Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s Place In 1960s American Culture

BOB DYLAN at Mayfair Hotel London 3 May 1966

To celebrate Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick republishes this 2006 university paper from his American History course at the Australian National University. From memory, he received a high range Distinction — let’s say something like 78 or 79, but the professor was a hard marker — for this piece.

Place one of these literary/cultural figures (Bob Dylan) in his historical and literary context. What can their major works of the 1960s tell us about the Unites States during the decade? Of what use are his works as historical sources?

That which characterises the 1960s in America, the war in Vietnam, the war on poverty, the war between black and white, hippie culture, freedom and enslavement, Kennedy in Dallas, Kennedy in LA, King in Memphis, X in New York: death, confusion, war. That which characterises the 1960s in America is fabled and romantic. It is the source of heartache for those that fell and jubilation for those that triumphed. It was a decade that was itself a world; parted from the sanguine era of World War II and in opposition to the consumer-based era of excess that permeated the 1980s. The prolific songwriting of Bob Dylan – nine albums in ten years – acts now as a time capsule for a decade which so resembles Dylan’s music. The changing moods, the eclectic subject matter, the rejection of authority. The humour, the irony, the confusion. This paper will look at the music of Bob Dylan in direct relation to the American 60s. Due to the great volume of work Dylan has produced, only those pieces produced during the 1960s will be considered. Although much of Dylan’s work during the later decades reflect on the 1960s, in order to thoroughly assess Dylan as an historical source of the 1960s, such a constraint must be made. The aim of this paper is to highlight the informative aspects of Dylan’s music in respects to living in America during the 1960s. In addition to this, this paper will show Bob Dylan’s 1960s discography to be of great value as historical sources to a student of the era.

The success of Bob Dylan as a musician during the 1960s is complex to assess. He is credited with redefining an entire genre of popular music. He introduced the electric guitar to folk music, became the first truly popular singer to use a non-conventional, raspy voice. His music oscillated between dream-like, stream of consciousness rambling to transparent narrative to traditional love songs. During the 1960s he used drugs, crashed a motorcycle, had six Top Ten albums and was completely ignored by the Grammy Awards.[1] He was popular, but not in the highest stratosphere of music performers of the day. There was still the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinartra dominating the upper echelon. Bob Dylan, however, filled a void in the American conscience. A young, unkempt Jewish boy from Minnesota’s working class Duluth area, Dylan released the first of his nine albums from the 60s at only twenty years old. A year later Dylan released his first album of wholly original material. Established now as a minor singer, although well known in undergraduate and folk circles, Dylan tackled controversial issues such as race relations (Blowin’ In The Wind {1963}) and the Cold War (Talkin’ World War III Blues {1963}).[2] The immediacy of Dylan’s focus falling on topical issues is what characterises his music as commentary documents on the decade. Placed alongside such political musings were drug ballads and love odes, allowing the listener to not only hear Dylan’s thoughts on the issues facing American life, but also to learn more of the artist proper and, through this, be better judges of his opinions. By the end of the decade and into the 1970s Bob Dylan was a true superstar of commercial music. In 2006 Rolling Stone Magazine placed five of Bob Dylan’s albums in their Top 100 of all time[3] and in 1999 Britain’s BBC 4 named him the ninth most influential musician of all time – just behind Mozart and ahead of Beethoven.[4] From this one can see the enormous impact Bob Dylan had as a musician during the 1960s, his peak production period. The reflection of his commercial success in more critical polls decades later show his work to not only to be musically significant, but also culturally important.

