In the 2005 documentary “No Direction Home”, Bob Dylan stated that “An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere. You always have to realise that you’re constantly in a state of becoming.” It’s certainly true that Dylan has followed this mantra throughout his life, now in the possession of a career spanning countless musical genres, hosting an ever-changing voice, and a back-catalogue holding 36 studio albums. It seems the only constant that’s followed him through the decades is his trusty guitar and harmonica.
Dylan was first a noticeable catalyst for change in 1963, when The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released. It’s no doubt that Dylan felt strongly about the events that were unravelling around him during this time, and he felt it right to give voice to the frustrations of the social and political youth of America. ‘Oxford Town’, which helped account for the events of the first ever black student to enrol at the University of Mississippi, leading numerous Mississippians to speak out about making the school segregated, covers the topic of racism in a grimly yet comically satirical vibe, almost mocking the event’s surreal nature. ‘Blowing in the Wind’, which poses a series of rhetorical questions to the listener, seems to be the song that attached itself to the population, incredulously growing into the anthem of the civil rights movement.
These songs were intertwined in the growing change of America, with Dylan and contemporaries performing them at Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech and certain societal groups finding the songs spoke to them unlike any other. Mavis Staples notably said she “could not understand how a young white man could write something that captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully”.
Some people today still think of Dylan as a protest singer, though it’s curious to see how few years he actually spent in this vein, as these early years would quickly fade, and change within Dylan himself lead to changes in the 60s. For instance, Dylan’s 1964 song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the first critical example of Dylan’s career-defining move to electric, had a notable historical consequence of what many believe to be one of the first ever music videos. It originally was proposed as an introduction to the 1965 documentary “Don’t Look Back” with Dylan flicking through flashcards displaying the song’s lyrics, later standing on its own as promotional material for the song and is now viewed as one of the first ever music videos.
These personal evolutions of Dylan’s continued to impose themselves upon the 1960s. ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ was an album that put the final nail in the coffin for Dylan’s protest image, openly supportive of his fresh era, with his transformation to rock essentially coming to completion. The album’s lead single, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, was so long that it took up both sides of a 45RPM record, meaning the song only played half-way before the record would have be flipped over. Back then, singles were consistently in the range of 2-3 minutes, as this increased their radio popularity. Whilst radio stations were hesitant, the public demand for it eventually pressured them to air the song in full. This was an incredibly important feat as it was the first song to challenge the notion of long radio-friendly songs, paving the way for later radio hits such as The Beatle’s ‘Hey Jude’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Furthermore, the content of the entire album was critical to the ever-changing landscape of musical history. The marriage of lyrical values and musicianship lead to a large impact on the course of music with popular artists at the time becoming challenged by the song’s existence. Paul McCartney said “It was just beautiful… he showed all of us that it was possible to go a little further.” Highway 61 Revisited began changing the way people viewed pop and rock songs, bringing about a whole new discovery of what could be created by using a song as a format. At the time, it was viewed oppressively that popular songs simply needed to have a good melody, hook the listener and be short to be radio-friendly. But Dylan wanted songs to have meaning, and he achieved it.
During his political years, Dylan impacted the political side of America. When Dylan wanted his music to say something, America’s artists agreed their music should mean something too. When Dylan released his promotional video, he accidentally participated in the birth of music videos. And when Dylan refused to shorten his 6-minute long single, the music industry took note and paved the way for longer singles in the decades to come. It cannot be denied that by the end of it all, Dylan had changed the 1960s several times over.By Elliot Eppleston