He was not a very known or successful singer when his second album came out in May 1963, nor a very conventional one, with his raspy, almost nasal voice, but he would go on to express the era’s growing social unrest and questioning of tradition and status quo which had not diminished inequity or led to peace. Over half a century later, his queries are still relevant: “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” or “How many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?”
Bob Dylan, whose 75th birthday is on Tuesday, seemed to embody, for popular music, Karl Marx’s dictum that philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways but the point, however, is to change it. This may have been his motivation or maybe he was prompted by something else altogether, he did his best to achieve this purpose though his music.
Be it the iconic “Blowing in the Wind” (excerpted above), “Masters of War” (“You that build all the guns/You that build the death planes/You that build the big bombs/You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks..”) and many more, his ballads not only became anthems for the American civil rights and anti-war movements, but can still articulate deep concern at the condition of the world and society.
Dylan never accepted that he was a spokesman for the 1960s generation while many of his most famous works don’t seemed restricted to the age when they came out — or the setting. Such as “The Times They Are A-Changin” with its “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” seems as valid now or a decade previous of hence as America of the 1960s.
Born Robert Allan Zimmerman in Minnesota on May 24, 1941, to a Jewish family with its roots in Tsarist Russia, he displayed an interest in music right from his school days and, in 1961, dropped out of university for a full-time music career. He also changed his surname to Dylan, in homage to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
Though his first album “Bob Dylan” (1962) with his renditions of popular existing folk and gospel hits remained unnoticed, it was his second “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, with 9 of its 11 tracks written by him, and then “The Times They Are A-Changin” that catapulted him to recognition and renown.
Apart from rights and peace, they also chronicled various social injustices and abuses — such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” about the unprovoked senseless killing of a black hotel barmaid by a young well-connected white man socialite, who gets off lightly, but their vivid, unsettling and even surreal lyrics left a marked impression.
Take the aftermath of nuclear war: “…I saw a white ladder all covered with water/I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken/I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children/And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard/And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” or on the “Red Scare” of hidden communists: “I wus lookin’ high an’ low for them Reds everywhere/I wus lookin’ in the sink an’ underneath the chair/I looked way up my chimney hole/I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl/They got away…” (“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”).
Dylan, who is still active, continued to reinvent himself, moving from his base in folk music through a wide spectrum of musical genres — rock and roll, blues, country, gospel, jazz — while once riling the folk music establishment by performing with an electric band, and then later being part of a band (The Travelling Willburys) comprising, among others, Roy “Pretty Woman” Orbison and former Beatles member George Harrison — but it is his initial record that make up his legend.
He may not have wanted being confined to this role with his quirky love song “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (from the aptly-titled “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, 1964) interpreted as a sort of repudiation but it is hard to jettison a reputation!
(24.05.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )