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Bob Dylan's early musical inspirations

1. Music and Dance. People have always expressed themselves by physically reacting to music, tapping their feet, dancing, banging into each other in a mosh pit, etc. The choice of movement can often reflect social attitudes and changes. For instance, in the Depression Era, people chose to dance in subdued styles rather than perform the exuberant Charleston of the Jazz Age. Looking at dance from 1950 to today, choose two forms of physical expression to music and, comparing and contrasting the ways of movement, analyze the social attitudes reflected and changes in society. You may choose concurrent styles (disco and the mosh pit) or styles from different eras (the Twist and any of the Hip Hop styles).

2. The Relevance of Style: Many new variations of rock 'n' roll, such as punk, acid rock, southern rock, heavy metal and grunge, found audiences in the later years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. Select a style of rock (any style, including those noted above) and—using evidence from the songs, the videos, the dress and social behavior of the band and their fans and research as necessary to support your observations—discuss the relevance of the style to the social and political changes of the era.

3. Race and Gender: Listen to Beyoncé Knowles album Lemonade, watch the videos and read several thoughtful, critical analyses of her work. (You may use the suggested sources in the Women and Music discussion). Did the album challenge gender and racial norms, or did it also recall previous male-driven images of femininity and glamour?

4. Protester or Poet: Bob Dylan recently was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. In his career, he wrote many anthems of social protest: "Blowin in the Wind," "Masters of War," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Oxford Town," "Hurricane." Two of his early albums, Freewheelin' (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964) are almost entire albums of social protest. As more young people sang his songs of rebellion, though, Dylan announced that social protest songs were worthless: "Messages from Western Union" was how he disparaged them. The songs in his later albums were still poetic, significant and full of social commentary, but they were not about social causes; they were about people and the lives they live. Using his songs, relevant research and comparisons with other artists to support your answer, discuss which Dylan had greater social impact—the social protester or the personal poet.

5. Marketing Now and Then: Compare the marketing of the emerging stars from different eras, ex., the emergence of Frank Sinatra with that of Justin Bieber or that of Kurt Cobain. If you prefer, you may compare the emergence of any two popular musicians from two different eras in American music, for example, The Andrew Sisters and Lady Gaga. Analyze the technological and/or cultural and/or commercial factors that may have affected their development and popularity.

6. The American Dream: In his 2010 book Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, author Jefferson Cowie analyzes Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the USA (1984) within the context of white working-class identity of the 1980s. He claims it is a complex album which was received as an anthem praising American power and values. Yet he also claims that, underneath its facade, it communicates deep ambiguity about the failure of the American Dream of financial success for the working class. One of the keys to his analysis is viewing the album as a whole and within the bigger context of Springsteen’s work and the socioeconomic developments in America since World War II. Examine the album as a window into understanding these historical and cultural developments in American between World War II and the 1980s. In what ways do you agree and disagree with Cowie? Explain your answer and support it with research.

Bob Dylan's early musical inspirations

One of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Bob Dylan's music, lyrics, and poetry has influenced generations of people for more than five decades and is still today one of the most respected figures of world music and literature at the same time. However, it has always been a controversy whether Bob Dylan is more of a musician or a poet, and to be more precise whether he is a social protester or a personal poet. His lyrics have always been considered to be major literary, social, philosophical and political influences. It has always been difficult to compartmentalize Bob Dylan in one particular section (Harris: 2018). The discussion is going to analyze how Bob Dylan's ideology defied existing conventions and appealed to the youth for a change. Moreover, how his ideas changed from social protest to a more elated theme of human life. His different songs over the years, and how he turned into a music icon and how he established himself as one of the major literary figures of the modern world, justified by his Nobel Prize and Pulitzer prize are the topics that are to be analyzed. Lastly, the above discussion can draw the conclusion about his standpoint in the literary world as to whether he is a protestor or a personal poet.

The beginning of Bob Dylan’s musical career was highly inspired by the music of American folk singer Woody Guthrie (Carpenter: 2017). Inspired by his songs of social justice, Dylan was inspired both politically and musically. Dylan considered him to be the true voice of American spirit and was determined to be his greatest disciple. Following his own determination, Dylan started performing in different shows and concerts and by 1962 his hit single Blowin’ in the Wind was echoing in the voices of the young generation.

