Dylan and Cohen
Dylan and Cohen

David Boucher

David Boucher is Professor of Political Theory and Head of the School of European Studies at Cardiff University, UK and Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Staffing and Diversity.. He is the Chairman of the Trustees of the Collingwood Society and Director of the Collingwood and British Idealism Centre at Cardiff Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Continuum, 2014


Content Type:

Scholarly Books

Music Genres:

Folk Revival



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The Popular as Political

DOI: 10.5040/9781501330537.ch-001
Page Range: 25–48

I’m not angry. I’m a delightful sort of a person.

—Bob Dylan, London, 1965[1]

I think my rise in the market place will be considered an interesting curiosity, that’s all.

—Leonard Cohen, 1970[2]

In late 2001, within a few weeks of each other, sixty-year-old Bob Dylan and sixty-seven-year-old Leonard Cohen released new CDs, events significant enough to capture the covers of the major news magazines. After recording careers that spanned five decades, both singer-songwriters expressed notes of resignation: the world was no longer such a hostile place in which to live, and the inner turmoil no longer so tumultuous.

Cohen, the “Godfather of Gloom” and the “Prince of Darkness,” had emerged from the depression that enveloped him for most of his life. The sadness remained, but the angst had dissipated. After years of searching for his inner self, a certainty amid the comic tragedy of life, he concluded that there is no fixed point to excavate; even inner feelings are transitory.[3] There is a fatalism in Cohen’s recording, Ten New Songs, that is perhaps more disturbing than the fractured and chilling emotional landscapes of his earlier years. In earlier efforts, there was always a sense that there was something there to find, something that lay beneath the turmoil, something that the poet could express. The quest for artistic truth, which had taken him to the top of a mountain and subjected him to the rigors of the disciplined life of a Buddhist monk, ultimately resulted in the realization that the veil of ignorance is the only certainty that there is. Whatever plan may be unfolding, it is beyond our comprehension: “We don’t write the play, we don’t produce it, we don’t direct it and we’re not even actors in it.”[4]

Dylan’s CD, Love and Theft, was immediately hailed by critics as a classic. Its range of musical styles and variation in moods make it a much more complex and intricate collection than the somber Time Out of Mind, written after Dylan had suffered a serious heart infection. The mood ranges from the melancholy in “Mississippi” and “Sugar Baby” to the light and breezy, though often with sinister or macabre undertones, as in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” and “Bye and Bye.” There are wide cultural influences invoked in the songs, spanning Dylan’s own maturation through varied points of reference, from Alice in Wonderland to A Street Car Named Desire in “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” to the blues of his youth and its more recent reincarnation, reflected in “High Water (for Charlie Patton),” with its references to Big Joe Turner, Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” and Clarence Ashley’s “Coo Coo Bird.” The political stance is not as overt as in his earlier albums, but we still find him alluding to familiar themes such as corrupt blood-sucking politicians (“Summer Days”) and the obscenity of war (“Lonesome Day Blues”).

The voices of the two icons in these later works may have dropped another octave and lost most of their range, but they have lost nothing of their expressiveness. On the cover of Ten New Songs Cohen (pictured with former backup singer Sharon Robinson, who earns cowriting credit on all the material here), looks suave, distinguished, and immaculately dressed, his lifestyle having taken no significant toll on his face. Dylan has affected the look of a Mississippi paddleboat gambler, the lines on his face deep, his eyes dull and sunken. He is the ’60s dandy, looking like a new millennium cowboy.

Both writers, although resigned, still have their political points to make. Cohen, self-effacing, questioning his credentials and his resolve, ironically pleads “May the lights in the land of plenty / Shine on the truth some day” (“The Land of Plenty,” Ten New Songs). On Love and Theft Dylan defiantly declares that the defeated will learn the beauty of peace and the proud will be subdued: “I’m going to spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd / I’m going to teach peace to the conquered, I’m going to tame the proud” (“Lonesome Day Blues”).[5]

Popular Culture and Politics

During the 1950s and early 1960s it was generally assumed that celebrities, although famous, wielded little political power. They constituted a powerless elite. However, in 1979 Richard Dyer contested this characterization, arguing that the entertainment elite, particularly film stars, did exercise political power of an ideological kind, in the way that they communicated and bolstered certain values, especially when celebrities attached their names to particular causes.[6] In the music industry it is now not infrequent that stars, particularly the aristocracy of the pop world, espouse causes and promote activities publicizing and raising money for the alleviation of world poverty or for the eradication of AIDS. Individuals frequently define themselves in terms of particular issues: for example, Bob Geldolf with world poverty, Sting with saving the rain forests, and Bono with canceling third world debt. The 2003 Stop the Iraqi War march and rally in Hyde Park, London, included numerous celebrities, such as Kylie Minogue, Damon Albarn, Ms. Dynamite, and Bianca Jagger, as well as the playwright Harold Pinter.

In some sense all popular music is political, reflecting the dominant culture and norms of society, and even reacting against them emphasizes this dominance. For example, almost all love songs reinforce the view that heterosexual relationships are the norm. Songs expressing homosexual emotions or celebrating homosexual relations tend to be suggestive rather than explicit, such as the songs of the Village People. Songs that are more explicit or graphic in their depictions fall foul of the standards of public decency and tend to fail to gain airtime.

The projection of, or reaction against, the dominant culture may be characterized as the presentation of Utopian or dystopian images that impress themselves upon an audience.[7] Utopian images include those critical of the current orthodoxy as well as those affirming it. The category accommodates such songs as Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and Cohen’s “Suzanne,” as well as “Masters of War” and “Democracy,” both with strong critical edges, but with a vision of a higher form of society to be attained. Some songs, of course, can be both critical and affirmative by being appropriated by the very target against which they are directed. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was originally composed as an antiestablishment, anti—big business song in defense of poor, hardworking, ordinary Americans, but it gradually became appropriated by that very establishment and turned into something like a national anthem inclusive of all Americans.

