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Acad. Quest.

(2015) 28:313321
DOI 10.1007/s12129-015-9514-z
VERDICTS

Eternal Protest: Bob Dylans Lasting Rage


Peter Wood

Published online: 24 July 2015


# Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Bob Dylan is a major figure in popular culture. In the opinion of some,


however, he is more than that: a creative genius whose songs and lyrics will long
outlast his age. In this short essay, I will comment on one small part of Dylans
very large record of song-writing and performance: his early protest songs.
But, first, why Dylan? This essay is a contribution to a series in Academic
Questions that offers personal assessments of major academic figures. Whatever
else Bob Dylan may be, he is not an academic figure of any sort. He dropped out
of the University of Minnesota in May 1960, at the end of his second semester,
and never again enrolled in a degree program. In 1970, at age thirty, Dylan did
receive an honorary doctorate of music from Princeton University.
The Princeton ceremony left a strong and very negative impression on the
musician. He memorialized it soon after in a song, The Day of the Locusts:
I put down my robe, picked up my diploma,
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive,
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota,
Sure was glad to get out of there alive.
And he was still regretting the event nearly a quarter of a century later in his
memoir Chronicles, Volume One, where Dylan remembers wincing when
Princeton president Robert Goheen read a citation that referred to him as the

Peter Wood is editor of Academic Questions and president of the National Association of Scholars, 8 West 38th
Street, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018-6229; pwood@nas.org. His most recent book is A Bee in the Mouth:
Anger in America Now (Encounter, 2007). This essay is an updated excerpt from this book.

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authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young


America.1
In Chronicles, Dylan complains about this valorization, The speaker could
have said many things. He could have emphasized a few things about my music.
When he said to the crowd that I preferred isolation from the world, it was like he
told them I preferred being in an iron tomb with my food shoved in on a tray.2
But the story has a postscript. In 2004 Dylan accepted another honorary
doctorate in music, this time from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. St.
Andrews thoughtfully avoided the voice of a generation trope in favor of
praising Dylans attention to Scottish border ballads.
Judging from many of his lyrics, Dylan was never especially impressed with
what colleges do for students or with what students do in college:
Aw, youve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out youre gonna have to get used to it3
So begins the second verse of one Dylans most famous songs, Like a Rolling
Stone. The subjects of Dylans songs are often lowlifes, bandits, ordinary folks,
or figures who emerge from or merge into myth. On the other hand, Dylan
frequently performs at universities, and he is no stranger to the world of books
and ideas. His lyrics testify to a lifetime of attentive reading. The British literary
critic Christopher Ricks published a collection of densely interpretive essays,
Dylans Visions of Sin, in 2003, adding the laurel of New Criticism-style close
reading to an altar already heaped with worshipful offerings from many other
academics.4 Among the great many books by academics on Dylan, Sean
Wilentzs Bob Dylan in America (2010) likewise stands out. 5 The best case
for including Dylan in Verdicts is the high estimate in which he is held by
good scholars, literary critics and historians among them.
We live in an age that doesnt have much patience for a distinction between
high art and creative entertainment. Popular song finds its place among movies,
television shows, mystery novels, and other mass-produced work as fodder for
critical rumination. For the most part, I dont take these enthusiasms as evidence
1

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 133.

Ibid.

All Dylan lyrics quoted from Bob Dylan: Lyrics 19621985, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).

Christopher Ricks, Dylans Visions of Sin (London: Penguin Group, 2003).

Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America (New York: Doubleday, 2010).

Eternal Protest: Bob Dylans Lasting Rage

315

that the works themselves have lasting value. Camille Paglia has for several
decades extolled Madonnas artistry, but it is hard to imagine anything of
Madonnas contributions mattering to people a century hence. It isnt so hard
to imagine that Dylans will.