The music, as separate from the lyrics, of Bob Dylan during the 1960s illustrates the confusion and distortion of the decade. Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 (1966) is a mash of guitars and storm sound effects, signifying the ominous storm cloud the  United States government represents to minorities and those facing the Draft. The fast paced, almost rap-like, movement of Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) highlights the speed at which 1960s American embraced capitalism. Overlaid on these swift chords are Dylan’s impressions of life in corporate America and the role of Government in both enforcing this lifestyle and, conversely, making it difficult for ordinary citizens to survive it. Dylan writes: “The man…In the pig pen wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.”[5] The song’s powerful anti-government rhetoric was harnessed by the radical left, with the Weathermen taking their name from Dylan’s ironic reference to the role of authority as a purveyor of knowledge: “You don’t need a weather man/To know which way the wind blows.”[6] The unsubtle use of distinct musical sounds to convey meaning is countered, however, by Dylan’s use of more abstract and subconscious stylings. The slow, mournful rhythm of The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) recalls union-organised picket songs in its movement. This corresponds with the theme of the song, that of gradual but monumental generational change in the post-Baby Boomer era in America. The opening, conciliatory line, “Come gather ‘round people,”[7] is a laconic misnomer for the major purpose of the song. Dylan does not so much want the antipodean generations narrowed, but the older, more conservative, and in Dylan’s mind, out of touch, generations, characterised as “senators, congressman…mothers and fathers,”[8] to relinquish their control over the youth generation so that they might become more influential. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is an example of Dylan’s complex representation of a serious cultural facet arising in the 1960s. The new vocal generation of youths were not content to be led by the hollow crown; they wanted to protest the Vietnam War, defend the rights of African Americans and experience life through the guise of illicit drugs (Thomas Pynchon would later amalgamate this tribe into a rock band named The Paranoids).[9] The importance of these three examples is the way Dylan styled his music, not just his lyrics, to reflect the decade. Turbulent as Subterranean Homesick Blues, disjointed as Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35, iconoclastic as The Times They Are A-Changin’.

A major focus of Dylan’s lyrics during the 1960s was on the relationship between white and black Americans and the government. Dylan was convinced that the differences between the two predominant races in America were upheld by a government that was not wholly committed to racial equality and coalescence. Bob Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ features a number of tracks that highlight this concern. In Only A Pawn In Their Game (1964), Dylan discourages the persecution of Southern whites for the abject state of living for African Americans. He absolves the killer of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, declaring that, although a man had stalked a murdered Evers in a cold-blooded and distant fashion, his actions were just products of a wider socio-governmental agenda to maintain the imbalance between black and white Americans in the South. The title refers to White Racists not acting of their own volition, but at the whim of higher and more powerful system. Dylan also alludes to the racial tension in the south as a derivative of class conflict (“But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool”).[10] Here Dylan is referring to the origins of the legislative slave acts, passed in the late 17th and early 18th Century. Brought on by the encroachment of black workers’ class status to that of low class whites, the Virginia assembly passed a series of motions, most importantly a 1705 statute, relegating blacks, as with other minorities, to that of real estate.[11] The issue of class in the struggle for civil rights is further emphasised in Dylan’s narrative The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964). Without referring to the race of either major player in the factional account, Dylan eulogises the murder of a servant worker as a victory for wealth and high class over the United States justice system. This is evidenced in Dylan’s primary descriptions of Carroll and her assailant William Zanzinger. Carroll, Dylan introduces, as a “maid of the kitchen;”[12] Zanzinger “…at twenty four years/Owns a tobacco farm.”[13] This obverse dichotomy, coupled with the absence of racial descriptions, highlights Dylan’s observation that the battle for civil rights is as much a battle for class equality as it was a war on prejudice. This is a key element in understanding the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The militant civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, understood this facet of the battle. Malcolm X wanted to separate the races, forming a nation of African Americans within the United States. He eschewed the involvement of white Americans and sought to improve the station of African Americans by making the black American population independently self-sufficient.[14] The higher complexity of the civil rights campaign, that which included class conflict, was not fully realised by the undergraduate sympathisers who, whilst well-meaning, could not solve the greater issue of African Americans’ low economic state simply by helping them to enrol while on university holidays. This is the inherent importance of Dylan’s work during the 1960s; he is able to elucidate complex and controversial social issues at a level which was popular to the new generation of Americans.