Dystopian imagery is more disturbing and pessimistic, playing on the senses by presenting a distorted and disjointed, often sinister and macabre, reality. This is certainly a category in terms of which such songs as Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” and Cohen’s “The Future” can be analyzed. It is a way in which songwriters, reacting against the system, reject the terms of reference of the dominant culture and project back upon it an alternative reality that it cannot accommodate, which may in addition be enhanced by theatricality, as, for example, in the Goth style and music of Marilyn Manson or the metal image of SlipKnot, with their characteristic grotesque masks.

At bottom most songs conjure a Utopian or dystopian image, carrying with them direct or indirect ideological messages. The mid-1950s, when the Communist witch hunts led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy had waned, was a time when on both sides of the Atlantic academics and statesmen were congratulating themselves on having achieved an age characterized by the end of ideology. Eminent academics such as Edward Shils and Seymour Martin Lipset contended that, whereas in the Soviet Union, people were consciously manipulated and socially engineered through the dissemination and propagation of an ideology that created and distorted reality, in the West ideological politics had come to an end because of the elimination of gross inequalities and the achievement of relative widespread affluence. There was, they argued, very little difference to be discerned between political parties, such as the Democrats and Republicans in the United States and the Labour and Conservative parties in Great Britain, on most social and political issues. The differences were simply a matter of degree. What was really being reflected in this argument was the implicit acceptance, indeed celebration, that the dominant culture had triumphed. Where it appeared to be under threat by the likes of rock-and-roll pioneers Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, concerted efforts were mobilized to discredit these purveyors of perversion and depravity.

Minority music, or the music of blacks, was absorbed by the dominant culture in America, which at first saw it as alien and other, and as a distinct threat, but then as a commodity that could be exploited. Black music in America was profitable because of the existence of a sizable market, and even major companies set up their own “race” labels directed exclusively at black culture. During the 1920s, with advances in recording technology, recording companies proliferated, and a wide range of esoteric localized music, such as that from the Appalachians, was preserved on such labels as Vocalion Race Records and Brunswick Race Records. This was not done as a magnanimous gesture to the diversity of American culture, but because it was possible to produce small runs and make a profit on the investment, while paying the artist a small flat fee and, if he or she was lucky, a minuscule royalty on sales. The availability and extent of this technology are portrayed in the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), when the Soggy Bottom Boys cut “Man of Constant Sorrow” in a remote makeshift studio in the Deep South.

The Great Depression of the 1930s decimated the music industry, and most of the small independent companies went out of business. In 1933, for example, record sales were 7 percent of what they had been in 1929. The market revived during the late 1930s because of inexpensive 78 rpm pressings, but the localized and regionalized nature of the music was almost submerged. It was not until the 1950s, with the availability of new recording techniques, using tape instead of etching the music directly onto disk, that commercial recording by small independent companies once again proliferated. When Harry Smith compiled his Anthology of American Folk Music and released it on Moses Asch’s Folkways label in 1952, it was assumed that the material didn’t need a license, and royalties were not paid, either because the original company had gone out of business or because an existing company had deleted it from its catalog. Smith’s idiosyncratic and eclectic collection was primarily an exercise in retrieval, but it was also revolutionary in ignoring the race divide. In the foreword to the handbook accompanying the Anthology, Smith acknowledges Okeh Records and record producer and engineer Ralph Peer’s contribution to the advent of modern record making in taking portable recording equipment to Atlanta, but also credits Peer with inventing the term race records, by which they were still known by some manufacturers in 1952. The songs in Smith’s anthology are organized thematically, and except for the odd photograph in the accompanying booklet produced by Smith, the race of the artist is not identified. Smith took some delight in knowing that he had sown confusion over whether particular singers were black or white. It took years, he said in 1968, before anyone realized that Mississippi John Hurt was not a hillbilly.[8] [9]

Black music in America gained its mainstream respectability, despite generational protests, by being sung by white men and women. The context in which the songs were packaged and presented was a vast multicultural commercial enterprise whose concern was profit rather than taste, sales rather than race or the political content of the music, and entertainment rather than the message of a song. A huge music industry was the context within which the political gestures, whether explicitly or implicitly, conventional or countercultural, were made, while the companies orchestrated, merchandised, and sold the product. In this respect, even the subversive that became successful was compromised and invariably accused of selling out.

Another area of discontent that became coopted was the Beat movement. The radical point of what the Beats were trying to get across was lost on most people because the Beats themselves were absorbed in their own lifestyle and the means to their political goals figured more prominently than the ends. The sex, drugs, fast cars, and “happenings” gradually generated ridicule rather than admiration. The use of the term beatnik considerably defused the radical image of the Beats. The popular image of beatniks was of dirty, unshaven men in sandals playing bongo drums and smoking dope, accompanied by sexually promiscuous girls in tight-fitting leotards looking bored. Those people who left home and chose this alternative lifestyle were paradoxically disowned by Kerouac, who wanted to emphasize his working-class origins and the seriousness of his art. The conformity against which Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs raged ironically inspired thousands of young people to conform to the new radical orthodoxy. The Beats were themselves captives of the movement they served to ignite. Just as Karl Marx had denied that he was a Marxist, the Beats resented having their names used and exploited by the cult of the beatniks.

The prime example in the context of the folk revival that enabled Bob Dylan to launch his career was the popularity of hootenannies, gatherings of folksingers in which audiences often join in. Initially, as Dylan’s own route testifies, the beatniks were not reaching out to a mass disaffected audience. The message that the beatniks projected in talking of travel, freedom, and transcending experiential and experimental barriers, though radical and almost forbidden, was vague and suggestive in its vision, intensely personalized and escapist. Only the periphery of the “silent generation” of apathetic college students of the 1950s turned to Beat, while gradually and accumulatively growing numbers turned to folk, with its emphasis on communal redemption and identifiable political ills with prescriptions for reform. The folk revival was constructive, whereas because the Beat movement was politically acute, in practice it seemed socially and personally destructive, and indeed was portrayed as such by the media that exploited the commercial potential of its subversiveness.

