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How Bob Dylan refused the Box labelled ‘Protest Singer’

The ‘Get Back in Your Box’ Syndrome

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How Bob Dylan refused the Box labelled ‘Protest Singer’

Have you ever had the experience of opening a book at random and finding a sentence or paragraph which is so relevant to you in that moment that it almost appears as if you have been led to it? I’m not saying that you have been led to it; call it coincidence, serendipity or chance but for me none of those labels take away the magic of the experience. I often find a similar thing happening with the themes I discuss in these blog entries. For example, in the lead up to writing the ‘Get back in your box entry, life kept throwing up examples all around me and these formed the kernel to the piece. After posting the entry I thought the ‘case was closed’ on that particular theme but that very night another one of these miraculous exemplars presented itself to me. It is such a strong  case in point that I can’t help sharing it with you.


I’m watching a Martin Scorsese documentary about Bob Dylan; what a fascinating piece of social history it turns out to be! Protest songs have a rich history in American folk music and folk singers have an almost mythical image - at times when the world is quietly hoping for change, he or she (remember Joan Baez?) has the nerve to stand on a stage and sing out against injustice. In the forties Woody Guthrie played this role to perfection; his song "This land is your land" is a tribute to the working class and comments on the distribution of wealth and power in America. By the early sixties Guthrie had seemingly passed on the mantle to a young prodigy from Minnesota who had visited him on his sickbed. Dylan (for it was he) soon become the new idol of the Folk movement - he hadn’t asked to be but the sort of music and lyrics which poured out of him made him the ideal person for the job. His songs seemed to speak for the new generation: the Protest movement had found their perfect new figurehead. Or had they? One contemporary folkie gave a hint that Dylan was not quite the candidate which they were hoping for. The sixties, were of course, a time of great social upheaval where protest marches and student sit ins demonstrating about the Vietnam War were commonplace. This man noted that Dylan was never really part of that protest scene; he didn’t even think Mr Zimmerman went on any marches. (Although he was at the biggest one of all - the 1963 march on Washington where he played a song before Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Quite a gig!)


This schism between what the protest movement wanted Dylan to be and what he was famously came to a head in 1963 during his performance at the Newport Folk Festival. As he switched from acoustic to electric guitar and a harder, rockier sound the cheers in the audience turned to boos - the Folk Messiah had fallen from grace. By playing what they saw as more superficial and commercial electric music, the folkies felt that Dylan was selling out. This chorus of disapproval continued on subsequent tours in England; at gig after gig he was met with more boos and the folkies’ deep feeling of betrayal by their hero was summed up when someone in the crowd shouted ‘JUDAS!’ It was remarkable to see how, despite what was obviously a very difficult situation, Dylan just kept on playing regardless. He was bigger than the expectations which were projected on to him; he refused to get back into the box which they had created for him.


When you think about it Dylan had amazing strength: these were his fans, for all he knew he was committing career suicide by plugging in that Fender Telecaster each night. He didn’t sell out at all; in fact if he had just kept feeding his fan’s expectations of him, that would have been selling out because that would have been betraying the call of his artistic muse!


I love the way life and art keeps moving on; Woody Guthrie had the slogan ‘This machine kills fascists.’ written on his guitar - perhaps Dylan should have had ‘this machine upsets folkies’ on his!


13th June 2011

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