Justice

4 Bob Dylan Songs That Stood up for Social Justice

October 13th 2016

By:
Danielle DeCourcey

American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lyrics that galvanized a generation.

On Thursday, the Swedish academy awarded Dylan the prize for his lyrics that "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Dylan started singing what many characterize as protest songs in Greenwich Village, New York City cafes in 1961, according to The New York Times. Throughout his career he wrote songs about anti-war protests, the Civil Rights Movement, and American life.

Music critic David Hajdu wrote that Dylan should have received the award a long time ago, and the American tradition of music he came from should receive more recognition.

“It’s partly a recognition of the whole tradition that Bob Dylan represents, so it’s partly a retroactive award for Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and Smokey Robinson and the Beatles,” Hajdu told The New York Times. “It should have been taken seriously as an art form a long time ago.”

Dylan is the first American to receive the Noble Prize for Literature since author Toni Morrison won it in 1993.

Here are four important Bob Dylan songs that stood up for social justice in America:

1. "The Ballad of Emmett Till" 1962

Emmett Till was a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, who was brutally murdered while visiting his family in Mississippi. He was allegedly killed for whistling at a white woman. In 1962 Dylan performed "The Ballad of Emmett Till" also known as "The Death of Emmett Till" at a radio station in New York City. It's one of the earliest known recordings of Bob Dylan, and it was recorded within days of his upcoming 21st birthday, according to Democracy Now. At the time Dylan was recording under the name "Blind Boy Grunt."

Lyrics from "The Ballad of Emmett Till"

I saw the morning papers, but I could not bear
To see the smiling brothers walking down the courthouse stairs
Oh the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea

2. "Blowin' in the Wind" 1963

The song "Blowin' in the Wind" is included in Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The song was recorded in 1962 for Dylan's album "The Freewheelin'." Dylan performed the song at a voter registration rally in Mississippi. Peter, Paul and Mary performed their version of the song on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, hours before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. It was also used as an anti-war protest song during the Vietnam War, according to Mic.com.

Lyrics from "Blowin' in the Wind:"

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

3. "The Times The Are a Changing" 1964

Dylan wanted this song to capture the social upheaval that was happening in America at the time. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas a month after this song was recorded, although it wasn't released until the next year. American Songwriter wrote that the liner notes of Dylan's 1985 album "Biograph" featured an interview with Dylan discussing "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

“This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”

Lyrics for "Times They Are a-Changin'"

Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a' changin'!

4. "Hurricane" 1973

Dylan's song "Hurricane" tells the story of black boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter who was falsely convicted of murder in 1966. Carter was imprisoned for nearly two decades and released in 1985. Dylan's song about his life was released in 1973 the middle of Carter's incarceration.

In 1999, the story later became a movie starring Denzel Washington.

Carter died in 2014 from cancer.

Lyrics from "Hurricane."

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed
To live in a land
Where justice is a game

Bob Dylan is 75 years old and still performs across the United States.

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