The folk revival offered constructive visions of communal defiance of social injustices. The road that the emerging politically conscious preferred was that of Woody Guthrie rather than Jack Kerouac. The folk inspiration was Utopian and naive, in that it called upon city dwellers to look to the country for the wholesome values that should guide their conduct. During the 1940s and 1950s the likes of Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, and Sonny Terry, as well as Woody Guthrie, inhabited Greenwich Village in New York City, infusing it with a populist, rather than elitist, intellectual touch. Seeger and his friends would hold Saturday morning activities in the Village for kids, teaching them songs and playing games. On Sundays in Washington

Figure 1.1. A 1959 beatnik film poster.

Square, the hub of the Village and thus the center of the avant-garde, people congregated to listen to singers and poets. It was in the post—World War II era that the hootenanny became a popular form of entertainment. It took various forms, from Sunday afternoon rent parties organized by Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, including Seeger, to more formally organized gatherings at New York’s Town Hall organized by Izzy Young’s Folklore Center.

The term hootenanny became popular in Seattle in July 1940 after Terry and Berta Pettus of the (Seattle) Washington New Dealer organized a party with refreshments and entertainment, including singers chosen from the floor, calling it the Midsummer Hootenanny. The publication changed its name to The New World and continued to hold regular hootenannies. They were monthly, no format, fund-raising gatherings. Terry Pettus did not coin the term, however. When he grew up in southern Indiana, the term was commonly used for impromptu parties. In the autumn of 1955 issue of Sing Out, Pete Seeger wrote a piece on the origin of the term, attributing its use in New York to Woody Guthrie, who brought it with him from Seattle in the early 1940s.[10] Guthrie and the Almanac Singers rented a large house in the Village and had regular Sunday afternoon rent parties. The parties became so popular that they were moved to Town Hall and even Carnegie Hall. On Friday, October 5, 1962, for example, the Folklore Center organized a hootenanny at Town Hall billing Sandy Bull, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Lynn Gold, John Lee Hooker, and Ian and Sylvia as the main acts. A flyer advertised that “members of the audience will be selected to sing from the stage in this exciting event. Bring your guitars and banjos.”

Hootenannies became so popular throughout the United States that the ABC television network started a regular Saturday evening show of the same name in the autumn of 1962. The legacy of blacklisting from the McCarthy era persisted even then. Pete Seeger and the Weavers, for example, were conspicuous by their absence from the shows. From the first broadcast opposition began to mount against the exclusion of what ABC originally called “inferior talent,” a position that was quickly revised when the network demanded that Seeger and the Weavers sign a “loyalty oath affidavit.” On September 28, 1963, the ABC network offices in New York were picketed by supporters of Seeger, and an accompanying press release declared that Seeger was not prepared to sign a loyalty agreement, having spent the previous seven years successfully fighting a court battle against the constitutionality of such oaths. Among the protesters were Judy Collins, Carolyn Hester, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Kingston Trio.

Hootenannies, then, although popular in the country under various names for an impromptu party with self-made entertainment, were primarily responsible in urban areas for creating the belief that folk music was for the people and by the people. The larger, more formally organized hoots, as they came to be called, engendered a great deal of criticism from within the folk community. The ABC show Hootenanny, as Robert Shelton recognized, generated a huge debate about politics and aesthetics, and was probably responsible for more controversy than any other show of the era. Shelton contends: “The ‘hootenanny’ craze spawned by the

Figure 1.2. Advertisement for a hootenanny with Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker, October 5, 1962.

show was a study in the mechanics of American merchandising, fact-chasing and cashing in on what was topically popular.”[11] The craze soon subsided, and serious folk followers were glad to see it go, with its strange mix of show business and folk music. Internal squabbling over the authenticity of folk music became characteristic of the leading figures in the folk revival, and Bob Dylan was himself a casualty of their censuring tendencies, first when he moved from the political to the personal in his songs, then when he switched from acoustic to electric guitar.

In this book the dominant political and social culture of the 1960s is predominantly the context against which the songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are explored. There are political messages to many of the songs, whether in an explicit challenge to the status quo or in being inspired by particular injustices or momentous events. It has been commonly observed that the pop music of the early 1960s had become homogenized and bland, molded and packaged by the record companies, as the excitement and raw quality of the music derived from black culture was deemed to have mass appeal and sales potential. Just as chains of Mexican fast-food restaurants have manufactured a bland, almost spiceless Mexican menu that even children will eat, the music industry of the early 1960s transformed even the revolutionary sounds for mass consumption, which could bridge the generation gap in appealing to young and old. In the United States, Elvis Presley’s early radicalism, reflected in such films as Jailhouse Rock (1957), and in Britain by Cliff Richard in Expresso Bongo (1960), became replaced by the more universally appealing image of the clean-cut boy next door, portrayed by Presley in G.I. Blues (1960) and by Richard in Summer Holiday (1963). From the atmosphere and mood of seediness beautifully portrayed in monochrome and subdued light, reflecting the genre of the new realism in both American and British films, we get a fantasy world of pastel shades and the innocence of youth, the ideal of the postwar consumer society. This attempt to commodify radicalism by subtracting what was radical is an example of the dominant culture adapting and absorbing what was at first perceived as a challenge, and which later could be exploited to reinforce the dominant cultural values. It is against this homogenization and blandness in popular culture that the whole New York scene, to which the likes of Dylan, Cohen, and Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground, particularly John Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico, consciously rebelled.