Circus Floor
Though he had already written a handful of protest songs (Let Me Die in My
Footsteps, Hero Blues, John Brown), Bob Dylans first great protest song
was Blowin in the Wind (1963), which concludes:
How many years can a mountain exist
Before its washed to the sea?
Yes, n how many years can some people exist
Before theyre allowed to be free?
Yes, n how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesnt see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin in the wind,
The answer is blowin in the wind.
The song seems angry at humanitys willingness to abide injustices in its midst,
but the singers anger is not directed at a particular, concrete instance of
injustice. He seems to rail at a more fundamental condition and to imply an
overwhelming but entirely vague consequence. Is the answer thats blowin in
the wind socialist revolution, as a good many of Dylans comrades in the early
sixties hoped? Is it racial upheaval? Divine intervention? To name the
possibilities seems to limit the song, which is one of those rare instances
in which unspecified indignation actually works.
After Blowin in the Wind, Dylan wrote dozens of songs that either express
direct contempt for those he judged responsible for social evils or angrily mock
individuals whom he faults for pride, hypocrisy, or other personal failings. His
1963 song Masters of War intriguingly turned up in 2004 as the top protest
song of all time in the British music magazine Mojo, beating out Pete Seegers
We Shall Overcome (#2) and James Browns Say It Loud, Im Black and Im
Proud (#3)and N.W.A.s rap classic F*** the Police (#10). 6 It is not on
6

Mark Boudreau, For What Its Worth. Mojo Magazines Top 100 Protest Songs, Rock and Roll Report,
November 3, 2004, http://rockandrollreport.com/for-what-it%E2%80%99s-worth-mojo-magazine%E2%80%
99s-top-100-protest-songs/, citing 100 Greatest Protest Songs Ever! Mojo, May 2004.

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WatchMojos current list, which is dominated by songs of racial protest, but


Dylans song wishing death to war profiteers continues to be astonishingly
popular.7 A 2014 poll by Rolling Stone rated Masters of War the best protest
song of all time.8
The popularity of Masters of War is an instance of what I have called New
Anger searching the archives for its own precedents. By New Anger I mean
anger that congratulates itself. It is a swaggering form of anger that calls
attention not so much to the grievance as to the righteousness of the grievant.
It is anger with an emphasis on performance, and it is conceived as empowering
self-expression. All of this is in contrast to an older ethic of self-control in which
too quick a resort to angry expression was widely seen as weakness and a cause
for shame. We now live in an era where histrionic expressions of anger are often
viewed as admirable in and of themselves, regardless of the provocation.
New Anger emerged from the cultural discontents in the United States
following World War II. Among its original ingredients were the popularization
of Freudian views about the supposed psychic dangers of repressing anger; the
beatnik ethos of personal authenticity to be achieved at the expense of violating
repressive social convention; the formative stages of the civil rights movement
and the womens rights movement, both of which urged passive sufferers of
injustice to defy repressive customs and laws; and the emergence of rock n roll
as a more direct and uninhibited form of emotional expression.
Dylan was by no means the first performer to sing New Anger, but he was by
far its most creative and powerful. Masters of War, by itself, is among the
weaker of his angry rants. It opens, Come you master of war/You that build all
the guns, and proceeds through sixty-four lines of simplistic accusations,
ending:
And I hope that you die
And your deathll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And Ill watch while youre lowered
Down to your deathbed
And Ill stand oer your grave
Til Im sure that youre dead.
7

Top 10 Protest Songs WatchMojo.com, http://www.watchmojo.com/video/id/12387/.

Andy Greene, Readers Poll: The 10 Best Protest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone, December 10, 2014,
http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/readers-poll-the-10-best-protest-songs-of-all-time-20141203.