The great impact of Bob Dylan’s music for the student of the 1960s in America is in his eclectic subject matter. Whereas the musicians dominating the pop charts were content to sing of more clichéd topic, such as love or base desires, Dylan complemented his more romantic songs with a tome of sharp, educational odes to the decade he was experiencing. The starkest revelation one can learn from Dylan’s music is that the 1960s was a decade of great social upheaval. Within the music industry itself Dylan was a figurehead of change. Prior to the 1960s very few musicians wrote their own music, with even Beatles albums such as Please Please Me (1963) and With The Beatles (1963) containing covers for the US market. The independence Dylan experienced as a musician symbolises the new independence the youths of America were experiencing. In Like A Rolling Stone (1965), Dylan sings of the fall from grace of a middle class girl into street living due to drug addiction. Dylan, however, is not overly sympathetic with his subject matter. He understands that the protagonist in the narrative has chosen this life as an escape from the planned life pattern that existed for such women at the time.[15] The broader Chimes of Freedom (1964) deals with a large section of the community that Dylan sees as still fighting for freedom in the United States. Among those receiving Dylan’s support are the pacifists, “the warriors whose strength is not to fight.”[16] Here Dylan rejects the gung ho nationalistic mindset that defended the United States during WWII; refusing to apply this attitude to the new conflict with Communism. Dylan further supports the iconic symbol of immorality in a Christian society, lending his support to “the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled {sic} prostitute.”[17] This is a strong reproof of key values associated with American idealism. That Dylan could be so stinging in his critique of American ideology whilst still only 23 years old highlights the newfound expressionism of American youth during the 1960s. Dylan, though young, was wistful in his predictions for the unfortunate he was propping: the chimes of freedom he hears ringing are just lighting flashes during a storm that doesn’t appear to end.

Towards the end of the 1960s Dylan’s subject matter began to move away from the broader social issues, such as the Cold War and civil rights, and towards more domestic problems that he saw in America. Released in 1967, John Wesley Harding includes a number of tracks condemning the overly capitalistic nature of post-McCarthy era America. As I Went Out This Morning is a criticism of new slavery, with the female character enchained by her overbearing male partner. The great irony of this condition is in the woman’s begging of Dylan to flee to freedom in the south. Dylan sees women in the North as housewives chained to the whim of their husbands.[18] He is highly critical of the ambitious young male, both as a provider and as a fellow citizen. I Am A Lonesome Hobo is a cautionary tale of lost fortune, with the protagonist having fallen to despair from a life of “bribery, blackmail and deceit.”[19] The converse of such a life, that of honesty and hard work, is also considered a path to despair, with Dylan writing of such futility in Dear Landlord. Written as a letter, the lyrics of this song tell of the inability of the common American worker to meet the debts of necessity in a society that has completely rejected socialist ideals.[20] The titling of this album is perverse. The historical John Wesley Hardin[21] was a noted killer throughout Texas during the second half of the 19th Century. The University of Texas estimates that during his career as a criminal Hardin murdered at least 30 people.[22] Dylan, however, eulogises Hardin, claiming he was a Robin Hood-esque bandit, one that was a “friend to the poor”[23] and “always known/To lend a helping hand.”[24] By supporting Hardin’s brutality in defence of the meek, Dylan is asserting that the then-destitute were in need of a lawless figure who could stand up for society’s worst in order to deliver them from their suffering. It is clear from the discussed tracks on John Wesley Harding that Dylan does not consider the United States government capable of such a task.

