“How many years can a mountain exist?” Bob Dylan and the Civil Rights Movement

By Jessica Walter

On the steps of the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al, Mar­tin Luther King Jr. touched thou­sands of peo­ple with his unfor­get­table “I have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. In the face of dis­crim­i­na­tion against African Amer­i­cans, more than 250.000 activists protest­ed dur­ing the famous March on Wash­ing­ton. That very same day, in the very same place, anoth­er water­shed moment occurred: The New York folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary sang a cov­er of “Blowin in the Wind”, for­ev­er adding Bob Dylan’s mas­ter­piece to the canon of Amer­i­can protest music.

Of course, the notion of protest music exist­ed long before the 1960s: Enslaved African Amer­i­cans labor­ing on plan­ta­tions used spir­i­tu­als to sing about the hor­rors of slav­ery, liken­ing their suf­fer­ing to the plight of the exo­dus of the Hebrews. More than a hun­dred years before the Civ­il Rights move­ment, music was used as a covert con­fronta­tion of insti­tu­tion­al slav­ery and sys­temic racism.

Even decades after the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in 1865, injus­tice con­tin­ued dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Jazz leg­end Bil­lie Hol­i­day picked up on that notion and record­ed the chill­ing protest song, “Strange Fruit”. Based on a poem by Abel Meere­pol, the song attacks the atro­cious lynch­ing of black boys and men in the South. The hor­rors came to a head in 1955 Mis­sis­sip­pi, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was grue­some­ly mur­dered for alleged­ly whistling at a white woman.

The same year, in Min­neso­ta, a dif­fer­ent 14-year-old named Robert Allen Zim­mer­man did not know yet that this hor­ren­dous sto­ry of the boy’s mur­der – who could have been his peer – would strike a chord in him. Nor did he know that one day, by a dif­fer­ent name, he would write one of his first protest bal­lads in the name of Emmett.

It is this com­mit­ment to the cause that would shape the 1960s in terms of music, pol­i­tics, and civic action. In 1961, the very same Robert Allen Zim­mer­mann – who called him­self Bob Dylan by now – moved from Min­neso­ta to New York to pur­sue his inter­est in folk music. Dur­ing this time, Dylan’s beliefs were stirred by the Tal­mu­dic tenet that those who can fight injus­tice and do not are accom­plices to it. Dylan under­stood that his moral respon­si­bil­i­ty was to use his voice against the bru­tal injus­tices African Amer­i­cans had been sub­ject­ed to for centuries.

The rev­e­la­tion came in 1962 when the 21-year-old read the auto­bi­og­ra­phy of one of his great heroes, acclaimed folk singer Woody Guthrie. His atten­tion was imme­di­ate­ly drawn to a line in which Guthrie likened his polit­i­cal views to news­pa­pers blow­ing in the wind on the streets of New York. Leg­end has it that “Blowin’ in the Wind” was writ­ten with­in ten min­utes in a cof­fee­house in the Vil­lage and per­formed the very same day. Indeed, it is the sim­plic­i­ty of those three vers­es that would make it a hall­mark of folk music and cat­alyze Dylan’s musi­cal career to the point of win­ning the 2016 Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. But what is it about this sim­ple song that would become a cul­tur­al and musi­cal icon?

The themes of “Blowin’ in the Wind” are broad­er than the Civ­il Rights move­ment since the pro­mo­tion of free­dom, peace, and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty goes far beyond the 1960s. It is these uni­ver­sal­ly human sen­ti­ments that have caused the song to be cov­ered over and over again – for instance by Sam Cooke, Joan Baez, and John­ny Cash.

Yet there is some­thing else that has caused this song to pre­vail: It has the pow­er to reas­sure those who suf­fer from dis­crim­i­na­tion, to mobi­lize those who can and want to fight it – and to unset­tle those who per­pet­u­ate it. It’s no coin­ci­dence that Dylan was award­ed the Nobel Prize in the polit­i­cal­ly tur­bu­lent year 2016. To this day, his ques­tions remain as rel­e­vant as ever.

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Jes­si­ca Wal­ter stud­ies Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Ger­man lit­er­a­ture at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty, Berlin. She’s par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in texts that chal­lenge the notions sur­round­ing race, class, and gen­der. In her spare time, she enjoys paint­ing, singing, and prac­tic­ing yoga.