilgrimage to see his dying idol, playing a few songs for him while there. The visits would continue for some time, but Dylan was about to explode onto the scene. Playing in small bars in Greenwich Village proved to be a great experience for the young Dylan. Only 20 at the time of arriving in New York, he was able to create quite an impression almost immediately. He played regular gigs at the Cafe Wha? and would occasionally work as a session musician for Columbia. John Hammond, a record produced for Columbia Records, happened to be watching a recording ession that Dylan was part of, and recognized his talent immediately. Before discovering Dylan, Hammond’s most notable signing was Billie Holliday, the singer of “Strange Fruit”. Released in 1939, “Strange Fruit” was a song about racial injustice and lynch mobs in the American south, which at the time was very heavy subject material. However, the song was a great success and helped to draw attention from the north to the injustices of the south. It also showed that Hammond wasn’t afraid to support controversial artists with opinions, given his support of the desegregation of the music industry.
Dylan himself has described Hammond as “no bull-shitter. There were maybe a thousand kings in the world an he was one of them”. Dylan released his first album in 1962, produced by John Hammond. The record only had two original compositions, but that’s what the folk scene was like at the time. The album flopped, only selling about 5000 copies, and Dylan was soon being referred to as “Hammond’s folly”. Undeterred, Dylan soon sought out a manager, and found Albert Grossman. In Chronicles, Dylan describes his first impression of Grossman: “He looked like Sydney Greenstreet from the film The
Maltese Falcon, had an enormous presence, always dressed in a conventional suit and tie, and he sat at his corner table. Usually when he talked, his voice was loud like the booming of war drums. He didn’t talk so much as growl”. Grossman was also the man responsible for forming Peter, Paul and Mary. They were a truly manufactured form of music, where Grossman had gone so far as to change Paul’s name from Noel to Paul in order to achieve that wholesome, Bible feel. Through Grossman, Peter Paul and Mary were able to record Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind, achieving a #2 hit just behind the Beatles ‘Help! , and marking Dylan as an expert songwriter for the new movement that was emerging. Dave Van Rock, a contemporary of Dylan’s from his village days, told Mike Marquees that the folk revival could be described as “part and parcel of the big left turn middle-class college students were making… So we owe it all to Rosa Parks”, or more specifically, the sit-in movement that had begun with four college students in North Carolina. The movement began to gain traction as it spread to other cities, and a few weeks after the North Carolina sit-ins, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed.
The SNCC committed itself to destroying Jim Crow through nonviolent means and action, and adopted many folk songs as “freedom songs”. The SNCC had a sister group in CORE, or, the Congress of Racial Equality. Founded in 1942, the group had practically collapsed in the McCarthy era, but was finding renew strength and interest by both whites and blacks that wanted to take an active role in social change. One of the members was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. Rotolo booked the then unknown Dylan for a CORE gig, and wanting new material to play, he wrote “The Death of Emmitt Till”. Murdered in 1955 for llegedly making lewd comments to a shop owner’s wife, Till was only 14 years old. After being missing for a few days, his body was recovered from a river, weighed down by a cotton gin secured to his neck with razor wire. The men who were eventually charged were acquitted on all charges and the case remained unsolved. Till’s mother insisted that the photos of her son’s body be run in the paper to show exactly how ugly the racism of the south was, that they would kill and mame a child. Though Dylan quickly derided the song as “bullshit” and never released it, it was a pivotal moment in his songwriting career.
Dylan was born the same year as Till, as was Muhammad Ali, who often said that Till’s murder was a defining moment in his own racial consciousness. Dylan’s political affiliations reached their peak on August 28, 1963, when he performed alongside Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Odetta at the March on Washington. Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary said that the March on Washington “was not only a moment of extreme hopefulness, it was a moment of the confirmation of the possibility of that hope becoming a reality. That was the moment of recognition of what people could do to change history”. Everyone but
Dylan took part in singing Blowin’ In The Wind, and then he stepped up to perform two songs unfamiliar to the audience. Seemingly unable or unwilling to express himself in anyway but song, Dylan didn’t speak, he began playing ‘When The Ship Comes In’. Singing about how “the sun will respect/every face on the deck”, Dylan shared his “jaunty vision of inclusive, unqualified liberation, unfolding as ‘the whole wide world is watching’”. The “ship” he sings of is likely a metaphor for what was being called “The Movement”. With the biblical phrasing and the egalitarian imagery, the song had a lot in common with the “Dream” speech that Martin Luther
King Jr would give later that day. Dylan, though obviously not African American, was Jewish, and so the message of inclusion in both the song and the speech extend to the persecutions that the Jewish people had suffered in America as well. His second song had been inspired by the assassination of Medger Evers, an organizer for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers had been shot only a few months previous, on June 12, 1963, only a few hours after President Kennedy announced plans to seek new civil rights legislation. A war hero, Evers had been involved with the Emmitt Till case, and had been an instrumental figure in the NAACP.
