What Are the Major Themes in Bob Dylan’s Songs? Why Did He Write on These Themes?
Bob Dylan is one of the most successful musicians of all time, judging by the popularity and the amounts of records that have been sold. Of course, it is impossible to ascribe one’s name in history without having something special that differentiates the artist from others, and Bob Dylan has the “feature” that has massively contributed to his success. During his childhood, Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman until 1962) has encountered injustice related to racism and ignorance from the government; his ancestors were Jews. This way, highlighting injustice and pointless violence in the world has become one of the most prominent themes in Dylan’s songs.
War and Violence
One of the most obvious themes in Bob Dylan’s songs is his anti-war, pacifist, peaceful approach to the global culture. The career of the musician has started in the 1960s, so Dylan has lived through the times when America has been stuck in a pointless war in Vietnam as well as in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. His songs were often accepted as unofficial anthems of Civil Rights movements and other global activities that supported peace. The brightest example of a direct anti-war statement is a line from the song “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963): “How many times can a cannonball fly…before they are forever banned?” (Dylan, Bob), which references deaths from political reasons, executed by weaponry and wars. His other song, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” also has lines that support Dylan’s anti-war position:
“Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door” (Dylan, Bob).
This song has multiple possible interpretations which all lead to one conclusion: war is pointless, regular soldiers are tired and afraid of it. The feel of “knockin’ on heaven’s door” relates to the constant expectation of death from a soldiers’ perspective. The theme of pacifism takes a special place in Dylan’s songs, as the government purely controls wars with no people’s incentive behind them. The decisions of the few that harm the lives of the millions if not billions are unjustifiable and cannot be forgiven. Anti-war thoughts the musician had not only involved saying “war is bad,” but describing the horrors of war on the lowest levels, the levels of close combat and separation from families. It is much stronger to describe the ruined lives of the soldiers and their emotions to inflict changes upon the society, and Dylan had shown a great level of expertise and empathy when he wrote his pacifist-oriented songs.
Racism and Inequality
The theme of racism has also drawn Bob Dylan’s attention, inspiring him to highlight the problems faced by African Americans and other minorities in the United States as well as in the rest of the world. The song “Oxford Town” contains the line: “He went to Oxford Town / Guns, and clubs followed him down / All because his face was brown,” which is an obvious reference to the problematic state of the American society regarding the acceptance of the minorities. Other pieces like “Hurricane,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and other songs touch the problem of racism in general as well as highlight the separate implications of injustice towards the minorities. Dylan has often pointed out that skin color plays a crucial role in reaching success in America, which can be seen in one of his interviews:
“There’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground” (Sutton, Mark). The phrase has emphasized the race and class segregation in the society, which leads to the other major topic in his songs.
Politics and Governments
Politics have always been an object of criticism for the musician because he thinks they possess the power to fix every problem and make the world a better place, yet they keep Status Quo and sometimes even stimulate the disasters that make millions of lives miserable. In the song “With God on Our Side,” Dylan has asked a question “Was God on our side?” referencing to Vietnam war and questioning the actions of politics that held power during the conflict. The roots of all the evil things that happen in the society, from Bob Dylan’s perspective, come from the heads of nations, the politics. The more broad criticism of social problems, of course, involves describing the problematic environment, but the themes can be concluded to criticize the politics.
The Reasons and the Background for Dylan’s Art
The reasons why Dylan has decided to orient at social problems lay in his artistic nature that demands expression of the ideas into the world. The childhood of the artist was surrounded with various problems and difficulties that come from the social problems that were caused by the poor decisions of the government, which might be the decisive factor that determined the vector of his musical career. The environment Dylan has grown in as well as the artistic nature he has been given answers the question “Why did Bob Dylan choose to write songs that emphasize the social problems?” It was unusual for a white person to put such a strong emphasis on the problems that did not touch this person directly, but Dylan has gone beyond the struggles of the Jewish people, so he had the general idea how every minority feels. In fact, he did not divide people into groups, he followed the Bible in this sense, implying that every living being is equal and deserves the same treatment. As for the situation in the middle of 1960-s through the 1980s, when the career of Dylan was at its peak, equal treatment of everyone was a far dream. Given the expressive nature of the musician, things like all-out inequality and bloody decisions of the politics could not escape his lense.
As it could be seen, Bob Dylan is one of the brightest representatives of the counterculture. Many have called him “the greatest protest musicians of all time,” which is a statement that has all the reasons to be true. Wars, racism, the lawlessness of the politicians, class segregation, are the themes that are widely known as “the problems of the XX-XXI centuries,” partially due to the efforts of the musicians such as Bob Dylan. Civil Rights movements and changes that happened in the United States have been pushed further under the anthems written by the musician, making the world a better place.
Dylan, Bob. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” Columbia Records, New York City, 1973.
Dylan, Bob. “Blowin’ In The Wind.” Columbia Records, New York, 1963.
SUTTON, MARK. “’ROADMAPS FOR THE SOUL’ HISTORY AND CARTOGRAPHY IN BOB DYLAN’S EARLY SONGS.” Australasian Journal of American Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009, pp. 17–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41054119.
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