An Incomplete Bob Dylan Playlist for 2022

By Nikolas A. Mariani

Bob Dylan turned 81 last month.  

You’ll be forgiven, if your first thought upon reading those words was “he’s still alive?” Not only is Mr. Dylan still alive and kicking, marking 33 years of his “Never-Ending Tour”, which only acquiesced to being briefly interrupted by a pesky pandemic. His last studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, received rave reviews and was deemed by some one of his best yet. It’s somewhat a peculiarity of Dylan’s career, and indeed of any musical career that spans decades, that every now and then, critics and the public discourse raise the question: “Is Dylan still relevant?” While his presence in the public mind has waxed and waned over the course of six decades of music – his eponymous first album appeared way back in 1962 – it stands to reason that Dylan’s relevance and status – as one of the preeminent musicians and writers America has produced – has never diminished. To list his countless accomplishments and examples of his significance in the popular culture, music, literature, and consciousness of the United States seems almost trite and redundant, given that there is little to add to the endless laudatory speeches written about the man. So, in the general sense, few would discount the indelible mark he has left on the world.  

And yet, in the moment of time and history we find ourselves in, many of Dylan’s songs seem like they have never been more relevant, and speak not only to some of the same ills society faces – racism, paranoia, ultra-nationalism, poverty, war – but also foreshadow and resonate with some of the more ephemeral feelings of hopelessness, doom, despair, and ennui brought on by two years of a pandemic and the erosion of democracy in many Western countries. Needless to say, Dylan, who famously evaded being labeled the “voice of a generation” during the 60s Civil Rights Movement when the press often attempted to pigeonhole Dylan as merely a “protest-singer,” would likely be aghast at his music being looked through only such a lens.  

Nevertheless, allow me to add my voice to the chorus of “self-ordained professors” chiming in on some Bob Dylan songs that – some 60 years onward – speak to this moment in time (feel free to check out this Spotify Playlist of the tracks below to listen along): 

1. The Death of Emmett Till (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964, 2010) 

A heart-rending ballad about one of the most notorious lynchings of the Civil Rights era. In 1955, Emmett Louis Till was only 14 years old when he was abducted, tortured, killed, and dropped into a river in Mississippi, where his body was discovered three days later. In a style characteristic of topical folk songs of the day, lifted from newspaper clippings, Dylan employs a dry, almost factual reporting manner of singing, allowing the horrific deeds to speak for themselves: 

Twas down in Mississippi no so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.1 

The perspective of our speaker is that of a passerby or neighborhood community member recalling the incident. Initially, the speaker says the killers claimed to have had a reason, “but I can’t remember what”, and ultimately realizes  

The reason that they killed him there, and I’m sure it ain’t no lie, 
Was just for the fun of killin’ him and to watch him slowly die. 

The speaker goes on to chastise the failing court system, as the “smiling” killers are allowed to walk free because their accomplices are on the jury, and becomes increasingly admonishing of any who might stand by without acting against this injustice: 

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust, 
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow, 
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low! 

Dylan’s pared down musical accompaniment, eschewing most vocal flourishes, allows the simple yet biting words to stand front and center.  

2. Masters of War (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963) 

Perhaps one of the most quintessential anti-war songs of all time. Right out of the gate, the first verse makes clear who is being addressed and what our speaker thinks of them: 

Come you masters of war 
You that build the big guns 
You that build the death planes 
You that build all the bombs 
You that hide behind walls 
You that hide behind desks 
I just want you to know 
I can see through your masks 

The titular “Masters of War” “lie and deceive” and want the speaker to believe “a World War can be won.” They care little for any expendable individuals who might perish in their pursuit: 

You fasten all the triggers 
For the others to fire 
Then you sit back and watch 
When the death count gets higher 
You hide in your mansion 
While the young people’s blood 
Flows out of their bodies 
And is buried in the mud 

Written during the height of the Cold War, Dylan paints a picture of an uncaring, greedy, and hopelessly corrupt military-industrial complex, as outlined by President Eisenhower in his farewell speech of 1961. One of Dylan’s most vitriolic songs, his delivery oozes disdain for the “Masters”, hurling insults at them for their callousness and even going so far as hoping that their “death will come soon”, adding that he will stand over their grave to make sure that they’re dead. Dylan’s early Folk style accompaniment on guitar serves as a steady rhythmic drum that pushes the song ever onward. 

3. When the Ship Comes In (The Times They Are A Changin’, 1964) 

Performed during the 1963 March on Washington, this piece conjures biblical themes of shifting tides, seas splitting, and the “morning breaking” of a new era about to dawn. As the titular “ship” arrives, the foes of our speaker raise their hands in surrender and, like “Pharaoh’s tribe, are drowned in the tide,” and “like Goliath” are conquered. While perhaps not overtly alluding to Civil Rights issues, the central themes of struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful and oppressive foe, institutional or otherwise, and a subsequent feeling of victory against overwhelming odds never fails to ring true. A slightly more abstract entry, but still rooted in early, protest Dylan.  

“When the Ship Comes In”, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, and “Eyes on the Prize” performed at the March on Washington in 1963

4. Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues (The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991, 1991) 

Dylan shows himself from his more satirical and comical side here, as he pokes fun at the John Birch Society, a far-right, anti-communist organization that had come to prominence during the Red Scare. In it, our narrator, terrified by the looming communist threat, joins the John Birch Society and immediately sets out on his quest to root out the Communists: 

Well, I wus lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds
I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed
Looked in the sink, behind the door

I looked way up my chimney hole
I even looked deep down inside my toilet bowl 
… 
Figured they wus in my T.V. set 
Peeked behind the picture frame
Got a shock from my feet, hittin’ right up in the brain
Them Reds caused it! 