Eternal Protest: Bob Dylans Lasting Rage

317

Most of the song is of a piece with this death-wish, although the switch from the
attack on the plural masters of war to the singular master in a casket is jarring.
Masters of War is really about the I who hopes the anonymous masters will
die. The body in the coffin is less the point than the engorged ego of the man who
is singing and who plans to stand around in the cemetery just to be sure. The song
seems less about taking umbrage at gun builders and war profiteers than it is about
Dylan asserting his own very large moral superiority to them. The indictments that
the song makes against the masters of war are of stock villain sort,
You play with my world
Like its your little toy
and do nothing for Dylans reputation as a lyricist. The song registers a lot more
self-satisfaction than it does revelation about the motives of Halliburton,
Raytheon, or their 1963 counterparts. Another of Dylans protest songs that
continues to attract attention is his 1964 anti-war screed, With God on Our
Side. It is a collection of shallow anti-American ironies about the nations wars
(you never ask questions/When Gods on your side) culminating in the
question whether Judas Iscariot/Had God on his side. The answer? If Gods
on our side/Hell stop the next war. Dylans song Only a Pawn in Their Game
opens with the assassination of Medgar Evers, and moves through a series of
dismissals. The assassin was only a pawn in their game; likewise the
politicians who incited racial hatred, the cops who failed to enforce the
law, and the poor whites who joined the Ku Klux Klan. Only a Pawn in
Their Game is lyrically more telling than Masters of War and With God
on Our Side, but suffers from a similar strain of ideology. Whose game is
Dylan talking about? Who exactly benefits from the murderous racism of the
Jim Crow South? The implication is that the evil capitalists are once again
pulling the strings (or pushing the pawns) but as soon as that idea is thrust
into plain view, the song loses much of its force.
Dylans most famous protest anthem, The Times They Are a Changin (1964),
is every bit as angry and arrogant as Masters of War. In it Dylan consigns all who
stand in the way of the revolution to grim fates (youll sink like a stone); orders
politicians out of the way (Dont stand in the doorway / Dont block up the hall);
silences dissenting opinion (And dont criticize / What you cant understand); and
rejects parental authority (Your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your
command). The totalitarian impulse in the song is astonishing.
All of Dylans early sixties protest songs now seem to be a cross-generational
memo to the present: divide the world in two, between weak good guys and

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powerful creeps, but dont be too specific. The creeps are creepier if you assail
them as shadowy exploiters. Implication is often better than accusation.
This generic vagueness describes the Dylan protest songs that make the ten
best lists and that have something like continuing currency. But there are other
Dylan protest songs that are the exact opposite of vague: they are ballads that
recount specific stories of injustice. Among these is The Lonesome Death of
Hattie Carroll, which is a masterpiece of narrative that accounts for the 1963
murder of a black servant by a twenty-four-year-old Maryland tobacco farmer,
William Zantsinger:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gathrin
Zantzinger (actual spelling) served only a six-month sentence for the crime and
paid a $625 fine, but Dylans song followed him to the end. When he died in
2009, the national press, including the New York Times and the LA Times,
remembered him as the heartless socialite of Dylans lyrics, who had spent his
subsequent years descending ever more deeply into disgrace. Concerning
Dylan, Zantzinger told a writer, I should have sued him and put him in jail.9
The real Zantzinger deserved his opprobrium but his complaint about Dylans
depiction of him as a heartless killer was legitimate. The cane with which he
struck Hattie Carroll was a toy, and immediately afterwards she served him a
bourbon and walked away. She had had a history of heart trouble and it was
hours later that she suffered a fatal stroke. Zantzingers obnoxious behavior may
have precipitated her stroke, but Dylans lyric that she got killed by a blow, lay
slain by a cane is, at best, poetic compression. And Dylans depiction of
Zantzinger as determined to destroy all the gentle turns the impulsive behavior
of a drunken lout into premeditated murder.
For all that, the song is a masterpiece. It also points to a distinction between
Dylans New Anger-style protest songs and his songs about racial injustice,
which are rooted in an older, selfless kind of indignation. The New Anger
protest songs are vague about the object of protest and instead emphasize the
dudgeon of the singer. The songs about racial injustice, by contrast, are ballads
about real events that emphasize narrative details. The singers distress about the
injustices is plain, but it isnt the focus.
9
Adam Bernstein, William Zantzinger, Convicted of Killing Hattie Carroll and Denounced in Bob
Dylan Song, Dies at 69, LA Times, December 10, 2009, http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/
la-me-zantzinger10-2009jan10-story.html.

Eternal Protest: Bob Dylans Lasting Rage

319

In 1965, Dylan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band, which used electrified instrumentsan offense
against the purist tastes of the folk revivalists who famously booed their
former favorite. Dylan replied to the catcalls by playing Its All Over
Now, Baby Blue and left the folk movement and propagandistic protest
songs behind. But not anger. In the decades that followed, he wrote and
performed many masterpieces of angry music: Subterranean Homesick
Blues, Maggies Farm, Its Alright Ma (Im Only Bleeding), Like
a Rolling Stone, and Positively 4th Street,
You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning
among others, as well as songs about anger, such as Too Much of Nothing and
Tears of Rage,
Tears of rage, tears of grief,
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
Were so alone
And life is brief.
Such songs certainly helped to shape the emotional sensibilities of the
generation that reached adulthood in the sixties and seventies. In some cases,
we can point to actual artifacts of Dylans influencesuch as the title of
Rolling Stone magazine and the name the radical Weathermen adopted from
Subterranean Homesick Blues:
You dont need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows
But he also taught that generation an angry acuteness about falsities in human
life. In Temporary like Achilles, he addresses a disdainful lover who ignores
him:
I watch upon your scorpion
Who crawls across your circus floor.