Generally labelled as one of the earliest protest songs by Dylan, it poses some serious rhetorical questions to the society. “How many roads must a man walk down (Bobdylan.com: 1962)” poses a simple question about humanity, but the consecutive lines, “Yes, n how many times must the canon ball fly/ Before they’re forever banned (Bobdylan.com: 1962)” poses the real question Dylan wants to ask. However, he refrains from the answer and suggests that the answer is blowing in the wind. The maturity of the answer itself involves the listeners and leaves the solution in their perspective thinking. Similarly, the final stanza poses the most protesting issue about, “Yes n how many deaths will it take till he knows/ That too many people have died (Bobdylan.com: 1962)”. Dylan highlights every inhuman event that has taken so many human lives and again says the answer is blowing in the wind. It is obvious that the listeners are pretty aware of the answer that it was enough and violence should stop, but he wanted them to realize and utter the fact in their own subconscious mind. The voice of the protestor in Dylan, wanted his listeners to utilize their own senses to realize the ills of humanity and its solution (Hunt: 2016). It was interesting to see how a young singer of 21years of age had moved the whole society with just an answer that was blowing in the wind but no one could realize.

Analysis of Dylan's protest songs and their impact on society

By 1963, a new song was premiered, The Times They Are A-Changing, the anthem of the youth which took the generation by storm. The song instilled in the idea of radical change which promised the movement towards a revolution (Seeger: 2018). In the second verse, Dylan sang, “Come writers and critics/ Who prophesize with your pen/ And keep your eyes wide/ The chance won’t come again/ And don’t speak too soon/ For the wheel’s still in spin (Bobdylan.com: 1964)”. It was inspired by the civil rights movements and the transforming American political scenario.

However, the protest songs of Bob Dylan which were his most famous hits came like an overflowing river were composed primarily during a period of 20 months from 1962 to 1963. The American radical traditions were highly influenced by his songs (Scott: 2017). The youth movement of then America which was protesting against continuous wars and violence in different parts of the world were highly influenced by the works of Dylan. His brutal lyrics and hard-hitting statements gave a boost to a generation about the civil rights movements. The most important songs of this time, which influenced a generation are Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Only a Pawn in Their Game, A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall, With God on our Side and Masters of War to name a few (Szatmary: 2014). These songs highlighted issues such as racism, American fundamentalism, military complex and many more aspects of injustice that were prevalent in the American system. These songs criticized the system of the biased politicians who were responsible for all the violence in the world. Bob Dylan was referred to as the voice of the generation and was the 22-year-old youth icon representing millions of people who were frightened to express their views.

There was a sudden change of nature in Dylan in 1964, and he turned away from writing protest songs (Panda). He did not want to be the leader of mass movements or the icon of any revolution. He wanted to a poet, a writer who wanted to write his own feelings. He realized that he himself was not the epitome of righteousness while he was highlighting it in his songs. He felt that his songs sparked the leftist authoritarianism which was against his own ideas (Cott: 2017). The transformation of Dylan from a rebellious youth to a person of maturity paved the path for the poet in him. The search for the unknown escalates his senses to a different level. He understood that limiting himself to the slavery of a particular issue would destroy his authenticity.

Transformation of Dylan's style from social protest to personal poetry

Dylan’s moving away from revolutionary politics and protest issue enhanced his musical genius. It released his poetic flavour and opened his potentials of exploration (Marshall: 2017). The obscurity of his new lyrics was more coherent, imbibed with romantic carnivalesque. The folk tradition and troubadour music of Bob Dylan were transformed into the fusion of rock and roll. Dylan's critics at this point of time had the idea that Dylan had shifted to a private space confining himself into a limited universe, but the master poet was yet to completely move away from politics. Dylan's Maggie’s Farm received a critical review and was booed at concerts but little did they understand that behind the rock n roll ensemble, Dylan highlighted the class structure and the rage of the youth in the fields of uncompromising labour. The social structural system is highlighted as intrusive, false and malicious to the individual’s need for self-determination (McCarron: 2017). To express this idea he sings, “I try my best to be just like I am/ but everybody wants you to be just like them (Bobdylan.com: 1965)”. Similar ideas are reflected in Dylan’s other songs such as Its Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding. Dylan felt that his own thought process is the battleground, where the poet inside him struggled for the search of autonomy from the corruption of the social structure such as greed and hypocrisy. Dylan sings once again, “If my thought-dreams could be seen/ They’d probably put my head in a guillotine (Bobdylan.com: 1965)”.

