“Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment,” Bob Dylan writes in his memoir. “They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic.” Although many of us can recognise the prose and profundity of that declaration, the true weight is perhaps lost to the sands of time.
After all, when Dylan’s year of writing about death and injustice began with ‘Ballad for a Friend’ in 1962, he was only 21 years old. The unwashed phenomenon was holed up in New York’s Greenwich Village with a thousand other urban vagabonds and although the breadline was forever looming, he didn’t seem to be searching for a big break so much as a long cast shadow that he could shelter in.
As he puts it himself: “It wasn’t that I was anti-popular culture or anything and I had no ambition to stir things up. I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window, and you had to have awkward footgear to walk with.”
Dylan was certainly not the first to stand aside from the stream of songs about holding hands and dancing the jive; pop-culture era folk was born on the frontier search for timeless authenticity, but all too often it wasn’t timeless at all—it mistook the word as something that only plays backwards. Songs that sprung forth in 1962, like ‘The Death of Emmett Till’, were not murder ballads from a bygone era, but rather a disdainful look at the slaying of a black man in 1955.
“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice,” he once said. Arriving in the Big Apple with his dogeared guitar under his arm was a formative moment for Dylan as a person and a performer. He was discovering his place in the world and with that came the sort of individualism that conversely connected with more people than the usual mainstream tropes.
As Dylan poetically put it, “I really was never any more than what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the grey mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.” The world was changing around him and not just his locale, Dylan boldly stood amid the breakers and tried to weave some way through it. In the true timeless sense, he followed the trail behind him and looked on into the future. “What was the future?” he asked, “The future was a solid wall, not promising, not threatening—all bunk. No guarantees of anything, not even the guarantee that life isn’t one big joke.”
With uncertainty proving as constant as ever in the era of great change, the only solution was to stick to the time-honoured. Shortly after ‘Death of Emmett Till’, having already penned ‘Poor Boy Blues’ and ‘Standing on the Highway’ earlier that year, Dylan extolled the only virtue that seemed to cut through the mist of tempestuous times with his anthem ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.
No leaf is left unturned in this spiritual epic. It touches on the whole shebang of life and the times he was living in. It wasn’t so much a political song though, as he said himself, his songs were about everything. “All I’d ever done was sing songs that were dead straight and expressed powerful new realities,” Dylan once wrote. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be voice of.”
In truth, it is easy to see how he became known as ‘The Voice of a Generation’. When you write songs like ‘Masters of War’ it doesn’t take much foresight to imagine those words on a picket line, even that much couldn’t have been lost on Dylan. However, there is no doubting that even his songs retained some pariah status, like the Russian literature that inspired him, he was looking at death and injustice through a lens far wider than politics.
All of this ultimately culminated in his final song that year – a year that included all the tracks in the playlist below – ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. As the Cuban Missile Crisis ensued and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell message of guarding against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex” still ringing in the air, Dylan painted the times with a biblical brush.
When the troubadour was searching for cognisance in the ways of the world at the New York Library, he saw incidents like the Missile Crisis echoed throughout history; remarking: “After a while, you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Full to the brim with biblical apocalyptic imagery and the kind of poignantly double-edged lyricism that only Dylan could muster, the song was recorded in one uproarious take and hasn’t spent much time out of the studio since. Such is the scope of the song, the brilliant universal depth that Dylan lends to the specifics of life, it has never lost its profound power and as such continues to be covered endlessly to this day. If that isn’t a mark of the timeless introspective way that Dylan looked at the world when he was only a very old boy then nothing is—his next challenge in 1963 was trying to be younger than he had been the year before… he achieved that too.