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Dylans anger in such lyrics reaches a phantasmagoric clarity. The anger of the
early social protest songs in only a few years transformed into a far more
complicated inner landscape involving the play between attraction and hostility.
In My Back Pages, he repudiated his earlier protest songs as simple-minded:
Rip down all hate I screamed / Lies that life is black and white. Dylans
emotional range continued to expand, but always with a deep edge of angerat
others or himself.
The case for Dylan as the kind of artist who may long outlast the tastes and
enthusiasms of his own time rests on the work that came after his few years of
writing and performing protest songs. But those are the songs, of course, that
first brought him to broad public attention and they are also among the songs
that five decades later best define him for new listeners. Dylan himself never
embraced the view that he was the authentic expression of the disturbed and
concerned conscience of Young America. Dylan did not want to be the patented
representation of anyone other than himself, and even that was an uncertain
destination. His career became a matter of trying on and discarding one persona
after another, and a continued migration from musical genre to genre, including
folk, rock, country, gospel, and most recently American songbook standards
such as Autumn Leaves and The Night We Called It a Day.
This last disconcerting turn into the world of Frank Sinatra, Jonny Mercer,
and Rodgers and Hammerstein seems to have taken Dylan very far indeed from
New Anger and social protest. As with many of his previous plunges into a new
genre, Dylans homages to the mid-century song catalog in his album Shadows
in the Night strikes some listeners as a dramatic falling off and others as high
irony. But his ruined voice and world-weariness actually bring out the pathos in
these songs. The anger is banked, although he has picked songs (Im a Fool to
Want You, Why Try to Change Me Now, Where Are You?) that thread
back to his youthful lyrics (Temporary Like Achilles, Just Like a Woman,
One of Us Must Know, Most Likely You Go Your Way and Ill Go Mine) of
disdain for shallow and unfaithful lovers.
Of course, his elusive identity and musical homelessness is part of what made
Dylan such a good candidate for the role into which he has been repeatedly
conscripted: the embodiment of generation that had tossed aside the cultures old
ways in search of a truer, deeper, more authentic self. That self-searching almost
always proved to touch bottom with profound discontents and to take the outward
form of ostentatious angerNew Anger. And Dylan, while occasionally finding
joyous moments, has remained beginning to end a lyricist whose dominant
mode is anger, or more recently anger subsiding into regret and melancholy.
His protest songs were the first full expression of an effort to define himself

Eternal Protest: Bob Dylans Lasting Rage

321

against the world. As poetry or literature, they dont amount to very much,
though clearly as song and as performance they remain powerful: they stick in
the memory and they summon resentments that demand to be heard.
In a 2012 interview in Rolling Stone, Dylan drew an important distinction
between the power of his performances to stir other people and his own
detachment from the emotions his songs stir up: The thing you have to do is
make people feel their own emotions. A performer, if he is doing what he is
supposed to do, doesnt feel any emotion at all. It is a certain kind of alchemy
that a performer has. 10 Many performers describe the detachment from the
roles they inhabit, but Dylan has struck observers as especially and rather
mysteriously remote. Which is to say, it would be a mistake to conflate the
artfully crafted anger of his lyrics and his performances as a direct expression of
his authentic self. The catch here is that his musical expressions seem so
authentic, perhaps in direct proportion to his impenetrable reserve.
So why Dylan? Perhaps because to understand all that has happened to the
university since the 1960s, but especially the deep changes in the humanities, we
need to account for the spirit of disenchantment, the uprooted search for an
uncertain self, the unrequited religious yearning, and the never-ending tour of
angry possibilities that Dylan helped to crystalize. He was never the conscience
of Young America, but the shifting self he has borne witness to over his long
career is a lot like usbroken, resentful, and by turns arrogant in the same way
we all are.

10

Bob Dylan Unleashed, interview by Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, September 27, 2012, http://rol.st/
SRFjlW.

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