The Poetry of Protest: Bob Dylan

Nonostante abbia all’attivo ben trentanove album e un premio Nobel per la letteratura, una delle maggiori icone culturali statunitensi non ha intenzione di smettere dopo tre decenni di tour non-stop.

Molly Malcolm

Speaker (American accent)

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Bob Dylan

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Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in 1941, and raised in the northern mining town of Hibbing near the Canadian border, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan transformed the political protest chant into personalised poetic anthems for the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movement. The descendent of Jewish immigrants from present-day Lithuania and the Ukraine, the young Dylan was inspired by the adventurous Beatnik poets and writers of the 1950s and ran away from home many times as a teenager, travelling as far as New Mexico and California. 


Dylan learnt to play the harmonica and the autoharp and by fifteen had written his first song, a ballad dedicated to Brigitte Bardot. He played in rock bands at school and though, contrary to popular belief, his choice of name change had nothing to do with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, he did love poetry and found rock lyrics superficial. Musical influences Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie led him to develop his own more profound storytelling style of folk music instead. 


In the early 1960s, Dylan dropped out of college and hitchhiked to New York where he played gigs in Greenwich Village. His urgent vocals attracted attention. One musician described him as like “a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire.” Dylan’s physical image was just as intriguing, with his scruffy hair and serious expression. After a positive review in The New York Times, he signed with Columbia Records. His debut album “Bob Dylan” (1962) and its follow up “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963) excited other major figures in folk, notably Joan Baez and the group Peter, Paul and Mary, who both covered Dylan’s track Blowin’ in the Wind.  


Dylan’s next album “The Times They Are a-Changin” (1964) cemented his status as a figurehead of the growing counterculture. In the mid 1960s, Dylan brought electric guitars into a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Fans booed and Dylan stormed off stage. Yet his subsequent half-acoustic, half-electric albums “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965) and “Blonde on Blonde” (1966) were massive hits. 


Dylan then began producing more personal music based on his own life experiences, although love songs such as It Ain’t Me Babe, describing the failure to live up to another’s standards, were still political. The song addressed Dylan’s discomfort with being labelled as a spokesperson for a generation; after an exhausting tour in the UK he had a motorcycle accident that caused him to drop out of the music scene completely for several years.


Dylan’s later work saw experiments in style that were to meet with varying levels of success. Early 1970s albums were disappointments to fans, though his album “Desire” (1976) —which included the song Hurricane which addressed racism and police brutality— was acclaimed. Dylan re-emerged in the 1980s as a Christian expressing his spirituality with the album “Slow Train Coming”, but then becoming associated with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. When asked about his beliefs, he responded, “There’s no way you’re gonna convince me this is all there is to it.” 


Since the late 1980s, Bob Dylan has toured consistently. Even with thirty-nine albums released, he still needs more than music. Dylan has been active as a painter, actor and scriptwriter. He produced a poetry collection, Tarantula (1971), and has written an autobiography, Chronicles (2004). Dylan is also the object of much literary and musical analysis. He is the subject of the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) and Martin Scorsese’s semi-fictional documentary Rolling Thunder Revue (2019). He famously won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

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