Entertainment

My Analysis of Bob Dylan

NOTE: This was a school project, but I just thought it would be fun to share on here for anyone who’s interested


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Like many artists throughout history, Bob Dylan had something to say about the world, and many of his folk songs are his responses to the ubiquitous change around him.  Often regarded as one of the greatest lyrical songwriters of the 20th century, Dylan creates long lasting works that resonate with audiences throughout time.  Though his musical style is derived from folk songs and ballads from decades ago, his words emanate from his heart.  The rhythmic style of the guitar strums add weight to each impactful lyric, and the results of this fusion are beautiful productions that have influenced so many writers in the last fifty years.  Dylan’s works are so well regarded that he won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature for his unparalleled addition to realm of music.  Though many parts of his life were shrouded in secrecy, Dylan remains a remarkable singer-songwriter of modern times, one who has captured the imagination of millions for nearly half a century of fame.  His wide body of work shows that passive observations and peaceful acts of resistance are the best ways to create change in society.

Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941 in Minnesota.  He spent most of his childhood listening to early country, blues, and rock and roll.  During his high school years, he performed covers of some of the most famous artists of the time including Elvis Presley.  After his high school, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota to study folk and rock and roll.  That’s when he figured that rock and roll lacked meaningful lyrics, and folk lacked the lightheartedness of rock.  Zimmerman believed that he could fill in the gaps, and he began to perform songs that he wrote at local coffee shops under the pseudonym “Bob Dylan.”  He got the last name “Dylan” from the name “Dillon,” which was the name of the poet Dillon Thomas.  He justified his name change by claiming that America is the land of the free.  This notion of a free land is what gave rise to Dylan’s lyrics as they were predominantly about freedom, peace, and prosperity.

After reaching a small level of popularity during his first year at college, Dylan dropped out to move to New York so that he could meet his idol, Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie was known for his numerous ballads about traditional and political ideologies, and Dylan was inspired by the idea of writing songs to send impactful messages.  After meeting Guthrie in 1961, Dylan started the discography that would change the face of music.  During the year of 1961, Dylan played at clubs throughout New York and received critical praise from famous publications such as The New York Times.  He became known for his ability to sing and play both the guitar and harmonica.

In 1962, Robert Allen Zimmerman legally changed his name to Robert Dylan.  This year was arguably one of his most productive years since this was when he wrote famous songs like Blowin in the Wind.  He also released his first album, which was appropriately called “Bob Dylan.”  Though the album itself didn’t sell very well (it only sold 5000 copies in its first year), the product made enough to break even, which inspired Dylan to keep going forward.  Along with releasing his first album, Dylan signed his first management contract with Albert Grossman, who later became the manager of many other famous folk musicians.

In 1963, Dylan released his second album, which was titled “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”  Around this time, he became well known in the country for both his singing and songwriting skills.  Bob Dylan also became known for his protest songs, which blew up amidst political controversy.  Given his relevant songs pertaining to important matters around the world, Dylan began to establish himself as the musical voice of his generation.  He spoke specifically to his contemporaries and those younger than him as he believed if the world was to change, the future adults would be the ones to change it.  He knew what the people truly felt about important topics, and he spoke to each and every one of those people.  By this time, Robert Zimmerman was a shadow of the now famous “Bob Dylan,” which was really a costume.  In this sense, the concept of Bob Dylan will live forever since it isn’t a physical, perishable object.  Zimmerman expresses himself through the notion of Dylan, and that’s what makes Bob Dylan live beyond his own generation.

Dylan has proven through his body of work that passive resistance will almost be the solution to major problems.  Through his works like “The Times They Are a Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan has tried his best to promote peace.

Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” is a classic, timeless work of art that plays as an anthem for change.  Inspired by Irish and Scottish ballads, the universal, message-filled lyrics are coupled with great folk music in the background.  The song makes me think about how those who choose stay in the past must keep up because times are changing.

The song opens with a harmonica and guitar playing the melody.  Though this might not be what Dylan intended, I interpreted it as a patriotic tone on top the of the classic folk sounds. The first stanza perfectly sums up what the song is all about.  As Dylan asks the people of the world to “admit that the waters around [them] have grown,” he means that change has arrived.  He says that if people don’t accept and embrace change, they’ll drown in the past.  It’s interesting to note that this was written in 1964 considering the tension between the past and the present.  At the time, the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak and anti-war sentiments in the midst of Cold War tensions were going strong.  I think Bob Dylan is trying to show that with all this call for change, those who wish to maintain the culture of the past will eventually fall because the new movements are growing at a fast rate.