The usefulness of Bob Dylan’s music as an historical source is intertwined in the broader question of Dylan’s relevance to the 1960s. For many popular recording artists of the era it is difficult to defend their major works as historical sources. This is due either to the limited scope of their works’ subject matter or the limited influence these figures had on the people, and country, around them. The great range of issues covered in Dylan’s music, as evidenced by the aforementioned discussion, overcomes the first qualifier. His influence on the people around him, and, subsequently, the decade itself is more difficult to quantify. For his 60th Birthday, Rolling Stone magazine published a collection of high praise from his peers of the era and subsequent decades. Stars of the 1960s music industry such as Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel), Joni Mitchell and Robbie Robertson (of The Band) all speak of Dylan as a revolutionary musical figure.[25] Robertson recalls Dylan’s courage and bravado not through the singing of highly charged protest songs at demonstrations, but with an anecdote from a 1965 tour of France. At this concert Dylan draped a United States’ flag across the back of stage, the reasoning being “Hell…this should really piss the French off.”[26] It was this combination of astute music and social temerity that imports Dylan as a premier cultural figure of the 1960s. His influence in other dimensions is also tangible. Billboard Magazine documents Dylan’s commercial success, with albums from the 1960s reaching #2 (John Wesley Harding; 1968[27]), #3 (Highway 61 Revisited; 1965 and Nashville Skyline; 1969) and #6 (Bringing It All Back Home; 1965) on the official sales chart.[28] An even greater reflection of his tremendous cultural importance to the 1960s can be seen in Jimi Hendrix’ stirring cover of Dylan’s anti-slavery piece All Along The Watchtower at Woodstock in 1969. Whilst the more militant Civil Rights leaders eschewed the presence of white people in their campaign, Hendrix’ performance of this then topical track endorses Dylan’s songwriting from within the African American community. It is this multi-layered largesse, from within the industry, from the American marketplace and from those Dylan is writing about, that support the argument that Dylan’s music, at a qualitative level, is of great use as an historical source.

This paper has looked at the major works of Bob Dylan during the 1960s. Close analysis has been given to his music and lyric, with particular reference to his songs that deal specifically with challenges facing the United States during this decade. The result of this exegesis was definitive evidence of Dylan’s crucial role as a cultural figure during the 1960s. The commercial and critical success that Dylan experienced highlights the broad acceptance his music, and vicariously his ideals, received during the period. It is this combination of topical and controversial subject matter and wider social relevance that import Dylan’s major works of the 1960s as valuable historical sources for a student of 1960s America.


[1], 2006. Bob Dylan: Billboard Albums [online]. United States, VNU eMedia, Inc. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[2] DYLAN, B., 1962-1969. Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological [online]. United States, Special Rider Music/Dwarf Music. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[3] Rolling Stone, 2006. The RS 500 Greatest Albums of All Time [online]. United States, RealNetworks, Inc. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[4] WEBB, M., 1999. How Robbie Headed Amadeus in the Race to be Music’s Man of the Millennium [online]. United Kingdom, Guardian Newspaper Limited. Available from:,2763,196732,00.html [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[5] Dylan, Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] PYNCHON, T., 1967. The Crying of Lot 49. Great Britain: Bookmarque Ltd, p.17.

[10] Dylan, Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological.

[11] RUSSELL, T.D., 2006. American Legal History – Russell: William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being A Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, (New York: R & W & G. Bartow, 1823). VOLUME I. [online]. United States, University of Denver. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[12] Dylan, Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological.

[13] Ibid.

[14] LEVY, P.B. (ed.), 1992. Documentary History of the Civil Rights Movement. United States: Greenwood Press.

[15] Dylan, Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The University of Texas spells Hardin’s surname without the ‘g’ at the end. There is not doubt, however, that this is the man to whom Dylan refers, as integral parts of the historical Hardin’s life are recounted in John Wesley Harding (song).

[22] METZ, L.C., 2001. Hardin, John Wesley (1853-1859) [online]. United States, The University of Texas at Houston. Available from: [Accessed 6 May 2006].

[23] Dylan, Bob Dylan Songs: By Album – Chronological

[24] Ibid.

[25] COTT, J., 2001. Happy Birthday Bob: An Appreciation of Dylan at 60. Rolling Stone [online], (870).

[26] Ibid.

[27] The dates furnished here refer to when the album reached its highest position on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, not the year of release.

[28], Bob Dylan: Billboard Albums

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