Musician or Politician? The importance of Bob Dylan to the New Left in the early 1960's

Essay by johndylanUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, January 2007

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Bob Dylan came to be remembered as the left-wing voice of his generation, in his words "I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of rebellion, the high priest of protest.1" He was seen as such because of his song lyrics, media coverage, associations with left-wing activists, various public appearances, and his decoration with the Tom Paine award by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. Dylan was seen as the "spokesman of a troubled generation,2" and was the most publicly recognizable figure of the New Left's, protest music scene. The New Left differed from earlier leftist movements that had been oriented towards labour activism, and instead adopted a broader political stance based around social activism. The "New Left" was an intellectually driven movement which attempted to correct the perceived errors of "Old Left" parties in the post-WWII period. Dylan played no role in the actual leadership of the movement, and opinions vary on his personal political motivations.

He was however, perceived by both the grass roots movement, and the wider public, as ardently leftist. The importance of Dylan's protest music to the New Left however has been romanticized, and it has been historically over-valued. This paper will investigate the reasons for Dylan's rise to prominence in the public eye, and evaluate Dylan's contribution to the advancement of the New Left in America.

There is much historical controversy over the sincerity of Dylan's protest music, and about his personal political beliefs. Regardless of this, Dylan came to be seen as the "principal articulator of generational disaffection,3" both within the Grass roots left, and to the conservative, Middle America. The major contributing factor to this perception was Dylan's topical music. The intention behind Dylan's material is much debated. Dylan himself emphatically denies a political motivation, and has repeated many times, "I was never...