Dylan, the American Left, and What We have Lost

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bob Dylan would no doubt be as distressed as the American corporate media to see an ideological interpretation of his 1960s anthems that helped win him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Especially after his 1966 motorcycle accident and retreat to Woodstock and domesticity, Dylan turned inward, exploring an internal life of ethical values and love and rejection of political cynicism (as with “ All along the Watchtower“). But the early ’60s were a different matter.

Since the mass media won’t tell you Dylan was in his youth a leftist or that some of his greatest work came out of a critique of our corporation-dominated, unequal, militaristic and racist society, it is important to underline it lest the celebration of his masterpieces become merely maudlin and sentimental (and he would hate that outcome, too).

After a brief stint at the University of Minnesota, the small town Midwestern youth arrived in NYC’s East Village in 1960 and joined the coffeehouse scene. That scene had been the incubator of the Beats (Jack Kerouac’s post-War “Beatitude” movement influenced by Be-Bop and jazz and Omar Khayyam). It was also a scene for jazz. But in the late ’50s coffeehouse performers began turning to folk, and Dylan arrived in New York during that transition. As Brian Lloyd* has argued, he brought with him a blues and rockabilly sensibility gained from listening to music drifting up from the Delta. (Elvis was a much bigger influence than most observers realize).

Lloyd writes that in Greenwich Village, living with his leftist girlfriend Suze Rotolo, Dylan came under her influence and came in contact with organic intellectuals who turned him on to books. He says, “Suze Rotolo, his lover during this period, introduced him to art galleries, off-Broadway plays, New Wave films, Living Theater productions, Brecht and Rimbaud — and to the world of civil rights and ban-the-bomb activism (Rotolo 199 – 213, 233 – 35; Dylan, Chronicles 268 – 70).” It is important to underline Rotolo as his intellectual guide in this period. It wasn’t just guys who made the counterculture.

The profound influence on him of the Left (Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” was a revelation to him) and of the American Left (Woody Guthrie had strong Communist ties even if he wasn’t a Party member and his song “This Land is My Land, This Land is Your Land” is a Marxist hymn) cannot be disregarded. Pirate Jenny from the Threepenny Opera is about a maid’s imaginary revenge on the class system that oppresses her. Other influences were Pete Seeger, who was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Dave von Ronk, a Trotskyite. Ron Radosh+ has argued that when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Seeger was distressed because he interpreted it as a bid to enter the market of capitalist consumerism. But he was hurt precisely because Dylan had been his protegé. Anti-war beat poet Allen Ginsburg on hearing Dylan is said to have been satisfied that the counterculture would continue into the next generation.

Dylan, being on the left, attacked the far Right John Birch Society in a song (the Society was an incubator for the Goldwater campaign and then the rise of the New Right). In 1963 he was booked to appear on the enormously influential Ed Sullivan Show (“The Voice” of its day), but when he was forbidden to sing “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he walked out rather than accept censorship.

Now I am going to do a riff on one of Dylan’s more radical songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” updating it for 2016. Because I don’t think it can be read by this generation as it was intended– the context has changed too much. The US had demobilized after the Korean War, and the looming Vietnam War was not viewed by the Left and by youth as normal (we now have a set of standing wars, so 60s anti-war sentiment–as an insistence on return to normalcy– can’t even be imagined anymore). African-Americans still lived under Jim Crow and people were arrested for sitting at “white” lunch counters. Dylan’s strong sense of social justice, imbibed in part from his close-knit Midwestern Jewish community (ancestors came from Odessa and Turkey) and from the Hebrew Bible, and in part from the influence on him of the New York Left intellectuals, spoke to my generation viscerally, because we could read his poetic metaphors as allusions to a real set of crises. I know the below is too on the nose, and you shouldn’t mess with a classic, but just hear me out and maybe weep a little for how far backward we went from Dylan’s youthful vision of a better future.

“Blown in the Wind” (with apologies to Bob Dylan):

How many roads must aliens walk down
Before they become citizens?
How many seas must a white dove sail
’till peace in Afghanistan?
Yes, and how many times must the unmanned drones fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, and how many years can our seashores exist
Before they’re washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can women exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

You get the idea.


Peter, Paul and Mary – Blowing in the Wind


* Brian Lloyd (2014) The Form is the Message: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Rock Music Studies, 1:1, 58-76, DOI:

+ Ron Radosh, “The Communist Party’s Role in the Folk Revival: From Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan,” American Communist History Vol. 14, Issue 1. Date: 20/15/1/2/ Pages: 3-19.

26 Responses

  1. It’s appropriate that you apologized. You could have just recommended Chronicles. Or waited to hear what Dylan himself says when he accepts the prize.

    • Couldn’t agree more! Anyone with an inch of imagination will be able to understand ‘Blowing in the wind’ and to try and hit you in the head with what it may mean today is to completely miss the point of Dylan’s magnificent poetry – totally patronising and dumb!

  2. I loved early Dylan. His music was important and I was tuned into it. Within the last few years I have learned that he is a supporter of Meir Kahane and the JDL. So I guess that underneath all the leftist veneer is a supporter of Jewish terrorism. Too bad Bobby, you had it all going for you.

    • This is the most ridiculous charge I’ve ever heard. Where did you pick up this trash?