Using rap-like rhythm, Dylan sings a song simple in form but deep in content. He doesn’t condemn the assassin, but rather, he condemns the political system that encourages the behavior of the poor uneducated masses. The song was titled “Only A Pawn In Their Game”, and it has been described as a “searing class analysis of the southern skin privilege” in America. The song begin by retelling how the man shot Evers from behind a bush, and sings “But he can’t be blamed, he’s only a pawn in their game”. The next verse, Dylan cuts directly to his point; “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,” Dylan attempted to demonstrate the politics of racial division in song form, on a day when everyone else was focusing on unity. The song’s core message was about the persistence of racism, and “the central weight of white-skin privilege” in the American political system. Dylan doesn’t hold the individual responsible, he holds the state responsible, and the political system that pits poor whites against poor blacks. This was the ultimate finger-pointing song. Not long after, Dylan released his 3rd album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, but he had already become isillusioned with The Movement. No sooner had he been appointed the musical conscience and spokesman of a generation than he rebelled against in. Echoing his own song lyrics showing that he, like the “sons and the daughters” in Times They Are A-Changin’, was also “beyond your command”. When President Kennedy was shot in November 1963, it affected Dylan more than he would admit. The entire country was in shock, and less than a month after the shooting on Friday December 13, The Emergency Civil Liberties Committee presented Dylan with the Thomas Paine award for his work with the civil rights movement.
Dylan, still only 22 at the time, was very nervous and became fairly intoxicated. When he got up to accept the award, he didn’t make much of an effort to mask his contempt for the people there: “I haven’t got any guitar, I can talk though. I want to thank you for the Tom Paine award in behalf everybody that went down to Cuba. First of all because they’re all young and it’s took me a long time to get young and now I consider myself young. And I’m proud of it. I’m proud that I’m young. And I only wish that all you people who are sitting out here today or tonight weren’t here and I could see all kinds of faces with hair on their head – nd everything like that, everything leading to youngness, celebrating the anniversary when we overthrew the House Un-American Activities just yesterday, – Because you people should be at the beach….. There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground. And I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics. ” Essentially, the speech served as his declaration of independence from politics. Dylan’s assertion that he now considered himself “young” was further emphasized the following June when he released Another Side Of Bob Dylan.
The songs on the album were a different variety than that of his previous material, especially the song ‘My Back Pages’, with its refrain of “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. This song served to boil-down his drunken babbling at the ECLC to a beautiful piece of art that explained his position in a way that people would understand. In March of 1965, Dylan released his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. It wasn’t a complete departure from what he had been doing, with the album content split 50/50 between acoustic and electric arrangements, but it was a clear indication f where he was going with the music. The defining moment came when he played the Newport Folk Festival in July of that year, in what would later be referred to as “the most written about performance in the history of rock”. Dylan wanted to play electric instruments and asked members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to play with him.
Together, they played three, ‘Maggie’s Farm’ off of Bringing It All Back Home, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, which had just been released, and an unreleased version of ‘It Takes a Lot Too Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry’. There was a large amount of booing, and the performance was a clear eparture from his previous two appearances at the festival, when he performed acoustic songs with Joan Baez. The irony though, was that in not wanting Dylan to change as an artist, they were actually acting like the Establishment that they were hoping to change. Their reaction to his evolution and change in direction was a desire to maintain the status quo, and was actually is counterintuitive to the emerging counterculture. Over the next year, Dylan would go on to make Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, each with fully electric arrangements. Throughout his fifty-year career, Dylan has proven countless times that he’s apable of reinvention. After starting out as a rock and roller, he turned to folk and protest music.
When that lost it’s appeal, he went back to rock music, and by the end of the sixties he had invented folk-rock and country-rock with his albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, respectively. His turn away from politics and the New Left movement set the precedent for the selfish behavior that would dominate late sixties and early seventies culture, and he came to be recognized as a symbol for what was, and largely still is, considered “cool”. The guy is so “cool” in act, that when President Obama presented him with The Presidential Medal Of Freedom earlier this year, saying that “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” and that the “unique gravel-y power of his voice helped redefine not just what music sounded like, but the message it carried and how it made people feel”, Dylan accepted the medal wearing aviator sunglasses. The significance of the President being a young black man from Chicago, where protesters chanted Dylan’s line “The Whole World Is Watching! ” during the 1968 riots outside the democratic national convention should not be overlooked.
Dylan’s work throughout the early 60s created a legacy for the rest of the musicians and bands that would come out of the decade. Bruce Springsteen, an artist also signed by John Hammond and who was called “The New Bob Dylan” when he released his first album, inducted Dylan into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, saying that while “Elvis freed our bodies, Bob Dylan freed our minds”. Springsteen also spoke for the countless band and groups that Dylan inspired, saying: “without Bob, the Beatles wouldn’t have made Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beach Boys wouldn’t have made Pet Sounds, the Sex Pistols ouldn’t have made ‘God Save The Queen’, U2 wouldn’t have done ‘Pride In The Name Of Love’, Marvin Gaye wouldn’t have done ‘What’s Goin’ On? ’, the Count Five would not have done ‘Psychotic Reaction’, and Grandmaster Flash might not have done ‘The Message’ ” Springsteen outlines the influence that Dylan has had a wide scope of genres, but the defining characteristic that these bands have in common is that they were all willing to produce songs on touchy subjects in new, bold interesting ways. Dylan inspired these artists to look at what society was offering, and to say “here’s something better”.

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