Yeah, it’s a long one this time, but you should see what I took out. I’ll be honest: What we’re talking about, plus or minus, happened in the early sixties, so yeah, we’re talking about the era that everyone’s heard enough about: the Sixties. To get from the sixties to the Sixties, we’re going to start with folk music, which was a small but growing movement in the late 50’s, then blossomed around 1962. In its early days it was a little like punk rock in the mid-seventies: it was very visual so it got a lot of press, but it didn’t sell a lot of records. Folk music set the stage for the Sixties, provided the tinder, as it were. But for it to happen, for it to ignite, it needed a spark. Today we look at the spark.
Rolling stone named him the greatest songwriter of all time. Yeah, yeah, he’s a genius. We know that. It’s just that many of us forget why that’s true. That’s why I’m here. Today everyone is shouting. Everyone is shouting. Back then Bob Dylan didn’t shout; he sang some songs and you can still hear the echoes. To whit:
With the Second World War triumphantly concluded, what ensued was a period of prosperity and optimism; housing, education, recreation and social attitudes underwent a growth period whose principal beneficiaries became known as the Baby Boomers. Two of those benefits were that, coming through a youth defined by the Great Depression, parents had, to an unprecedented level, the means and a willingness to indulge, if not overindulge, their children; another benefit was the unprecedented time and permission given these children to live, learn and grow in relative freedom, which contributed to an unprecedented sense of entitlement. Entitlement among the masses? Who knows what might come of children steeped in such liberal attitudes? Why, ungrateful rebellion, of course. And so it was. And I loved it.
Remember that part about indulging our young with an education? Well, it happened, and youthful souls, when allowed to think, to dream, to hope… why, what would you expect other than optimism? Were we worldly enough to wield such grand ideas as may come from optimism? Survey says: Not bloody likely. And therein we see that the roots of the Sixties were naiveté and optimism. Again: wouldn’t trade it for any other way.
Radio was the soundtrack of our lives, and most of the songs in the Top 40 in the late 50’s and early 60’s were written for teens, sung by teens and bought by teens. And then there was an awareness—distant at first—of folk music. Top 40 was cool, man, but some heard another call, to a gentler, more acoustic music that was increasingly reflective of contemporary ills such as civil rights and nuclear proliferation. This was also a time when a small conflict in Viet Nam was starting to show up in the news, and put half of those students in the line of fire. Thus, some of said youth went off to college where they were allowed to hear any of a smorgasbord of New Age possibilities mixed in with all those liberal ideas about rights and such. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, becoming the first warning of a coming global environmental catastrophe, and by 1964, enlightened teachers were urging students to read it, and it was discussed on campuses and in coffee houses where the hip met to drink java, listen to folk music or poetry, and discuss the issues, putting climate change on the radar for the first time. Oh, there were a host of other ills needing attention, but let’s focus on those four while, for the first time, pot, hashish and then LSD were competing with beer for the on-and-off-campus drug of choice. College kids, many who were living away from home for the first time—and still on their parents’ dime— with time on their hands, ideas in the air, and Viet Nam over their heads, and all this mixing with optimism and naiveté will get you a groundswell of unhappy idealists, a generation willing to try some new way of thinking…
Some kids found this other music, and they could still like rock ‘n’ roll, but then everyone seemed to have to take sides, and that kind of divided the kids, with the rockers making up most of the crowd, but the folkies were a verbal and visual bunch who got a surplus of press because they were more video-ready than the regular Joes and Janes, and those two sides wouldn’t be united again until Bob Dylan did it in 1965 when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival (I was there), but that would be a few years out from the initial spark, which is what we’re talking about, and anyway what he united was two flames—and it was he who’d started both of them—thus starting the biggest fire of all, the Sixties. Here’s how it happened:
Looking for something beyond the froth of pop music, folk music had more to say to some kids, and its popularity was growing, but slowly. Songs by folk leaders Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie had a growing impact on the nation’s school-age youth, but these guys were both old, while Top 40 had handsome teen idols bopping to the beat. Still, interest in folk music was growing, growing, making inroads into the culture, and it was starting to sell records.