      • In a 1971 interview with Time Magazine, Bob Dylan praised Meir Kahane, calling him a “real sincere guy” and stating that “he got it all together.”

    • He also released a couple of Christian inspired albums. You’re using a 45 year old interview to say what he is today? Silly

      • Several points:

        (A) Bob Dylan never has recanted his support for the late Jewish extremist Meir Kahane;

        (B) Dylan did convert to Christianity at one point – but later disavowed any ties to organized religion;

        (C) Dylan has had a long and complex relationship with Israel and some of his songs have been revered by the West Bank Jewish settler movement – which he appears to favor.

        Some links:

        link to timesofisrael.com

        link to loonwatch.com

  3. “You” had not gained anything by selective righteousness to lose. Parting shot of 60’s half-ass revolutionaries ensconced in the Nobel Prize Committee, most with cushy academic jobs and IRAs, 401(K)s or whatever they are called in Nordic Gloom.

  4. Nicely done, Juan. Appreciate it. Dylan’s a longtime favorite of mine, so I can’t resist adding a few thoughts.

    Dylan’s “rejection” of his protest songs has always been overblown, in my opinion. Even at the height of that period, his political songs were always outnumbered by songs about falling in and out of love and the rest of the emotional obstacle course that every young man must negotiate. He did see the perils of being stuck in the box of a topical songwriter and was determined not to let that happen, but he never abandoned social commentary. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is as political a song as he ever wrote.

    He never abandoned his left-oriented idealism, and he eventually returned to the occasional topical song, be it a about particular case of injustice (“Hurricane”), corporate greed and globalization (“Union Sundown”), or the general decay of our political discourse (“Political World”). He dedicated a song to Sen. Paul Wellstone at a concert in the days immediately following his death.

    He got hammered pretty badly by some on the left for a few statements he made about Israel over the years. I never followed that controversy closely enough to form much of an opinion. But at the very worst, I wouldn’t question the basic humanitarianism of Elie Wiesel just because he viewed that conflict through more Jewish eyes than I do.

    I normally couldn’t care less about who wins the Nobel Prize, the Oscars, or any of the other high-profile awards, but I admit I was thrilled about this one, probably more than Dylan.

  5. Joe Kouflie

    Dylan came to the West Village in 1961, playing at the many cheap coffee houses that were there at the time, often sleeping on Dave Van Ronk’s sofa near Sheridan Square. Just a minor correction.

  6. The American poet James Ragan likes to tell a story about Bob Dylan. Back in 1985, Bob Dylan, Robert Bly, and James Ragan were three Americans among a group of international writers invited to read at the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow.

    The event was held in a stadium and thousands of people attended. Ragan, who often read to small groups in coffee houses and university classrooms, was thrilled at the sight of so many people gathered to listen to poetry.

    Bob Dylan, as he stood on the stage, however, was rather discomfited. Looking at all the literary greats, including Irish poet Seamus Heaney, he remarked, “I don’t belong here.”

    Of course, he did. And it’s a testament to the strength and influence of his writing that he was invited by President Mikhail Gorbachev to that poetry festival.

    link to poetryfoundation.org

  7. I don’t think there has ever been a more anti-war song sung as bitterly as Masters of War by Dylan. Everybody should listen to it if you haven’t already. Here’s one version. link to youtube.com

  8. Thanks for posting the video!!! I posted it about a year or so ago, I believe on Veteran’s Day, along with a photo of my company’s position, just south of the DMZ in RVN, showing a lot of mud and a rainbow. I thought it represented the quagmire we had gotten ourselves into, and the fact that we never learned, despite the rainbow.

  9. I went to see Mr. Dylan at Massey Hall in Toronto. It would have been in 1964, possibly 1965. First time live in The Six, no records then released. He just came out on the stage with his guitar and harmonica rig and sat on a stool and sang his songs. He sang Mr. Tambourine Man and I swear I have never been in such magical moment before or since. The audience was absolutely stunned. It had not been recorded. Nobody had heard it before. It was simply magical. The only thing vaguely close was Jim Morrison singing Light My Fire at Toronto Pop at Varsity Stadium in 1968. By then, it was an insurrection. Everybody in the audience lit their matches and lighters and state security for a brief anarchic moment disappeared in time.

  10. so it only took 50 f*cking years for the f*cking Nobel committee to figure it out. And they gave Obama the prize for peace. Well, Zimmy doesn’t need it and Obama shouldn’t have gotten it.

  11. Enjoyed the article and pleasantly surprised to see Dylan get the Nobel Prize. Nice try, but riff doesn’t quite match up to Dylan’s words. And (really now!) though women are underpaid compared to men, it’s a bit much to suggest that they are not free.

  12. I guess you’ve never listened to his Infidels album. Very reactionary stuff about how everyone is unfair to Israel and unions are greedy.

    • Hi, Jay. Yes, I know. But I wasn’t talking about that period of his life. I was talking about 1960-66 and the context of his 60s hits, which were progressive. People change.

  13. I’m a bit younger to fully appreciate Bob Dylan. That said his music and lyrics are more meaningful to me than other legendary artists of Bob Dylan’s generation. Phil Och’s though was incredible. His protest songs were inspired, and incredibly well delivered.

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