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are widely acknowledged as the great pop poets of the 1960s, transforming the popular song into a medium for questioning the personal, social, and political norms of their times. They emerged at a time when populist politics had come to the fore, but with features unique to the early 1960s. For the first time a very serious division was emerging between the values of the young and those of the older generation, so much so that the establishment voice that spoke for them was inauthentic, a voice that had no resonance in the soul of the disoriented, disillusioned, and directionless youth. So many of these young people described their adulation for Dylan and Cohen as the articulation or vocalization of what they were feeling but were unable to express: Dylan the anger, Cohen the angst and despondency. Bruce Springsteen, for example, heard “Like a Rolling Stone” at the age of fifteen and admired Dylan for having the “guts to take on the whole world and make me feel like I had to, too.”[12] A German critic, speaking of Cohen, contended that “he is the incarnation of the unfulfilled wishes and unanswered questions of the young generation.”[13]

The generation gap was the subject of a great deal of discussion, and what made it a unique phenomenon was that it was worldwide. The distinguished anthropologist Margaret Mead saw this as evidence that the young had truly become part of a world community, a cosmopolitan culture.[14] Mead had been a student of Franz Boas, an advocate of cultural determinism as opposed to biological determinism. Mead became famous for her study of Samoa. In opposition to the view that adolescent behavior and emotional turmoil were biologically programmed, she argued that teenagers in Samoa did not go through such an adolescent crisis, and therefore nurture, and not nature, was the determining factor in teenage behavior.[15] Mead’s work was subsequently discredited because she had an inadequate grasp of the language and was underresearched and overgullible. Close scrutiny of court records showed that teenage delinquency in Samoa was indeed a cause for concern.[16]

In retrospect, it is significant that in Mead’s argument for a worldwide culture of youth she eschewed particulars on the ground that such detail would hinder the search for an explanatory principle. As Richard Poirier noted, Mead hardly mentioned the fundamental issues and concerns that made the young rebellious and revolutionary, and instead pointed to the fact that the young all over the world owned transistor radios and tape recorders and were therefore able to share the world and make new contributions to it.[17] Mead argued that global communications and instantaneous transmission of pictures make the same images available to all of us without editorial interference. Of course, such a view proved to be incredibly naive. The experience of the Vietnam War taught governments that in future conflicts the press would need to be much more carefully controlled, as was practiced in the Falklands crisis, the Gulf War, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The 1960s was also the time when the invisible became visible and audible. Black culture interested and even fascinated young white youth, but it was an oppressed culture denied a place in middle American society. The civil rights movement constituted a threat to the American way of life comparable with the Civil War and the Great Depression. During the early 1960s the civil rights movement already had a semblance of organization. It is ironic that it was the black experience of the military into which they had at least notionally been integrated by the time of the Korean War that inspired many blacks to join the civil rights movement and fight for civil equality outside of military life. Three organizations were firmly established. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been formed in 1909 with the aim of fighting discrimination and segregation in America largely through the due process of law. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, adopted the strategy of nonviolent tactics to highlight racial inequalities. Formed in the wake of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955—1956, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., advocated a more militant stance, while continuing to espouse the principle of nonviolence. It was to some extent the frustration of the younger generation that demanded more rapid and palpable change that led to the gradual formation of a new and radically militant departure, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was willing to use more confrontational tactics.[18] Bob Dylan’s personal involvement with the civil rights movement predates its most radical phase. By the time he renounced his connection in 1965, having actually renounced his connection many times previously, the leadership and involvement of white middle-class liberal students and intellectuals was being resented and the integrationist stance associated with them rejected. The antiwar movement was beginning to deflect the attention of white supporters, and blacks gradually came to believe that they had a cause of their own to fight, and that many of their black leaders fell far short of their aspirations. The civil rights movement was significantly damaged nearly three years before the death of King, when looting, murder, and arson were the spectacle of the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles in August 1965, the month that Dylan showcased his electric set at the Newport Folk Festival.

In 1966 SNCC took a dramatic turn. Its leader, John Lewis, espoused the ideals of nonviolence and the maintenance of alliances with white liberals as the best tactics for racial advancement. In its spring 1966 conference these ideals were rejected. The organization adopted the position that blacks must organize independently of whites to achieve liberation. John Lewis was replaced by Stokely Carmichael, one of the organizers of the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama. In addition, SNCC produced a position paper defining and advocating Black Power. In that paper it stated: “If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people. We must form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties, write our own histories.”[19] Out of this new radicalism came two strands of thinking and action, cultural nationalism and revolutionary nationalism. The cultural nationalists articulated the upward aspirations of many of the better-off blacks, using their African heritage as a mask for subscribing to capitalist economic ideals. Revolutionary nationalism represented the most oppressed and poverty-stricken blacks and advocated socialist revolution as the solution to the problem.[20] It was this revolutionary strand that precipitated the formation by Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Bobby Hutton of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, in the autumn of 1966. Eldridge Cleaver became its minister of information and produced one of the most definitive theoretical statements of radical black liberation in a speech he gave on March 18, 1968, at the founding of the Peace and Freedom party. Cleaver argued:

We start with the basic definition: that black people in America are a colonized people in every sense of the term and that white America is an organized Imperialist force holding black people in colonial bondage. From this definition our task becomes clearer: what we need is a revolution in the white mother country and national liberation for the black colony.[21]

Three weeks later, seventeen-year-old Bobby Hutton was killed when police in Oakland ambushed him, Cleaver, and a number of Panther activists. With this surge of radicalism, the central place of folk music in the civil rights movement had become an irrelevance.

To compound matters, the almost pathological fear of communism, which had resulted in the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early 1950s, had also brought the world to the brink of nuclear war and embroiled America in the Vietnam War. The threat of nuclear war drove an even deeper wedge between the establishment and the disillusioned youth culture. Politicians who could bring humanity to the edge of destruction could not be the authentic voice of the people, a feeling that was exacerbated by the widespread perceived futility of the Vietnam War. Civil disobedience became a mode of political action representative of such a significant minority of alienated youth that the authority and legitimacy of the American government were seriously undermined.