Early in 1962, Dylan’s new manager, the infamous Albert Grossman, wanted a folk act he could sell, so he put together three folkies from the Greenwich Village folk scene, and they became known as Peter, Paul & Mary. Grossman gave them Dylan’s as-yet un-recorded “Blowin’ In The Wind.” AM radio was everything then, and the “summer single” was very important for a record company trying to attract the record-buying teens to their artist and maybe other artists. Folk was growing, yes, but would it hit? Warner’s chose “Blowin’ In The Wind” in a significant deviation from what was normal until then. Indicative of the popularity of folk music in 1963, Warner’s took a chance that maybe kids were choosing to think along with the usual summer fare of beach, sun and fun, and it hit #2 in its first week on the charts along with “Judy’s Turn To Cry” and “Wipeout.” And suddenly it seemed like every other girl in my school had bangs and was ironing her hair straight to look like Mary Travers.
Another change was, as David Hadju observed in Positively Fourth Street, “a million Americans were now purchasing guitars every year and they all seemed to be sitting on college grounds in blue jeans and no shoes, strumming ‘Where Have All The flowers Gone’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ Times indeed were a-changin’. In 1962, sales of blue jeans [aka dungarees] increased by 50% while in the same year sales of dress shoes reached an historic low.”
So now we’re at 1962 and remember we’re not talking about the six thousand albums Dylan has put out over the years or his “Golden Age” of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, or any of his other important releases, and we’re not talking about after his Woodstock period when he went to Nashville, where some say he invented Americana Music with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. No, no right-thinking person would aver that a career retrospective of Bob Dylan should be pigeon-holed into a single album or period. But as a spark to ignite the Sixties, you need look no further than when Dylan got serious about social issues at a time when a movement, based largely on civil rights issues, nuclear arms and environmental concerns was gaining momentum. Large group demonstrations about social issues had already started, and for months before and after Spring Break in 1962, students in some northeastern colleges went south to work on voter registration drives and equal-rights protests. What was uniquely American about this social change is that it was brought about by distinctions in age rather than class. The gathering strength of the protest movement was youth-driven. This was new. Change was in the air, and Bob Dylan, whose first release, in 1962, had been mainly traditional folk songs that had been around for more than a century, would put something else in the grooves of his second record.
Yeah, the revolution was on, but the leaders were old. Seeger was grey-haired and Guthrie was busy dying. The proponents of the new ethos were all young, and so was Bob, who’d been singing all the old traditional stuff along with everyone else in the folk community until his girlfriend urged him to write more songs like “The Death of Emmitt Till,” his nascent protest song about a poor African-American laborer who had been failed by the American justice system. As we all must do when our ladies so request, Dylan wrote a song, his manager gave it to Peter, Paul & Mary and it put the movement into overdrive.
The success of “Blowin’ In The Wind” shined a light on Dylan and I guess you’d have to admit that things were a-changin’ when teen fan magazine Seventeen did a feature article on Dylan with an accompanying 3/4 shot that made him look… thoughtful. Contemplative. In a teen mag! Was intellectuality suddenly sexy to teenage girls? Seventeen must have thought so. Seventeen? Radicalism, protest and rebellion were sexy? You betcha. I wish I’d known that back then…
In that article, he was dismissive of his first album. Change was in Dylan and it was about to go public in a big way. In June of 1962, Dylan recorded “Blowin’ In The Wind” for his second album, Freewheelin’, and no one knew it then, but the horse was leaving the barn. Perhaps more than any other song of its era, "Blowin' In The Wind" captured the essence of America's youthful disquiet in the early 1960s and quickly became an anthem of the civil rights, anti-war and save-the-environment movements. For all of its impact, Dylan claims to have written the song in about 10 minutes, and it remains his most often-covered work.
Folk music was now a pop phenomenon. No one had planned on a generation of teens who wanted to think rather than dance, but the market geared up and provided for them. There were TV shows that featured folk music and there were magazines about it. Thanks, PP&M, thanks Albert and Bob.