Bob Dylan is credited with the creation of new poetic traditions with the American music. The troubadour of the American youth fused poetry in the strings of the electric guitar (Evans: 2015). Dylan established the fact that one could be one of the greatest singers without being able to sing and one could create soul-stirring music in spite of being an amateur guitarist. This was the power of Dylan's poetry. His lyrics stood alone as poems representing the free verse, but the addition of music put more life into them as the songs of life. The Nobel Prize Committee and the Pulitzer Prize committee considered his untraditional approach to poetry (MacCabe: 2017).

His lyrics were not just words but poetries which painted dreams in the most surrealistic manner. The use of imagery and surrealism created multi-dimensional layers of meaning in Dylan's songs. The example of this type of imagery can be observed in Dylan’s most iconic song Like a Rolling Stone which is basically a song about a failed romance. However, Dylan shifts entirely to something else when he sings, “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat (Bobdylan.com: 1965)” and then again returns to the romantic setup, “Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at (Bobdylan.com: 1965)”.

Exploring Dylan's literary genius and poetic traditions

Conclusion: 

Bob Dylan has been one of the major influences in the world of music, weaving poetry in different styles. The emergence as a protestor and then the transformation to a poet is what defines the musical career of Bob Dylan. However, Bob Dylan's intelligence cannot be compartmentalized in a single genre of musical lyrics. His initial songs might reflect his protests and the voice of revolution but his later songs were an amalgamation of protest and poetry. The distinct surrealism and the infused romance represented the troubadour that was always confined in him. His ideas found a new dimension once it found freedom from the shackles of protest. However, he never moved away from protest but found a new way to transform his signature folk form into rock n roll. It has always been difficult to determine whether he is a protestor poet or a personal poet, but his passionate lyrics and surrealistic imagery let him express his protests in his personal artistic form.

Reference:

Bobdylan.com. "Blowin’ In The Wind | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Bobdylan.Com, 1962, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/blowin-wind/. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Bobdylan.com. "It’S Alright, Ma (I’M Only Bleeding) | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Bobdylan.Com, 1965, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/its-alright-ma-im-only-bleeding/. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Bobdylan.com. "Like A Rolling Stone | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Bobdylan.Com, 1965, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/rolling-stone/. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Bobdylan.com. "Maggie’S Farm | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Bobdylan.Com, 1965, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/maggies-farm/. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Bobdylan.com. "The Times They Are A-Changin’ | The Official Bob Dylan Site". Bobdylan.Com, 1964, https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/times-they-are-changin/. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Carpenter, Damian A. Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and American Folk Outlaw Performance. Routledge, 2017.

Cott, Jonathan, ed. Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Evans, Frederick. "Philosophizing Rock Performance: Dylan, Hendrix, Bowie." The Bulletin of the Society for American Music 41.1 (2015): 20.

Harris, John. "The Chimes of Freedom: Bob Dylan, Epigrammatic Validity, and Alternative Facts." Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 27.1 (2018): 14-26.

Hunt, Kevin J. "Rona Cran, Collage in Twentieth-Century Art, Literature, and Culture: Joseph Cornell, William Burroughs, Frank O'Hara, and Bob Dylan (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2014,£ 65.00). Pp. 258. ISBN 978 1 4724 3096 0." Journal of American Studies 50.02 (2016): 489-490.

MacCabe, Colin. "Dylan's Nobel: a personal appreciation." Critical Quarterly 59.1 (2017): 142-145.

Marshall, Lee. "Bob Dylan: Newport Folk Festival, July 25, 1965 1." Performance and popular music. Routledge, 2017. 16-27.

McCarron, Andrew. Light Come Shining: The Transformations of Bob Dylan. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Panda, Ujjwal Kr. "Sense of Place: A Humanistic Geographical Approach to the Themes of Place, Memory and Displacement in Bob Dylan’s Songs." (2016).

Scott, Carl Eric. "What Bob Dylan Means to Literature, and to Song." Modern Age (2017).

Seeger, Anthony. "Music of Struggle and Protest in the 20th Century." Springer Handbook of Systematic Musicology. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2018. 1029-1042.

Szatmary, David P., and Reebee Garofalo. Rockin' in Time. Pearson, 2014.

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