The movement against the Vietnam War thought of the conflict as immoral, irrational, and unjust. It was an aberration perpetrated by misguided politicians pandering to the pressure of the military-industrial complex. The movement saw its role as fundamentally educative. If it could disseminate the true facts by means of teach-ins, mass rallies, and lobbying Congress, the nonviolent civil disobedience would awaken the conscience of the nation and its leaders. The authorities, however, responded to the marches and peaceful protests with voracious force in, for example, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. The nonviolent tactics of peaceful protest came to be viewed as futile and were gradually replaced by violent revolutionary tactics. The understanding of the war as an irrational aberration also became transformed. The government lost credibility, and its justifications were distrusted. The Vietnam War became attached to a wider context of systematic American imperialism. The anti-Vietnam movement became not just antiwar but also antiimperialist. A statement on civil disobedience by the leaders of the Vietnam Day Committee dated May 22, 1965, asserted that protesters appealed to a higher law, the law that America invoked in Nuremberg after World War II to prosecute war criminals who acted in accordance with the laws of their own country, in order to resist American institutions that stifle the thought and poison the moral well-being of its citizens and offer no democratic redress in an electoral system that presented no alternatives. The statement warned that “our massive civil disobedience, aimed at blocking the war machine of the United States, will send shock waves from Maine to California, and from the United States to all parts of the world.”[22]

The imperialist analysis was clearly articulated by Carl Oglesby, president of Students for a Democratic Society, in a speech delivered in November 1965 during the March on Washington, D.C., to end the war in Vietnam. He argued that it was no longer adequate to think of the war as the result of the actions of misguided evil monsters. It had to be seen as part of American liberal foreign policy since 1932. It was a policy of containment to protect the interests of America throughout the world. Revolution was to be prevented anywhere on the principle that if one Southeast Asian country succumbs to what Americans designate communism, they will all fall like a series of dominoes. Oglesby maintained that Americans, who constituted 5 percent of the world’s population but consumed 50 percent of its resources, “take a richness that is in good part not our own, and … put it in our pockets, our garages, our split levels, our bellies, and our futures.”[23] The dispatching of 22,000 American troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson clearly illustrated liberalism’s illiberal foreign policy. Johnson unequivocally stated his motive: “We don’t propose to sit here in our rocking chair with our hands folded and let the Communists set up any government in the Western Hemisphere.”[24] This anti-Communist ideology also impelled Johnson fundamentally to change the nature of American involvement in Vietnam. What President John Kennedy had called “their war” in 1963, Johnson made “our war” in 1965 by sending American bombers to North Vietnam and combat units for the first time to the South, initiating a war that was to last longer than any in American history and resulting in more American deaths in combat than at any time with the exception of the Civil War and the two world wars, the cost of which was second only to World War II.[25]

It is important to emphasize that Dylan’s involvement with civil rights and antiwar protesters predates the shift to radical politics and widespread civil disobedience. Dylan was very much associated with the protest, or topical, songs of the folk music movement of the early 1960s. This movement was broadly left wing and, among its purist members, taking a counterculture stance, mocked other forms of popular music because of its commercialism. It was strongly oriented against what President Dwight Eisenhower called in a speech in 1961 the “military-industrial complex,” which in itself constituted a powerful pressure group for prosecuting war. Eisenhower warned against the immense power of the military-industrial complex, which proved to be one of the most prophetic statements a U.S. president ever made. Three days later, Kennedy made his inaugural speech in which he emphasized the collective ethos: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy’s election to office did nothing to assuage the fears of threat that so exercised minds during the Eisenhower years, that is, the possibility of nuclear war. In 1961, with the resumption of Russian atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Americans feared the consequences of fallout and strontium 90 poisoning, and looked to fallout shelters as a possible defense. The Ban the Bomb movement in Great Britain was slow to take hold in the United States, where only pockets of resistance to the dominant culture could be discerned in the radicalness of the Beat Generation. Pete Seeger, on his return from Britain after encountering the extent of civil unrest against the threat of nuclear war, lamented the fact that the voice of American radicalism, even in song, was not being heard.

The subsequent reflection of contemporary social and political issues in the lyrics of folk songs, along with a heightened awareness that the whole folk song tradition harbored subversive elements, generated as strong a condemnation from conservative forces, as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had done in the 1950s. In September 1963, at the height of the folk revival and the popularity of the hootenanny, the U.S. Senate debated a call from the Fire and Police Research Association of Los Angeles for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate Communist influence in folk music. The call was prompted by the conclusion that the Soviet Union, in pursuance of its goal of world domination, was using the folk movement as an instrument to subvert the youth of America. Its method was dialectical, alluding to a key Marxist concept, and cybernetic, alluding to the nascent powers of persuasion in the advancement of computer technology.

This call came at a time when the reputation of Congress was being impugned by criticism of the overzealous and often unjust activities of HUAC. Senator Keating of New York, with a good degree of satire and tongue in cheek, reported that there is no smoke without fire, and seeing the humor in the situation, suggested that that was probably why the Fire and Police Research Association was involved. The senator related its evidence of songs in which people were incited to disregard embargoes and concluded that if widely sung now, the embargo against Cuba could be undermined. In addition, in such songs as “Darwin Cory” and “Copper Kettle,” which Dylan was later to record for Self Portrait (1970) in what is widely deemed to be his postprotest phase, excise duty on liquor is widely being evaded. Indeed, the family in “Copper Kettle” has not paid any whiskey tax since 1792. Even more sinister is the Negro spirituals that preached pacifism and disarmament: “Gonna lay down my sword and shield / Down by the river-side / And study war no more.” The Fire and Police Research Association concluded that the subversive implication of the song was that West Point and other military academies be closed to prevent the study of war and to facilitate Soviet domination.