The folk atmosphere provides a simple rhythm that Dylan repeats in the second stanza, but he shifts his attention from everyday people to writers and journalists.  He calls for those who prophesize with their pens to take careful note of change for when the times are changing, you never know what can happen.  Since the “wheel’s still in spin,” meaning that a lot change is still happening, Dylan explains that “the loser now will be later to win” so this is the time for journalists and writers to watch the world with sharper eyes.  This is a universal idea that applies to journalism, and we see it every day.  Surprising events happen all the time and modern journalists should try their best to foresee them since once they happen, time cannot be reversed.

The third stanza focuses on politicians, who are tasked with answering to the will of the people.  As Dylan points out, unfortunately, many senators and congressmen only work in their own best interests.  When the people demand change, Dylan points out that the congressmen cannot “stand in the doorway” or “block up the hall.”  Though I think the opening stanza is the best one, this one comes in a close second because of how truth-revealing it is.  Bob Dylan shows that the stalling politicians will ultimately be the ones who lose in the end because the demand for change (the raging battle outside as Dylan puts it) near the doors of Capitol building will eventually overpower even the strongest of politicians.

The last group of people that Dylan addresses consists of parents.  In the fourth stanza, he reminds parents that the children are the future.  Since times are changing, parents don’t really have a say in criticizing what they don’t understand.  He says that parents should not attempt to send their children on the path of the dusty, aging old road for their lives are unpaved.  It’s the sons and daughters who must forge the new road, and if parents don’t want to help, Dylan argues that they should “get out.”  This is Dylan’s stance on cultural change.  It’s controversial due to the argument that parents want what’s best for their children and sometimes their “best” is different from that of the children.  Though it’s difficult to see where the line is drawn, I would interpret Dylan’s lyrics as applicable to only the parents who don’t want their children to make their own lives.  For that reason, I wholeheartedly agree with him.  Parents who hinder the decision making processes of their children really stand in the way of the future.  Every child has dreams and aspirations, and every time that a parent stands directly in the way of a dream, the future grows less bright.  I know it’s not a popular opinion among parents since many dreams are farfetched and risky, but true greatness often comes from taking risks.

The last stanza shows the universal and perpetual nature of change.  Dylan notes that the change of the present will soon be the past.  All the things he said earlier will soon apply to what we know as the present.  It’s weird to think about life as this fast, linear movement of time, but it is.  Though I’m young now, I’ll be old soon and the thing that will keep me going is change.  If I don’t embrace change at all stages of life, I too will “sink like a stone.”  Dylan poses this existential question of accepting change to everyone.

In my opinion, “The Times They Are A Changin’” is the best Bob Dylan song, and it’s one of my favorite songs ever because of the messages that it conveys (which is funny since I’m not a fan of folk music).  From its memorable melody to its universal lyrics, the song perfectly sums up why Bob Dylan wrote music.  Like many artists, he too had something to say about the world, and this song is his response to the ubiquitous change around him.

Bob Dylan’s 1962 song, Blowin’ in the Wind, stands as one of the artist’s greatest musical expressions.  From its opening line, Dylan weighs in on both the concept of maturity and some of the protest movements during the 1960s.  Like many of Dylan’s folk songs, the lyrics are supplemented with a simple acoustic guitar.  I personally think this is a good thing for this song since it adds more gravity to Dylan’s lyrics.

The first stanza starts out asking questions that Dylan was trying to figure out at the young, curious age of 21.  “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”  When someone is 21, he/she questions the legitimacy of adolescence.  Am I an adolescent or an adult?  The common notion is that people become adults when they experience life enough to be… well… experienced.  Aside from the fact that this idea disturbs me, it definitely bothered Dylan.  It’s easy to give that advice, but it’s difficult to point how much is enough.  The next question parallels the last by comparing an adolescent to a white dove trying to find a place to rest.  However, this question asks something a little deeper.  After doing some research about white doves, it turns out that the white dove is considered a symbol for peace.  In this sense, Dylan is actually hitting two birds with one stone (no pun intended) since he’s also asking about the countless years it will take to achieve world peace.  Dylan’s attachment to peace is ultimately what won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.  This hinted question about peace leads into the next question asking the people how many times cannonballs must fly before they become banned.  It’s the same idea as the last one, but it’s a little more apparent and concrete.  Then, he directs his attention to the listener and tells him/her that the answer is “blowin’ in the wind.”  I will talk about what this means further down in the analysis since it’s the overarching theme of the song.