Dylan’s Freewheelin’ came out in May, 1963, and by now Bob had students’ attention all over America. But were they ready? “Blowin’ In The Wind” was melodic, almost pretty, a good group sing-along, but also on the record were “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” both of which had a much harder edge and immediately people heard the Voice of Protest. Not many people listen to these songs now, and I’ll bet a whole generation or two has no idea of their existence. But they had an impact. They were the spark.
Performed for the first time live a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Hard Rain” found instant resonance when it was released shortly after the crisis. The song is a nightmarish dystopian travelogue that paints as bleak a series of images as any in Hieronymus Bosch, and it drove a chill spike into the hearts of impressionable, nervous teen minds, and the impact was the same as when you forget which scary movie you it was you saw, but if you’re still afraid to be alone in the dark…
I remember when David Crosby talked about “Ohio,” the CSNY song about the Kent State shootings, when four students were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard in 1970. “Ohio” would have an impact, Crosby crowed, saying, “We named names, man!” Yeah, they said, “Nixon,” man. He thought things were gonna change, ‘cause, y’know, he said Nixon.
But you could hear Dylan’s echoes when seven years earlier, in “Masters of War,” Dylan called out:
Come you masters of war, you that build all the 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
He went on to excoriate the American war machine in clear terms, condemning them and praying for their death. No fun, fun, fun there, and by virtue of “Blowin’” alone, he was already the Voice of Protest. Now he was going over the top to impressionable teens who had never heard anything like this before, but many of whom were ready for it. Yeah, you that build all the bombs, are you listenin’?
I went to a Bob Dylan concert at Yale University in November of 1964 (no, not a student), and I liberated a Xeroxed poster of the show from a tree. On 8 ½ X 11 paper it had the photo of Dylan from his just-released “The Times They Are A-Changin’” with the quote, “Yes, it is I who is knockin’ at your door if it is you inside who hears the noise.” Yeah, it was Dylan who was knocking. And I wish I still had that poster….
And while there are no reliable statistics other than record sales, through the events that ensued we might surmise that they were listening in Teenville. Then, with a growing, reverential listening audience, in January, 1964, Dylan released “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The opening lyrics were:
Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Other lyrics followed:
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’
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
This wasn’t nothing like “Judy’s Turn To Cry!” It didn’t sound like singing at all! It didn’t have a story! Instead, it said: Watch out, parents, something rotten’s gonna hit the fan! This was some fearsome, threatening shit, and whoever heard it knew who was knockin’ at their door. Some kids heard it and shared the Word. Not a majority at first, maybe, but the word was spreading. “Blowin’ In The Wind” spoke to many who felt the wind blowing, maybe not enough and maybe not fast enough, but the dam had broken and the word was spreading. “Hard Rain” and “Masters of War” were powerful broadsides, and these lyrics were direct hits. Calling out to mothers and fathers—not just yours, but “throughout the land”—must have shaken up more than a few parents who weren’t used to being told that their children were ‘beyond their command,’ and to ‘get out of the way.’ Powerful words!
“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” also had “With God On Our Side,” which dared us to challenge American values and our place in the world, it challenged our confidence that we were always right, and it was powerful material that made people think what they’d never thought before, to question if God really was on our side. But mainly I remember the warning in “When The Ship Comes In:”
Oh, the time will come up when the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind ‘fore the hurricane begins
The hour when the ship comes in
Oh the foes will rise with the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
And they’ll pinch themselves and squeal and know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in
Then they’ll raise their hands, sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow you’re days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe they’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath they’ll be conquered
Yes, we heard him knocking. So did our parents. It was a call for unity and protest, and it was strong stuff for impressionable minds. Parents scoffed that he wasn’t singing the way they understood singing. This wasn’t Perry or Dean or Frank, and it wasn’t even any of the Bobby’s or Jimmy’s who were on the charts and our parents accepted. It was caterwauling, they said, but that was just fine with kids who were looking for ways to distance themselves from their parents, and was further proof that we “got it” and they didn’t. Ergo, we knew we were smarter than them. Thus Bob Dylan inserted himself into an age-old phenomenon best expressed by Mark Twain who said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” We weren’t the first teens to rebel, but we had more support than ever before.