Obviously concerned that the Senate would become a laughing stock if it recommended the investigation of folk music, Keating asked the rhetorical question, that on top of all the senators, congressmen, and presidents who have been accused of being Communists are we to add, “merciful heavens, American folk music. And who knows what lies ahead?” Keating’s views were echoed by other senators, one of whom maintained that any attempt to suppress such expression would smack of the Soviet totalitarian suppression of impressionist artists and jazz musicians.[26]

This, of course, needs to be placed in context. The call from the Fire and Police Research Association of Los Angeles came three months after a huge outcry in the press and on television stations surrounding the suppression of Bob Dylan’s song “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Dylan had been scheduled to sing it on the Ed Sullivan Show, May 12, 1963. CBS network honchos feared that the lyrics might prompt a lawsuit and put pressure on the young singer to substitute a different song. Instead, he walked out, gaining much more publicity for his views on right-wing myopia in relation to communism than had he sung the song. Dylan himself complained to the Federal Communications Commission, accusing WCBS-TV of exercising “a form of censorship and economic tyranny.”[27]

A couple of months after the Senate debate, Dylan performed the song at Carnegie Hall, introducing it by saying, “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with this song.”[28] Its sentiments were, in fact, in line with some of the more enlightened members of the Senate who would have been totally in sympathy with the song’s ridiculing of Communist paranoia: “Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy / Lincoln, Jefferson, and that Roosevelt guy.” The Red Scare was echoed in Britain by the more sensationalist of the popular Sunday newspapers, claiming that the contemporary worldwide movement in folk music masked the clandestine tactics of the Kremlin to poison and subvert young minds. Derek Johnson, in the New Musical Express in November 1963 dismissed with contempt these hysterical and paranoid allegations.

The CBS incident was indicative of a wider problem, and that was the dependence of television and radio on sponsors and advertising. In a 1961 documentary, quoting Edmund Burke’s famous phrase “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” host Howard K. Smith prophesied race riots in Birmingham, Alabama. CBS forced Smith to resign. The desire to avoid offending anyone on television stifled even legitimate protest. In post-1945 America, there have been two strands in the extreme right, the one upholding the Bible and the other the Constitution. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society was far more vociferous in the 1960s in rejecting the aspects of the democratic process than, for example, Father Charles E. Coughlin in the 1930s, in his opposition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and support of the economically outcast against the banks, or Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, who concentrated his anti-Communist attack on the symbols of upper-class society, being careful, for example, not to antagonize the unions.

The John Birch Society with its economic conservativism appealed very much to the upper strata of society and advocated restricting the suffrage. The three right-wing movements epitomized by Welch, Coughlin, and McCarthy shared common elements: they were isolationist and intensely nationalist, they all stressed both the internal and external dangers of communism, and they were willing to disregard due process when confronting the problems of internal communism. Members of the John Birch Society, for example, were reluctant to extend civil liberties to Communists, atheists, and pacifists, and likely to deny the right of public meeting to those opposing the American form of government. Many advocated censuring the “crime comic book” as an undesirable influence upon the young. A poll in California in 1963 indicated that Republicans rather than Democrats, those living in Southern California, those better educated and in a higher economic category, and those who were fundamentalist in religion, concerned about communism, and committed to economic conservatism were more likely to support the society than those who had a different socioeconomic profile. These members of the radical right, although paranoid, were relatively sophisticated in their discriminations and tended to abstain from expressing anti-Semitic views or those associated with other forms of traditional bigotry. Their attack on religion was upon the National Council of Churches, with its liberal-leaning, high-status Protestant affiliates. Welch, in fact, tried to limit his followers to attacking communism and those sectors of the political elite that he thought most susceptible to it, that is, the intellectuals who influence political organizations.[29] They were strongly opposed to the civil rights movement and the intellectuals who led it, and by implication disagreed with the proposed level of government intervention to improve the plight of blacks. In fact, Welch thought that Eisenhower was part of the Communist conspiracy. He wondered why Eisenhower had helped destroy McCarthy, placated the Korean Communists, refused help to anti-Communist forces in Indochina, Berlin, and Hungary, and extended “socialist” policies initiated by liberal Democrats. Welch developed a sophisticated conspiracy theory that was global in nature and historically concerted. The John Birch Society was not a party and did not seek mass membership. It regarded itself as a striking force. Given the economic profile of its supporters, who were, it must be added, a tiny minority of the population, CBS did not want to offend a potential source of income. “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” had, however, in a slightly different version, been sung by the Chad Mitchell Trio the day before on Hootenanny, on the ABC television network.[30]

Harriet Van Home, in a piece dated May IS, 1963, in the New York Telegram and Sun, accused CBS of having little moral fiber in effectively condoning an organization that had been denounced by the three major faiths in America, by the responsible press, by the attorney general of the United States, and even by President Eisenhower. Home highlighted a vacuum that in many ways the folk movement filled, supplying the critical edge that the networks were unwilling to develop. Home argued: “There seems to be no zest for major battles at any network. Worse, there is no moral passion, no deeply felt need to educate the public to show ‘the simple who believeth every word’ where the philosophy of Robert Welch may be in error.”

By the mid-1960s, Dylan had rejected the more overtly political protest songs—having never claimed to be a protest singer—and the folk movement of which he was hailed as one of its greatest leaders. Although the civil rights movement was the context of his political finger-pointing songs, he declared that he was not part of any movement and that he was not going to be constrained by its rules.[31] His songs then developed what was already emerging in the earlier albums, a more personal and less communal expression of his own emotions, whether in love songs, or surrealist imagery, or sheer poetry set to music. Cohen, while becoming part of the same folk music tradition, never wrote topical or protest songs, but his songs are highly political in their imagery of the modern world. He explores the depths of human experience and alienation. Donald Henahan, the cultural editor of the New York Times, in comparing Dylan and Cohen, captures the essence of the different characters of their music: “Whereas Mr. Dylan is alienated from society and mad about it, Mr. Cohen is alienated and merely sad about it.”[32] To put it differently, in the early years Dylan was the manifestation of popular resistance, the exemplar for an alienated youth to emulate. In contrast, Cohen differentiates himself: “If you were going to talk about the political aspect of my music I would say that it is the music of personal resistance.”[33]