Matters quickly spiral out of control, as our narrator quits his job to hunt Communists full-time. He discovers “red stripes on the American flag”, decides 90% of all books in the library must be burned, and that 98% of people he knows have “gotta go.” Presidents are not spared either, with Eisenhower, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt all labeled Russian spies. As the narrator has finally run out of things to investigate, he decides to investigate himself and worries: “Hope I don’t find out anything…” 

A modern-day listener cannot help but draw parallels to conspiracy theorists in our current cultural climate. Dylan famously walked off his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, over concerns by CBS that performance of the song might incite a defamation lawsuit, which ultimately resulted in the song being pulled off of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ LP that year. 

5. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963) 

Bob Dylan in 1963

Undoubtedly one of Dylan’s most enigmatic but no less memorable songs. Dylan paints a post-modern landscape of apocalypse, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Our narrator takes the listener on a long journey throughout, among other things, “a highway of diamonds”, “seven sad forests”, and a “dozen dead oceans”. While its meaning is often intangible and always just out of focus, the titular “Hard Rain” being warned of is often considered to allude to potentially looming nuclear war. 

6. Only a Pawn in Their Game (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964) 

Yet another ballad taking inspiration from a real-life lynching, in this case of Medgar Evers, who was murdered in 1963 and, much like Emmet Till, inspired action within the Civil Rights Movement. This song too, Dylan performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. Rather than a mere recounting of the events in this case, the song’s lyrics take a more wholistic view of the murder and its context. While certainly the individual in question pulled the trigger, in a sense, our narrator explains, the killer “can’t be blamed.” Rather, it is the surrounding institutions of white supremacy instilled in White Southerners that have helped instill this sense of superiority:  

He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him 
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in 

Our narrator lays the blame at corrupt politicians, playing both poor Whites and Blacks against each other for their own gain: “But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool.”  

7. Blind Willie McTell (The Bootleg Series, Vol 1-3: Rare & Unreleased 1961-1991, 1991) 

Presented as essentially an elegy for the legendary blues singer, the song ultimately conjures a haunting vision of the antebellum South. We are treated to images of fallen martyrs, cracking of whips, juxtaposed with the smell of “that sweet magnolia blooming”. Much of what the listener hears of takes on an ethereal quality, supported by the swampy instrumentation and production. “Ghosts of slavery ships” and burning plantations tell of echoes of a bygone time of suffering, while our narrator sings “I can hear them tribes a-moaning, hear the undertakers bell.” Despite “God being in his heaven”, our narrator concludes, and us wanting what is his, “power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.” 

8. With God on Our Side (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1964) 

Much like “Masters of War”, one of Dylan’s most poignant anti-war songs. Here he laments not only the horrors of war but focuses instead on the justifications often given. Like a schoolboy recounting what he has been “taught to memorize”, our narrator lists countless American wartime engagements, from the Revolutionary War to World War II to the Cold War. Regardless of circumstance, as long as God was on their side, no atrocity committed appeared too great. Our narrator often appears confused, such as with the First World War: 

The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side 

In the final verse, our narrator appears almost embarrassed at an intrusive thought in his mind, that perhaps if “God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war.” 

Bob Dylan, Never Ending Tour, Azkena Rock Festival, 2010

9. Murder Most Foul (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020) 

Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this article to give this song the attention it deserves, but I could not bring myself to omit it either. Suffice it to say that this sprawling epic from Dylan’s latest record (a full 17 minutes long!), while ostensibly about the murder of John F. Kennedy, quickly expands to an all-encompassing meditation on American musical culture, the death of the perceived innocence of a nation, and the dawning of a new age. We are offered a brief but meaningful glimpse into one of the most formative periods, not only of Mr. Dylan himself – influenced by it as much as he helped shape it himself – but of the nation. 

The shrewd observer will have noticed that the selections above are almost exclusively from Dylan’s early period in the 1960s. That is not to say his remaining work leaves anything to be desired in terms of political and cultural relevance (see below for some more examples). Still, whether it be racial violence and injustice, the fallout of the military-industrial complex, institutions in disrepair, paranoid conspiracy theories, or the state of consciousness of a nation, many of the themes explored by Dylan’s early work some 60 years ago – whether for better or for worse – still feel oddly relevant today.

Honorable Mentions (also in the Spotify Playlist): 

  1. John Brown (The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964, 2010) 
  2. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are A Changin’, 1964)
  3. Everything is Broken (Oh Mercy, 1989)
  4. Hurricane (Desire, 1976)
  5. Gotta Serve Somebody (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
  6. Political World (Oh Mercy, 1989)
  7. World Gone Wrong (World Gone Wrong, 1993)
  8. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)

About the author

Nikolas Mariani is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. When not hunting for rare Bob Dylan bootleg recordings, he devotes his research time to focusing on alternative news media and how audiences form relationships of trust with them. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nik__Mariani.


Footnotes

  1. All lyrics taken from https://www.bobdylan.com/. Given Dylan’s predilection for changing lyrics, individual versions and performances of songs may have slight variations from their official listing on the website.

Images

Header: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, CC


Bob Dylan in November, 1963-2, CC, Wikimedia Commons


Bob Dylan, Never Ending Tour, Azkena Rock Festival, 2010, CC



Cite this blog post
The Editors (2022, June 23). An Incomplete Bob Dylan Playlist for 2022. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg5u

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