My first memory with Bob Dylan’s genius is the song Absolutely Sweet Marie. In that song, there is a stanza with a line, “But to live outside the law, you must be honest”. This one line startled me and gave me goosebumps, and I immediately thought Bob Dylan is the poet (or the songwriter) I want to dig into. This is also a self-explanatory line that elucidates the hypocrisy in the world with law, and he, in a way, supported the concept of negative freedom in this context. Little did I know that his other compositions are even more thought-provoking and inexplicably multi-dimensional, piled up with a myriad of layers and allusions. However, that’s what makes him an interesting subject in the world of music and literature.
With so many interpretations and endless possibilities to delve into his work, writing about the idiosyncratically quirky, unabashedly curmudgeon and indecipherably eccentric Bob Dylan seems like a never-ending task. Among his coeval musicians and songwriters like Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, and also Leonard Cohen, who have made their mark in their own niche, it’s Bob Dylan who stands out. This is not just because of his musical prowess or the metaphysical lyrics that lead to some incredible compositions, but it’s also because of his diverse philosophy.
While songwriters and musicians had their own ideologies in a particular pigeonhole or churned out lyrics from their own life experiences or past affairs, it’s Bob Dylan who never confined himself to a particular philosophy but went on to write on varied philosophical themes. Be it justice, freedom, inequality, war, family, love, oppression, sex, personal identity, free will or epistemological cynicism, Bob Dylan has touched upon almost anything remotely related to philosophy.
Soon after his emergence, he rose to fame and then went on to become the “Voice of a Generation”. People started perceiving his songs as the ones that take stand on a lot of social dogmas and political & global issues that the world was going through in that era.
Let’s take a look at some of his songs and the cultural references and philosophical ideas associated with them –
1. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol –
The song was based on the killing of a 51-year-old African-American barmaid, Hattie Carol, by the 24-year-old Zantzinger. The song also depicts the racial inequality and miscarriages of justice that was prevalent in that era.
2. Ballad of Hollis Brown –
Ballad of Hollis Brown tells a poignant story of a peasant who kills his wife, children, and himself, due to poverty. The song was not only about the poverty of a man, but was more of a comment on the burgeoning economic inequality in that time.
3. Chimes of Freedom –
The song is an account of the feelings and thoughts of the singer on the social exclusion of people. He addressed the unfair treatment of a few people. The singer also believed that the thunder is sympathetic to them.
4. Don’t think twice, it’s alright –
This song never fails to make anyone feel better. The song is perhaps the simplest one by Bob Dylan as it conspicuously makes only one point, which is on the personal freedom, an idea which he incessantly advocated in his songs.
5. Only a Pawn in Their Game –
The song was for the support of the African Americans. Moreover, it suggests that Medgar Evers’ killer was just a pawn of white elites who persuaded poor whites to be against the blacks to create a perfect White American Society. Moreover, the idea behind the song was to despise the rampant racism that is still part of many societies and that’s why the song is timeless.
6. Love Minus Zero, No Limit –
The song was originally a tribute to Dylan’s future wife Sara Lownds. The lyrics also implicate the very futility of judgment and it’s quite evident in the line, “She knows too much to argue or to judge.” This also provokes another thought that knowledge should not lead to judgment, and when it does that, it only defeats the very purpose of it.
7. Blowin’ in the Wind –
It’s perhaps “Blowin’ in the wind” that describes the radicalism and protest that was the part of Bob Dylan’s discography. The song asked a series of rhetorical questions about peace, war and freedom. The poetic refrain in the stanzas – “The answers, my friend, are blowin’ in the wind” is ambiguous, because either the answers to such questions are obvious or no one can find them as they are as intangible as air.
8. Knocking on Heaven’s Door –
If there is a song that has become an anti-war anthem for generations, it’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” It’s the most popular song by Bob Dylan and has been covered by many artistes around the globe. The song was also written in retaliation of Vietnam War.
9. Visions of Johanna –
“Visions of Johanna” is regarded as one of the highest achievements in writing by Bob Dylan ever. The song depicts allusions and subtlety in the use of language. Implicating slipperiness of the memory, the song also evokes the experience of knowledge of loss, mortality and impermanence.
10. Hurricane –
The song “Hurricane” was co-written with Jacques Levy. It was allegedly based on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s conspiratorial imprisonment, when the boxer was wrongfully convicted for a murder. The song also addresses acts of racism and plotting against Carter.
In his illustrious career as a singer and songwriter, Bob Dylan has covered wide range of philosophical themes. His writings aren’t only poetically evocative but also hinted truth. Apart from that, he is known for his heroics, when he continued with his stage show even when he was not well in order to get the ‘good act’ going in a rather malevolent world. Bob Dylan is also the only songwriter (next to Rabindranath Tagore) to have won Nobel Prize in Literature.
His work is known for profuse ambiguity and bares multiple perceptions and interpretations. Demystifying Bob Dylan’s weltanschauung from his work becomes a subjective matter. Morever, the complex obscurity of his writings makes it impossible to come up with single layered perception about him. However, the part of the world which is fortunate to come across his works always has questions about his moral principles, social worldview, political inclination and religious beliefs.
Well, “The answers, my friend, are blowin’ in the wind.”
And that’s Bob Dylan’s ultimate triumph!