Written by Jennifer Michaud, Worcester State University
Bob Dylan recently accepted the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize of Literature in honor of his inspirational protest songs that have cultivated American culture. Dylan, though a white male, has made noteworthy political statements for civil rights dating back to the early 1960s. Fifty years ago, music was not expected to lace deep meaning and societal commentary. When artists such as Dylan began using music as a way to protest and deliver messages to a wide audience, it was seen as unusual. Keith Negus, author of Icons of Pop Music: Bob Dylan, describes these transforming times by stating, “the three to four minute commercial song now had the potential to…comment on society, politics and prejudice, singers could ‘protest’ and perhaps play some part in the struggle to bring about a better world” (Negus, 2008, p.99). In 1963, Dylan performed at the March on Washington, expressing his support towards civil rights by both his presence and performance of “When the Ship Comes In.” In 1962, he wrote the song “Blowin in the Wind,” which expresses the hardships of minorities being accepted on equal footing with the white community. The freedom of blacks were questioned with lyrics such as “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? How many seas must a white dove sail before she sleeps in the sand? Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned? The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
The answer for equality must still be “blowin’ in the wind,” because the Civil Rights movement is still around, and it has a new name—“Black Lives Matter.” This movement began as a hashtag on twitter in response to the murder of the unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012. However, it was not until the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 when this movement began accumulating support and attention (Gale, 2016). The death of these young men and the spark of protests their assassinations conjured are reflective of the story of young Emmett Till, dating back to 1955. Till’s brutal slaughter went unjustified by an all-white jury and enraged the public, just as the unjustified killing of Michael Brown stirred anger in recent years (Catsman, 2016).
The song “The Death of Emmett Till” was composed in 1962 by Dylan in response to the killers being acquitted of any crime in Till’s murder. Dylan takes his audience through the trial and injustice of the young boy’s case, expressing his disgust with the American system throughout the song. Though the specific case in which Dylan references is specifically aimed at Emmett Till, it is clear the message can still be applied today. The ending lyrics of the song state, “This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man, that this kinda thing still lives today, in that Ku Klux-robed klan. But if all of us folks that think alike, if we gave all we could give, we could make this great land of ours, a greater place to live.”
Over fifty years later, American citizens are still fighting for the same freedom for racial minorities. Dylan remained loyal in fighting for African American rights throughout his career, creating songs such as “Hurricane” to discuss the trial of Rubin Carter and his unfair sentence. The lyrics in “The Times They Are a Changin’” paint a picture of the inevitable coming of the future; he prompts that the change in time will hopefully bring society together to form a sense of peace. The generation before Dylan practiced hatred and violence towards those of a different race, which may be why the following lyrics fit today: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times, they are a changing.”
Today, corporate media avoid covering the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on modern society. Any coverage of it at all is framed in a negative way. When we look back at the Civil Rights movement and the protests during that time, we are encouraged to think highly of the people who stood up against racism. However, over 50 years later, racism prevails, and the media cover protestors in negative ways. Rather than cover the issues at the root of social injustice, corporate media attempt to distract us with advertising and the allure of purchasing products. They clog our minds with celebrity news and suggest that we need a vacation. However, if we don’t take responsibility in analyzing the media and comparing two very similar movements in two contrasting times, we will be missing a stark reality.
The corporate media try to convince society that there has been a huge advancement in progression for minorities. They will do whatever they can to keep the public quiet and tame. However, it is all a façade. It is never too late to demand social justice and progressive change. Educating ourselves by seeking various vetted news media sources is one way to begin. People tend to believe the first piece of information they see without checking their facts. Speaking out and letting one’s opinion be heard, as Dylan did for many, is another way to demand change and speak for a generation. This can spark realization for society and allow people to want to revolutionize life as they know it. 1963 and 2016 are “night and day” when comparing technological and engineering advancements. However, when it comes down to the most basic of human rights, the answer to whether or not things have actually changed for social equality is “blowin’ in the wind.
Student Author: Jennifer Michaud, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
Negus, K. (2008). Icons of Pop Music : Bob Dylan (1). Bristol, GB: Equinox Publishing Ltd. Retrieved from
Black Lives Matter, (2016). In Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection. Detroit: Gale.
Catsam, D. C. (2016, March). Anderson, Devery S.: Emmett Till: the murder that shocked the world and propelled the civil rights movement. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, 53(7), 1067.