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10 Bob Dylan protest songs you've probably never heard

Words By: Sam Pethers | September 18th, 1965

10 Bob Dylan protest songs you've probably never heard

June 15th, 1920 - Three African-American labourers were lynched in the streets of Duluth, Minnesota.

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie were in Duluth as members of a travelling circus when they were accused of raping a white woman. The three men faced a kangaroo court in the street. Subsequently, they were beaten and publicly hung by an angry mob at the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East in central Duluth--a short walk from the house Bob Dylan grew up in many years later.

A photo of the lynching was printed on postcards and sold around town.

10 Bob Dylan protest songs you've probably never heard This image was printed on postcards in Duluth.

Thirty five years later, Bob Dylan made reference to the story in the opening line of "Desolation Row"--track nine from Highway 61 Revisited, released August 30, 1965:

"They're selling postcards of the hanging. They’re painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors. The circus is in town."

When he was asked at a press conference in 1965, "How many people who major in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers?" Dylan came back with "Um, it's either 136 or 142".

By 1965, Dylan had seemingly broken away from the protest movement, despite regularly insisting his songs were still protest songs. In one interview he claimed, "all I ever do is protest". Whilst on tour in Europe in 1966 someone shouted, "Sing a protest song", to which Dylan sarcastically responded, "this is a protest song... I'm gonna do a protest song". Once the raucous, infuriated audience were quiet again he introduced the song, "this one’s called yes I see you’ve got your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat" - a 1966 song that chastised female New York socialites. The crowds’ hostility was understandable to a degree. They were used to the folk-singing Dylan who, in the three years previous, had written some of the most powerful anti-war/civil rights protest songs ever recorded.

However, Dylan was trying to distance himself from the protest-folk pigeonhole. When he was asked at a press conference in 1965, "How many people who major in the same musical vineyard in which you toil, how many are protest singers?" Dylan came back with "Um, it's either 136 or 142".

Here are ten pre-1965 Dylan songs that protest the oppression of black people in America, war, boxing, mental health, prison, murder, and a Minnesotan reform school for boys. None of these songs ever received an official release on a Bob Dylan studio album.

Listen:

Note: "Hezekiah Jones (Black Cross)" was actually written in 1948 by Joseph S. Newman, the Grandfather of actor Paul Newman. Dylan's version is an adaptation of Lord Buckley's 1959 rendition of "Black Cross".

Listen:


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