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Music

How Bob Dylan tackled racial injustice as a white man

@TomTaylorFO

The times they are a-changing, they always have been, and they always will be. Thanks to figures like Bob Dylan, the progressive world of pop culture now has a say in those changes. Dylan was, in turn, inspired by the beat literature that went before him, so it seems pertinent to mention a quote put forth by the writer William S. Burroughs: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.”

Bob Dylan was a musical force who ensured that emerging pop culture was cognizant of the society it was awakening into. He was only 22 years old when he dragged the counterculture movement up by its hobnail bootstraps and gave it a soundtrack to sing along to. One moment which would go a long way to establish Dylan as the perfunctory poster boy for the call for change would be this epic performance of ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ at the monumental 1963 March on Washington. 

As a percussor to the iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, Dylan took to the stage not only as someone lending his name to the cause but as a young man looking to fight the blighting forces of injustice in all of its guises. In this sense, his performance, like the famous speech that rightfully overshadows it in history, extolled a transcendent and timeless message. As he pens in his memoir: “Songs, to me, were more important than just light entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality. Some different republic, some liberated republic.” 

He was a lowly vagabond at the time essentially living hand to mouth as a newcomer to New York City, but he was bold enough in his desire to contribute to that envisioned liberated republic that he was willing to forgo commercial success if it meant silencing his voice. At the March on Washington that liberated, peaceful republic seemed temporarily realised as more than 200,000 people stood in unison, not just politically but spiritually too.

A few months prior to that, Dylan had heralded the change to come with the release of arguably the greatest album of all time: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Contained therein was one of the first songs in the commercial 1960s to tackle the civil rights issue, at least in a roundabout way: ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. This anthem of peace and equality breezed out from Greenwich Village and forecast a windfall of change that artists themselves would help to spearhead. 

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As Sam Cooke’s younger brother L.C. Cooke told the BBC: “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan,” he said. “Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair, so he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’.” Cooke’s anthemic decree of hope stirred further efforts and the snowball of change became an avalanche that could not be ignored. 

As it happens, Dylan’s anthem was the culmination of an entire year writing about injustice. 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. Dylan 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, promoting a more emotive society. 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. 

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Dylan may well have poetically declared, “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,” but by doing so he also became a trailblazing hero. This is a notion he also handily defined when he said: “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.”

Dylan recognised that similar freedoms were not afford to his fellow Americans and he took it upon himself to voice that. Ultimately, he did this in a number of ways—he extolled for spiritual introspection, he boldly stood in solidarity with those suffering and he also brought unshakable hard truths to the fore too. 

These hard truths were highlighted in the journalistic epic ‘Hurricane’. In the sprawling song Dylan simply spits out all the details in an unflinching fashion. He would do the same at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement with the release of ‘A Murder Most Foul’ which may be about John F. Kennedy on the surface, but ultimately speaks of violence in America and the need for salvation, as he always has done in his virtuous career.