From an early point in their careers Dylan and Cohen shared the same contradiction: they resented excessive intrusion into their personal lives, expressing a deep cynicism of the adulation and sainthood they had achieved, while simultaneously cultivating it for all they were worth. Their cynicism bordered on public arrogance and is manifest in their early dealings with the press, as well as in documentaries in which they self-consciously present personas that are evasive, ambivalent, defiant, arrogant, and egotistic. These features are evident in Dylan’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and Cohen’s Ladies and Gentlemen, It’s Leonard Cohen (1965). Both use cynicism about their egos as a method of self-defense, preserving something of their private life and maintaining their integrity. That they were able to play games with the press that took their outrageousness at face value and maintain credibility with their audience is a sign of the extent to which the establishment, along with the media, was completely out of touch with the emergent and defiant youth culture.

Even though both have continued to enjoy considerable success, it is their early albums, Bob Dylan’s up to 1968 and Leonard Cohen’s up to 1971, that continue to define them and against which everything else they do is judged. On the occasion of Dylan’s sixtieth birthday, for example, Ian MacDonald in Uncut magazine suggested that the years of drug abuse, withdrawal from methamphetamine, and the consequent damage meant that Dylan was never again able to scale the heights of the artistry he achieved in those early years.[34] In the collector’s edition of Q^Dylan, John Harris maintains that between 1962 and 1966 Dylan marked the world’s consciousness “as much as any musician ever has.”[35] In 1984 Dylan lamented that “I look at those songs and wonder where they came from, and how they came. I couldn’t do them now, and I don’t even try.”[36] Robert Sandall suggested that nothing Cohen had done since The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968) had made the same impact. He argued that the 1988 album I’m Your Man showed that the dark, depressive poetry benefited from an inventive arrangement.[37] Cohen’s Greatest Hits (1975), a selection of songs from the early albums, was voted in 1998 top of the all-time “gravest hits,” or music to get depressed by, despite the much less manic-depressive material of his later years.[38] Even the Columbia Records Media Department press release accompanying the release of Ten New Songs played on this reputation by calling Cohen “the master of mortification” and the “sentry of solitude.”

The music industry is exactly that, an industry aggressively seeking profit from a lucrative market share, and as Tom Petty graphically remarked, it doesn’t give a damn about the music and is motivated by profit and nothing else. In the 1987 film Hearts of Fire, Dylan plays a rock star who has seen better times, and is cynical and embittered about the experience. In one scene Dylan, whose dignity is so affronted by the corruption of the music industry, smashes up a hotel room in an uncontrollable rage.[39] The impact of the point is lost when the event is so common and attributed to far less well intended motivations.

The labels are commercial enterprises competing for a share of the lucrative market, prepared to invest heavily in those they see as potential profit boosters. The United States constitutes over 30 percent of the world market, generating over $10 billion in sales annually. It is no wonder that all successful artists attempt to make it in America. In comparison, British sales constitute some 10 percent of the world market. Britain’s participation in the global popular music market did not come about until the 1960s, with the phenomenal success of the Beatles and the British invasion.

In 1991 Tony Powell, the managing director of MCA Records, announced that record companies now see themselves as entertainment companies concerned with projecting global personalities through multimedia formats. The quest today is for entertainment icons who can be plugged into the vast network of media communications globally developed.[40] Both Cohen and Dylan predate the globalization of pop and were to some extent vehicles of it. They had become legendary before the transformation of the industry, which allowed them a certain degree of self-indulgence, Dylan more so than Cohen, in constantly surprising his audience with new, sometimes unwelcome, shifts in style.

Cohen’s relationship with CBS/Sony has been cordial, but he has often found it difficult to disguise his obvious irritation at attempts to force his music into categories and conform to sounds that are not his, and with what he considers the low-key marketing of his work. In an interview he gave prior to the release of his first album in 1968, Cohen complained of how his lack of familiarity with recording studios encouraged engineers and musicians to manipulate him and tell him how to make music. It was, he complained, a constant struggle to prevent them from putting him into their categories. Yet by the time he recorded Songs from a Room (1969) he had accepted responsibility for being unaware of “the techniques of collective enterprise.”[41] He never felt that he had an appropriate degree of control until he learned to play the keyboard and became better able to convey to those around him the sort of sound he wanted to create. I’m Your Man (1988) was the result of this process and became the record that relaunched, even rescued, his career.

Cohen certainly occupies a specialist market in which the heaviest demand is in Europe, especially France and Scandinavia. His sales are not modest. In the CD era alone he has sold around thirteen million copies, and his most popular offering, I’m Your Man, sold almost two million. Whenever Cohen speaks of his relationship with his record company it is in a mixture of tones, feigned gratitude, and light sarcasm. In the Billboard interview of November 1998, Cohen remarked that “I have always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work. I do feel patriotic, because, you know, in conjunction with the [Central Intelligence Agency], they have released my records as part of a covert operation.” He was particularly hurt by the decision of Walter Yetnikoff, one of Columbia Records’ executives, not to release Various Positions (1985) in the United States. Nevertheless, he readily acknowledged the fact that the executives at Columbia were hardly likely to recommend to Sony that they “commit the resources of the hit making machine” to a record whose potential was ten times less in sales than one of their big acts. Cohen resignedly conceded that although the company could do more to promote and sell his records in the United States, there was no reason to since putting their weight behind another, more popular act would yield it greater profits.[42] Dylan was in a stronger position with Columbia and Sony. Having felt that his initial deal was exploitative, he never again allowed Columbia to dictate terms.

