For the generation that came of age listening to the earliest Bob Dylan recordings, his was the insistent voice that sounded like a kind of journalism, written in lyrics to take us from teenage love songs to anthems of political passion.
We came out of the ‘50s listening to Elvis singing “Hound Dog” as he wiggled on a stage. There were pretty boys out of Philadelphia, the Fabians and Frankie Avalons, whose chief contribution to music was their haircuts. There was Ricky Nelson on our television sets, white bread with the crust trimmed off.
Then came Dylan challenging us to think beyond our own safe and protected lives, to think about people like Hattie Carroll dying in a Baltimore hotel, and Medgar Evers slain in his own driveway.
We could read about these people in the daily newspapers, but print is a medium of information. Music is language of the heart.
Dylan asked how many roads a man must walk before he was called a man. To a generation growing up in America’s first integrated schools, the words resonated inside our very classrooms. He was talking about people whose lives touched our own.
He sang of “Masters of War,” building death planes and bombs “as young people’s blood/flows out of their bodies/and is buried in the mud.” This, as the body count mounted high into the thousands in Vietnam. We knew these people, too.
He told our parents, “Your sons and your daughters/are beyond your command.” This was our passport to begin thinking for ourselves, and thinking beyond our own meek little lives.
Dylan liberated other songwriters as well. Now came Paul Simon and his “Sounds of Silence.” Now the Beatles moved from silly “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” to Eleanor Rigby’s loneliness. And all of these messages reached a Jersey kid named Bruce Springsteen.
Now they’ve given Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature. You can argue that the award’s always gone to writers of books, not songs, but who cares?
This guy has touched our heads and our hearts from his earliest recordings. He changed forever the way we sing to each other, and talk to each other.
Is there a better measure of his gift?
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