For the better part of 60 years, Bob Dylan has been a prominent folk-rock figure and influential individual. He has released 39 studio albums, won many honorable awards like the Nobel Peace Prize, Kennedy Center Honors, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has also created a long-lasting legacy.
Dylan continues to serve relevancy to each decade within his work.
The versatility within Dylan’s work is admirable and showcases his abilities as a storyteller extraordinaire. The themes within his songs range from love and religion to various societal struggles and political protest.
In 1963, he performed at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington alongside other performers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. During this time, he was about halfway through recording his third album. “The Times They Are A Changin’” debuted on Jan. 13, 1964. Seven months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to Rolling Stone.
The late George Harrison once said, “If Dylan hadn’t said some of the things he did, nobody else was going to say them. Can you imagine what a world it would be if we didn’t have a Bob Dylan? It would be awful.”
Here are three of Dylan’s most powerful protest songs. Not only do they express awareness of prejudice that’s always existed, but they also brought forth a call to action against discrimination.
“Blowin’ In The Wind,” released on Dylan’s second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963, is composed of hard hitting, open-ended questions that have stood the test of time.
It explores a lot of rhetoric pertaining to freedom, peace and war with references to white doves and cannonballs, which made it an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
One of the most powerful lyrics of the song states: “Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly Before they’re forever banned?”
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s parallels the Black Lives Matter movement, in the sense that society is continuously working toward justice against racially-motivated violence and discrimination.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol,” featured on the 1964 album “The Times They Are A Changin,’’ is a protest song that tells the story of the 51-year- old African American barmaid Hattie Carrol. She was brutally murdered by William Zanzinger, a young rich tobacco farmer. He harassed her at a bar with slurs and hit her with his cane because she did not respond as quickly to him as he would have liked. Carrol complained of not feeling well afterwards and passed away from a stroke.
Meanwhile, Zanzinger only faced the small price of a six month sentence, which is stated in the lyric: “And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.”
Violent stories like Hattie Carrol’s hauntingly still occur on the daily. The lack of punishment towards those deserving of it, like Zanzinger, display the dire need for reform within the judicial system. In June 2020, #SayHerName circulated due to global outrage towards the deaths of innocent black women. For this, Hattie Carrol must be remembered too.
Say her name.
“Hurricane” is a single from Dylan’s 1976 album, “Desire.” In the song, he tells the story of American-Canadian boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
In 1966, Carter was wrongly imprisoned at the height of his boxing career because he “fit the description” for a triple homicide that occurred at a bar in Patterson, New Jersey. Carter spent nearly two decades behind bars due to a conviction based on racist premise. His story came to be a symbol of racial injustice in America.
After reading Carter’s autobiography, Dylan met the boxer and then went on to write a hit protest song. Hurricane was performed on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour and brought attention to the issue at hand. Carter was eventually released in 1985 and it’s probable the song contributed towards the exposure needed for his freedom.
That freedom can be seen in the lyric: “The man the authorities came to blame, For somethin’ that he never done.”
In August 2020, a similar situation took place. A man by the name of Ronnie Long was released from an 80-year prison sentence. He was wrongfully accused of rape and burglary back in 1976. Long spent 44 years behind bars until the state of North Carolina admitted they could no longer defend the case, as it was based on police misconduct fueled by racism, according to CBS News.
Long’s family and friends never lost faith in his innocence.
These specific songs of Dylan’s educate and bring forth intense feelings of disgust towards the innermost evil side of society. Though we must never forget the tragedies and injustices, we must work towards a day where the messages within songs like Dylan’s do not still ring true.