Like Cohen, Dylan’s fortunes have fluctuated over the years. In the early 1990s his artistic well appeared to have dried up. Whereas there had been droughts previously, when, for example, he released Self Portrait, ironically comprised of covers of well-known songs across a wide, span of genres, the two acoustic albums of the early 1990s—Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993)—comprising uninspiring versions of blues songs that were with him in the early days in Greenwich Village, were hailed as Dylan’s swan song. He confounded the critics once again by releasing Time Out of Mind (1997), an album reflecting his near-death experience and conveying beautifully the maudlin, the resignation, and the fear of growing older and facing up to death. It was a huge commercial success, and he won a Grammy for it in 1998. He topped this achievement by winning an Oscar for “Things Have Changed,” which he wrote for the film Wonder Boys (2000).

[1] Quoted in Bob Dylan in His Own Words , ed. Christian Williams (London: Omnibus Press, 1993), 19.

[2] Quoted in Leonard Cohen in His Own Words , ed. Jim Devlin (London: Omnibus, 1998), 25.

[3] Alan Franks, “Love’s Hard Man ,” London Times Magazine , October 13, 2001, 16.

[4] Quoted in Doug Saunders, “State of Grace ,” Globe and Mail , September 1, 2001.

[5] Cohen has commented about this album: “I love everything that Dylan docs and 1 love to hear the old guys lay it out. Love and Theft produces tremendous energy.” Leonard Cohen, CBS Web site chat, October 16, 2001.

[6] Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979).
[7] Jason Toynbee, Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions (London: Arnold, 2000), xi.

[8] See Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (London: Picador, 1998), 104 . Marcus wrote the liner notes for The Basement Tapes. Smith compiled a fourth volume of the Anthology but didn’t get around to releasing it in his lifetime. One reason he gave was that he wanted to present a comprehensive content analysis of the songs but had lost interest. The Harry Smith Archives and Revenant Records released volume 4 (RNV 211) in 2000 with a short book. Harry Smith’s reasons for not releasing the fourth volume arc given on page 32 of this book. I would like to thank Joe Evans for bringing this to my attention.

[9] See Matt Thcado, “The Beats in New York City,” in The Beats: A Literary Reference , ed. Matt Thcado (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 17–18.

[10] For details of the origins of the term hootenanny, I am grateful to Robert Shelton’s research held in the Liverpool University Archive, Institute for Popular Music.

[11] Robert Shelton, “Something Happened in America,” 17 (Manuscript held in the Robert Shelton Archive, Liverpool University Archive, Institute for Popular Music).

[12] Speech by Bruce Springsteen on Bob Dylan’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, January 20, 1988, in Wanted Man: In Search of Bob Dylan , ed. John Bauldic (New York: Citadel Press, 1991), 179.

[13] Cited in Harry Rasky, The Song of Leonard Cohen: Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film (Oakvillc, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 2001), 24.

[14] Margaret Mead, Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap (New York: Doubleday, for the Museum of Natural History, 1970).
[15] Margaret Mead, The Coming of Age in Samoa (London: Penguin, 1943).

[16] Derek Freeman was responsible for the systematic refutation of her thesis, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1983).

[17] Richard Poirier, “Rock of Ages,” in The Performing Self (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), 183.

[18] Daniel J. Gonczy, “The Folk Music of the 1960s : Its Rise and Fall,” Popular Music and Society 10 (1985) . Reprinted in Elizabeth Thompson and David Gutman, eds., The Dylan Companion (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001), 7.

[19] Reprinted in Bruce Franklin, From the Movement toward Revolution (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971), 73–74.

[20] Ibid., 71.

[21] Eldridgc Cleaver, “Revolution in the Mother Country and National Liberation in the Black Colony,” reprinted in ibid., 76.

[22] Reprinted in ibid., 46.

[23] Reprinted in ibid., 43.

[24] Cited in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (London: Deutsch, 1974), 178.

[25] Ibid., 178.

[26] “Mine Enemy the Folk Singer ,” Congressional Record 154, September 26, 1963, 17290–17292.

[27] Letter dated, May 16, 1963 (copy in the Robert Shelton Archive, Institute for Popular Music, Liverpool University).

[28] Howard Souness, Down the Highway: The Life of Boh Dylan (London: Doubleday, 2001), 13–14.

[29] For a good overview, see Seymour Martin Lipset, Three Decades of the Radical Right: Coughlinites, McCarthyites and Birchers , in The Radical Right , ed. Daniel Bell (New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1964) . See also Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason (London: Heinemann, 1971).

[30] Val Adams, “Satire on Birch Society Barred from Ed Sullivan TV Show,” in Boh Dylan: The Early Years, a Retrospective , ed. Craig McGregor (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 36.

[31] Nat Hentoff, “The Crackin’, Shakin’, Brcakin’ Sounds ,” The New Yorker , October 1964 . Reprinted in McGregor, Bob Dylan, 59.

[32] Cited in Rasky, Song of Leonard Cohen, 19; and Ira B. Nadel, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), 159.

[33] Rasky, Song of Leonard Cohen, 118.

[34] Ian MacDonald, “Wild Mercury : A Talc of Two Dylans,” Uncut, Dylan 60th Birthday Special (June 2001).
[35] John Harris, “In Praise of Bob Dylan ,” Q Dylan (2000): 11.

[36] Cited in MacDonald, “Wild Mercury,” 63.

[37] Robert Sandall, “Crucial Cuts ,” London Sunday Times , November 2, 1997, Culture section, 20.
[38] Emily Sheffield, “Cohen Tops Misery Charts ,” The Guardian , February 4, 1998, 3.
[39] Tim Riley, Hard Rain: A Dylan Commentary (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999), 275–276.
[40] Keith Negus, Producing Pop: Culture and Conflict in the Popular Music Industry (London: Arnold, 1992), 1.

[41] Michael Harris, “Leonard Cohen : The Poet as Hero: 2,” Saturday Night (June 1969): 26 . Reprinted in Leonard Cohen: The Artist and His Critics , ed. Michael Gnarowski (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1976), 46.

[42] Leonard Cohen, interviewed by Susan Nunziata, Billboard, November 28, 1998.