The next stanza continues Dylan’s stream of questions with, “How many years can a mountain exist before it’s washed into the sea.”  I think this is a metaphor for ideas and legacy.  Much like how mountains can erode and become part of the sea over long periods of time, ideas and legacy can fade away after a person dies either figuratively or literally.  Literally speaking, when a person dies, memories of that person will fade until the person is nothing but a name on  a gravestone.  Figuratively, if a person changes who he/she is, memories of the past person will also fade away.  However, this question alludes to the notion that art transcends life and specifically time.  While the meaning of a work of art can change over time due to evolving interpretations, its physical aspect can in theory stay forever.  For Bob Dylan, his art will live on even after he is gone.  The next question asks about the number of years someone can exist before they can be free.  The simplest interpretation from this would be that Dylan sees a lack of freedom in many places around the world.  For example, the Civil Rights Movement can be seen as a protest against the dearth of true freedom for African Americans.  Dylan hopes that everyone can be free because only then can we achieve world peace, which is Dylan’s big hope for the future.  However, this question doesn’t necessarily move on from the posthumous themes of the last one.  Even after some people die, there’s still the idea that they didn’t die in peace or that they died incomplete.  Many people can argue that performing someone’s last wishes or completing their unfinished duties will allow the deceased to rest in peace.  The final question of the stanza asks, “How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see.”  These two lines express Dylan’s frustration with bystanders who just watch as others suffer.  There has been a long debate among many psychologists and historians regarding whether or not compassion is an inherent quality among humans.  If humans were inherently born compassionate, why is it that there are so many bystanders who don’t do anything to help others since it would not be in their self-interest?  Dylan expresses his thoughts on compassion to show that we as social animals should work in the interest of each other so that we can achieve peace.  These thoughts are the hallmark of peaceful protest culture.

The first question of the last stanza is the one I’m the least certain about.  I believe that Dylan is talking about the number of times that a man has ask a question before he finds the answer.  However, it could also have more literal meanings.  In the times leading up to 1962, the world saw gruesome wars that covered the sky with smoke.  In that regard, Dylan wonders how much time it will take until there isn’t a war.  The next question goes back to the one about bystanders.  Dylan emphasizes that we as humans should take care of each other if we are to be happy.  The final question of the song targets the countless wars since the beginning of time that have killed countless individuals.  Dylan also questions those who killed in the name of God since the wars haven’t stopped and peace has not yet been achieved.  Those warmongering efforts in the name of God were ultimately pointless, and that if there is a God, He would be appalled by the violence and bloodshed done in His name.

I think the most important things about this song are not necessarily the questions that Dylan asks.  The real message that he conveys is that the “answer is blowin’ in the wind,” which means that the answers to all of life’s questions are anything but static.  The answers will move and flow with the passage of time just like a leaf does when it is “blowin’ in the wind.”  There is no definitive way to find the answers to life’s questions because there is no definitive answer.  This is why I think Dylan’s songs are fantastic.  They aren’t very long, but they speak volumes about relatable things like maturity and morality.

This notion sums up many of Bob Dylan’s works.  They are testaments to human nature.  It’s no wonder that Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.  The Dylan today is a remnant of the past’s Zimmerman, but that’s what Bob emphasizes so clearly.  We humans forge our own path; names don’t define us, but our actions do.  Over the last few decades, Bob Dylan has crafted numerous influential works of art that have stood the test of time and have entered musical history.

 

Works Used:

Editors, Biography.com. “Bob Dylan.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 05 Jan. 2017.

http://www.biography.com/people/bob-dylan-9283052 Accessed 07 Mar 2017.

“Bob Dylan Biography.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone,

http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/bob-dylan/biography Accessed 07 Mar 2017.

 

Dylan, Bob. Chronicles. Vol. 1. Place of Publication Not Identified: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Print.

 

Sounes, Howard. Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan. 1st ed. New York: Grove, 2011.

Print.

 

Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York: Doubleday, 2010. Print.

 

Callaway, Julia. “The Language and Influences of the Early Bob Dylan.” OxfordWords Blog.

Oxford Dictionary, 27 Jan. 2016

http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/05/bob-dylan/ Accessed 08 Mar 2017.

 

Gates, Guilbert. “Listen to Bob Dylan’s Many Influences.” The New York Times. The New York

Times, 15 Oct. 2016.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/10/14/arts/music/bob-dylan-influences-playlist-

spotify.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FDylan%2C%2BBob&_r=0 Accessed 08

Mar 2017.

 

Board, The Editorial. “How Dylan Became Dylan.” The New York Times. The New York Times,

13 Oct. 2016.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/opinion/bob-dylan-the-poet-sponge.html?rref=colle

ction%2Ftimestopic%2FDylan%2C%2BBob Accessed 08 Mar 2017.

 

Marcus, Greil. “Bob Dylan, Master of Change.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13

Oct. 2016.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/opinion/bob-dylan-master-of-change.html?rref=coll

ection%2Ftimestopic%2FDylan%2C%2BBob Accessed 08 Mar 2017.

 

Pareles, Jon. “Bob Dylan, the Musician: America’s Great One-Man Songbook.” The New York

Times. The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2016.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/14/arts/music/bob-dylan-nobel-prize.html?rref=collecti

on%2Ftimestopic%2FDylan%2C%2BBob Accessed 08 Mar 2017.


What do you think about Bob Dylan?  Please feel free to let me know in the comments section below.  Thanks!

Twitter: @MohitPuvvala

Instagram: @MohitPuvvala

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