Imagine a time when individuals of different races were not allowed to interact at all? If you had a friend who was of another race, you could not sit together at a restaurant? If you were African-American, you might have to walk several extra blocks on a hot summer day until you found a “colored” water fountain. If you were white, you were considered better just because of your race. Does any of this sound fair? Of course it does not. To paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King, a person should be judged based upon the content of his or her character, not the color of his skin. In the 1960s, a social protest movement began. It focused on the need to change a number of serious issues in society. One of these movements was civil rights, or the recognition that all individuals should be treated equally. One of the ways that the movement began to gain momentum was through music. While the previous decade of music focused on people having “good times,” the social protest music focused on enlightening people about the various wrongs in society. Gone were the days of Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys. Folk music singers began to appear, offering a decidedly different type of music. In the music, they offered lyrics that were designed to recognize and encourage social change. Two of the most famous songs of the era include Sam Cooke’s “ A Change is A-Coming” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Both of these songs recognized the need for change in our society, and encouraged the young generation to force this change in their world.
Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” is probably the most famous social protest song of the 1960s. Bob Dylan is a prolific songwriter, known for his amazing lyrics and his mumbled singing voice. He is also known for his use of harmonicas in his songs. He is considered one of the greatest folk singers of all time, and controversially, used electric guitars in his folk music. Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in October, 2016. He was the first songwriter and lyricist to be awarded the top prize in literature, which was a controversial decision on the part of the Nobel Prize committee. He recognized the need for lyrics to be sung, not read. However, even when reading his lyrics, they have a tremendous amount of strength in them. They encouraged growth for an entire society. At this time in history, society in the United States advanced rapidly with regards to civil rights. Dylan and other folk singers helped to create this movement and the recognition that society needed to advance.
Dylan’s song asks a number of rhetorical questions in the lyrics. Rather than being a “classic” protest song and telling the listeners what they should think, Dylan’s song teaches them to think. By asking a series of questions, the song asks the listener to realize the inherent problems in society at the time. It forces the listener to confront the problems faced by others. Dylan asks the questions and then tells the listener that the “answers are blowin’ in the wind.” Either the answers are as obvious as a breeze on one’s face, or they are as elusive as the wind. They cannot be captured and remain somewhere in the universe, just floating around us.
Dylan begins by asking the important question about how we treat others: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” He wants to know why people are not judged as human despite various experiences. It is reminiscent of the idea that one should not judge a person until he walks a mile in his shoes. We should not judge each other, because we do not know what roads the other has walked down. In this case, Dylan asks how many experiences must one person go through before we recognize that the other person deserves empathy and respect. To “call a person a man” is showing the person respect. During segregation, we did not show the other person respect simply because of a skin color.
Dylan also recognizes the tragedy of war throughout the history of humankind. He asks “How many times must the cannon balls fly, before they’re forever banned?” Humans have existed as a species for thousands of years. Yet, despite all of our advancement as a society, we are still not past the point of warfare and of treating each other in a despicable manner. It is famously called “man’s inhumanity to man.” Whether it is actual war and bullets flying, or just denying another person basic human rights, we are inhumane to each other. Dylan wants to know when this will stop. He then asks specifically why some people are denied rights. “Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?” Why are some people denied freedom despite a long history? Dylan saw that blacks were not free in this country. They were required to follow strict rules of society, or face severe punishment. Often times, black men were lynched if the whites believed they overstepped their bounds into white society. Dylan asks why. Most importantly, Dylan asks why people turn the other way when they see these injustices. “Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” When people saw blacks being abused and discriminated against, they would ignore the problem. Dylan recognizes that the day when people stop turning away and ignoring the problems, the problems will be solved. Dylan then asks how many ears are required for society to hear the crying of other people. This is similar to the idea of turning away from problems. People have two ears; they should be able to hear the suffering of others. Yet, they have closed their ears off to the pain and the suffering of others. They should be ashamed of themselves for this. Dylan asks why and how this has been allowed to continue. He metaphorically asks why. When a person realizes these metaphors, he must turn them into something concrete. He must work to change the world and to change the problems he sees in the world. This is why it is a protest song (Dylan).
Dylan’s song created a stir among society at the time. People realized that not all white people were ambivalent to the issue of civil rights for African-Americans. One of these men was Sam Cooke, a black singer of the time. He was a popular singer and a successful one. Sam Cooke wrote one of his most famous songs because of the inspiration he received from Dylan’s song. Sam Cooke’s “A Change is A-Coming” focused on a personal experience in the life of the artist. Sam Cooke released the song in 1964. Sam Cooke was an inspirational singer. He inspired a number of black artists who came after him, particularly soul artists. Sam Cooke helped lead to the famous musicians Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. As a black music artist, he was treated much differently than the white artists of the day. Despite his amazing talent and the audiences who adored him, he was still a second-class citizen in the country. After hearing Bob Dylan’s song, he wrote his own social protest song based upon the experiences of a black man in the U.S. during the 1960s. He based it on an event when he was denied a hotel room because he was black. While the reservations had been made on the phone, the white owner told him there were no vacancies when he arrived. While he had performed the song earlier in 1964, it was not released until late December, 1964. Cooke had been shot to death two weeks earlier. While the murder was determined to be justifiable homicide, many question the events. Some wonder if he was killed because he was a black man who was pushing for social change. It is also suggested that he was killed because he was accused of trying to rape a white woman, and the white women who shot him distrusted him because of his race. Regardless of the story, it is likely that his race played into his murder. This shows the issues faced by black men during the early 1960s. It is ironic that his song about being a black man in the 1960s was released two weeks after his untimely death (History Channel).
Cooke’s song is similar to Dylan’s in that it does not directly tell a story. Rather, it uses imagery to paint a picture of a man who has struggled throughout his life. Cooke describes a person who was not born to wealth and to privilege. Rather, the character in the song describes being born in a tent near a river. Cooke writes “I was born by the river in a little tent”; he is obviously a victim of a poor childhood. There was no strength and security in his childhood. A tent provides little shelter from the rain and the cold. It offers little identity for a child. The child does not know if his house will survive. It is an image of a child that was born into insecurity. This is the way it felt for blacks in America at the time. They had no security. They were cast out. Cooke recognizes that his life has not changed. He still has no security. He indicates that “just like the river, I’ve been running ever since.” He indicates that his life is hard: “it’s been too hard living.” However, he does not want to die because he believes that there is uncertainty about what will happen to him after his death.
Later the in the song, he references the episode where he was denied shelter. This is reminiscent of the beginning, when he was born without shelter. He knows that he is told to move on, and to not stay where he is. He states “I go to the movie and I go down town. Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around.” No one wants him because he is black. He asks for help later in the song. He asks his “brother” or another human being. We are all brothers and sisters, members of the giant human family. Not all recognize this though at this time in history. Sadly, some still do not. However, Cooke wants this recognition. He is saddened when he asks his brother for help and “he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees.” The song is positive though because he knows that the times are changing. This will not be the same in the future, in his opinion (Cooke).
In the 1960s, folk music was used as a way to socially protest the lack of civil rights for blacks in the United States. Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke were two phenomenally talented folk singers who shared their concerns and their hopes through their music. The world is better because of it.
- Cooke, Sam. “A Change is A-Coming.” 1962. 13 October 2017.
- Dylan, Bob. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” 1962. 13 October 2017.
- History Channel. “Sam Cooke Dies Under Mysterious Circumstances.” 2017. 13 October 2017. < http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/sam-cooke-dies-under-suspicious-circumstances-in-la>