So, y’know, please don’t tell me that the kids didn’t know what he was talking about, or to whom. We knew. He was talking to us from a different America than the one where “Judy’s Turn To Cry” was on the charts, and he was telling us we had to choose sides because it was an us-and-them situation. He was talking about serious issues, inciting urgency and seeding enmity and a general distrust of the establishment. Not everyone heard the call to arms; some heard nothing at all, some thought they heard something, and whatever it was, it was probably cool. Parents, not so much.
Were parents freaked out at what was a-changin’? You a-bet. In 1965, my friend and I were going to the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I was going in my folkie clothes, of course—jeans, CPO shirt, funky shoes—but my mother, who was afraid of who I was becoming, saw me leaving the house carrying my cowboy boots and she gave me a choice: either the boots stayed at home or I did. That may seem silly in 2015, but in 1965 my mother was scared of what those boots represented; on Long Island no one respectable wore cowboy boots and those who did were trouble and must come from broken homes, and she didn’t understand what was happening to her son and she was having none of it in her home. And she wasn’t alone in any of it. Not significant? It was, and it started with Dylan.
By the time Dylan came around, some had heard the early call of Elvis and Jerry Lee and others, and were bored with the Bobby’s, Jimmy’s and other Elvis clones the record producers and radio programmers gave us. Pat Boone? Really? But Dylan was never on those airwaves. Hey! Have you heard this guy? He was only available on an LP, and we gathered in twos and threes and played him in living rooms and dens and we didn’t dance, we listened. And we got the message: It’s all fucked up, and it’s up to us. The adults have fucked it up and we have to do better. That, friends, was very heady stuff in its day. We heard what he said in “Hard Rain” and “Masters of War;” we didn’t have power yet, but we knew we were right about the issues that mattered and we became a nation of disaffected youth, and by the time the Beatles came, well, some were ready to rebel, while others had already begun.
And what a stroke of luck that someone just mentioned the Beatles because regular readers know I love a good aside, and this is one of the best. Did you know it was Bob Dylan who turned the Beatles on to drugs? Fun drugs? Yeah, it’s crazy- I know! Sure, they used a lot of speed to play those six- and seven-hour shifts back in Hamburg, but the fun stuff? Yeah, it was Dylan, who went to see them in one of their appearances in America, and they sang their hit, “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Dylan was Watching the screaming-girl phenomenon from backstage when the Beatles sang:
“And when I touch you I feel happy inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hi-i-i-de”
Dylan thought they were singing, “I get high,” so when they all went back to their hotel, he pulled out a joint and got them high on pot for their first time. And you know what happened after that.
So I want you to remember about that when you look at how big an impact Bob Dylan has had, and even though it might seem to come from out of left field, I want to share a story on a personal level.
Like everyone else I knew in the summer of 1967, I was caught up in the fervid excitement and publicity that followed the release of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It was huge; it was a sonic bombshell that blew everyone I knew away. Nary a hipster in America was not in thrall to that album. One afternoon that summer, my aunt and uncle were visiting and my aunt came to my room as a friend and I were—like everyone else we knew—locked away in rooms, basements, dens, garrets or another secluded area, listening intensely, studying the lyrics, the liner notes, the amazing cover, the back, looking for every possible meaning in that album. And, whenever possible, smoking a little pot. But not in my room! My aunt came in near the end of the sweetly melodic and lyrically non-threatening “Fixing A Hole.” She saw me holding the album cover and said she’d heard about the record and asked if she could stay and listen as the song’s whimsical swell was ending and “She’s Leaving Home” was about to start. I said “sure, sit down,” and she sat on the edge of my bed. The song started with a gently plucked harp, and we all sat and listened as Paul sweetly sang, “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins…” No one spoke, we just listened. We followed the story. When the song was over, my friend and I still sat, thinking about what we’d just heard, but my aunt stood up and we looked at her. She was sobbing, and she left without saying a word. That was a powerful song for teens and a rough listen for parents. My God, the Beatles were amazing! Everyone knows that.
But don’t forget to add the Dylan. He was the spark.
Click for a playlist of Dylan tracks via YouTube.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.