Bob Dylan is now considered an icon of his age, a troubadour of free-thought and a purveyor of justice. It’s due in no small part to his incredibly poignant protest songs from the 1960s. At a moment in American history when society was rife with civil unrest and a collapsing cultural climate demanded change, Bob Dylan stepped out of obscurity and into the spotlight.
One moment which would go a long way to establish Dylan as the poster boy for the counter-culture generation would be this epic performance of ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the monumental 1963 March on Washington.
Rightfully overshadowed by the importance of the movement, as well as the leader of the civil rights movements Dr. Martin Luther King’s now-iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, Dylan’s own position within this march started a few years before the event with the meeting of one special person.
Having been undoubtedly influenced by the politics of the legendary folk artist and the young Robert Zimmerman’s idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan only really started to develop his own ideologies and impressions when he arrived in New York in 1961 and with the help of his then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo.
The daughter of union organisers and confirmed Communists, Rotolo was a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality and she encouraged Dylan to perform at political rallies and write socially charged songs. Dylan responded by making ‘protest songs’ his preferred method of expression against the establishment. It seemed to gather pace almost instantly.
The 21-year-old Dylan would find his niche and go on to write and record the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which would catapult Bob into the role of civil rights poster boy and the role of ‘voice of a generation’. While songs like ‘Oxford Town’ offered the true grit of the movement (it was a track about the clashes over James Meredith’s right to attend the all-white University of Missippi), it was his take on ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ which would define his sound and become a civil rights anthem for decades to come.
Among some other notable moments for Dylan within the movement, including rejecting a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show after producers wanted to yank his song choice because it was too inflammatory, and a now-iconic performance at The Newport Folk Festival, one set would cement Dylan as the anti-establishment political poet we all know and love to this day.
On August 28th, while thousands upon thousands of people continued marching on Washington, they looked up to the microphone they saw a young white man with his guitar ready to join the march, the fight, the war with a simple but poignant song.
Introduced by actor Ossie Davis, Bob Dylan performed ‘When The Ship Comes In,’ and ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ we take a look at the latter below and try to think back to the struggles Dylan saw before him in the eyes of people unwilling to bend to the wills of the elite anymore.
Dylan’s involvement in the movement would gradually decrease as he became partly inflated by fame, partly held back by the moniker of ‘voice of a generation’ and partly plain disinterested. But the singer’s words and songs remain to this day as a reminder of his commitment to the cause.
Taking in the world around us today it feels more pertinent than ever that we should listen back to his music and his words and ask ourselves how we could aid the same fight for racial equality. For now, sit back and watch Bob Dylan perform at the March on Washington back in 1963.
Take a look below at a moment in history as Bob Dylan performs for the March on Washington in 1963.