Bob Dylan is one of the most accomplished musicians of the last and current centuries. He’s still touring at the ripe age of 80, and he has won awards from several Grammys to the Nobel Peace Prize. But where did it all begin for the singer-songwriter? Smoke a j, put on a record (or YouTube), and feast your ears on the brilliance of the ten most essential Bob Dylan protest songs.
- The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
- Masters of War
- Blowin’ In The Wind
- A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
- With God On Our Side
- The Times They Are A-Changin’
- Only A Pawn In Their Game
- My Back Pages
- Who Killed Davey Moore?
- It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
This ballad, dedicated to Hattie Carroll and her murder, was taken straight from the newspapers. The opening line explains, “William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll”—and the bard was right.
Nevertheless, that did not stop Zanzinger from suing Dylan for reportedly misrepresenting some minor facts. Still, the tune is a masterful exercise following the tradition of epic folk ballads.
The chorus boasts one of Dylan’s most intriguing lines, calling for action while criticizing intellectualism. “You who philosophize disgrace/And criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears.”
Masters of War
According to Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan was one of the heaviest artists the band had heard at the time of their inception. And with a song like “Masters of War,” it’s not hard to see why.
Simple in structure, this composition expertly utilizes the key of D Minor to build a sense of dread. The backdrop serves for Dylan’s incendiary finger-pointing, replete with deep-cutting one-liners (“Even Jesus would never/forgive what you do”).
Though it may not get as widely recognized as some of his other compositions from this period, none are as direct in calling for the death of the military-industrial complex.
Blowin’ In The Wind
This is the song that started everything for Dylan. It instantly catapulted him onto the main stage of the 1963 March on Washington, and resulted in covers from mainstream recording artists—to notable chart success.
What’s more, the song remains popular and relevant even today. Perhaps the lasting power of this tune has to do with its feeling: spiritual and childlike at times, quite likely done on purpose.
The power of the words and melody lies in their simplicity. But it also has to do with the ambiguity of the message. So, whatever the answer that is blowing in the windy world, it’s here to stay.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
The song that famously made Allen Ginsberg weep with joy the first time he heard it is arguably Dylan’s finest moment. Based on an old Irish folk ballad, this song saw the burgeoning folk singer touch on all of the American anxieties at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
This protest song is one of Bob Dylan’s first dabbles with surrealism, a style which he would more fully explore in future albums. But here, listeners can find some of his most poignant images of a country in deep trouble—and, most of all, a little bit of hope and relatability.
With God On Our Side
Sometimes satire is the best way to explore complex issues, from national identity to global struggle.
After the death of JFK, Bob Dylan became even more invested in penning the perfect protest song. This time, it was to explore the Cold War and the lingering effects of World War II.
This is the kind of song that is worthy of study in history classrooms of all levels. Listening to it in this day and age leaves one with the feeling that maybe, if people understood the absurdity and atrocity of a nation’s past, they would be able to move past it.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
One of Dylan’s most timeless contributions to popular music would appear inauthentic, if one took Dylan’s word for what inspired its creation.
He essentially claimed that this song was what his fans wanted to hear, and he wasn’t wrong —nothing more, nothing less. But Dylan has a gift for understatement and subversion. And besides, this is one of those songs that possesses that other-worldly sense of premonitions.
It is as if the human condition and its intergenerational struggles long ago got set in stone. Still, the times are indeed constantly changing. As a result, this song will forever be relevant.
Only A Pawn In Their Game
This song was famously crafted in response to the death of Medgar Evers.
Evers was a prominent black activist killed by a white assailant. Rather than shaming the individual killer, Dylan does something uncommon. He blames the structure that perpetuates poverty and racism among white folks, essentially pitting them against black folks.
Bob famously performed “Only A Pawn in Their Game” at a voting rights rally, in place of Medgar’s speech. But every listener can appreciate the urgent verses, punctuated by internal rhyme schemes—as well as the ugly, big picture that the artist thoughtfully constructs, in only a few minutes.
My Back Pages
This tune is not a protest song in the conventional sense, though one could say that about most of the acerbic compositions Bob Dylan created.
Released just before Dylan plugged in his electric guitar and left the acoustic-playing folk purists behind, the artist had a message to send all his haters—and, most importantly, himself. “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”
It seemed that Bob was trying to separate himself from the cut-and-dried moralism associated with the Civil Rights Act. While that’s partially correct, at the heart of this 19th century-inspired protest song (that protests the entire genre of protest songs, and the protest movement itself) is an unwillingness to compromise artistic freedom. Nothing could be more worthy of the fight.
Who Killed Davey Moore?
Although it is not one of his most well-known tunes, as it was never officially recorded, this tribute to boxer Davey Moore far predates his famous protest anthem for convicted boxer, Hurricane Carter.
Still, this tune is a massive indictment of the structure of physical sports, questioning why Americans enjoy seeing someone suffer for entertainment. Though it may not seem one of the more urgent problems to protest, it remains increasingly relevant.
“Who Killed Davey Moore?” evokes tough questions about responsibility, sung with great urgency in one of the live versions of this tune.
It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding
Another of his surreal protest songs (and, arguably one of his last before the mid-70s), this song contains some of the most quote-worthy lines Bob Dylan ever wrote.
Musically, the tune is haunting, thanks to complex and fast-moving lyrics atop descending minor riffs. Each hook is different, yet contains a sarcastic effort to calm the singer’s ma.
However, any listener can tell that Dylan is speaking directly to the world about all of the devastating, mundane, and absurd facets of daily postmodern living. Try to memorize all the words, and you may elevate in mid-air.
Bob Dylan became a household name by writing and performing some of the most iconic protest songs of all time. He invigorated the entire world behind his cowboy chords and pointed lyrics, and that legacy still endures decades—and generations—later.