Is Protest Dead? The Freewheelin’ – Bob Dylan

Bob DylanWhere have you been my blue eyed son?”

This, the opening line of Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gunna Fall’, the sixth track of what is contestably the finest and most famous of all protest albums, begs the question of where protest songs stand nearly fifty years on from the release of ‘The Freewheelin’. Our world of wires, screens and plastic pop seems vastly detached from the distant memory of the 1960s, a western world shouldered in the swell of the cold war. And needless to say it is, we are certainly not living under the shadow of potential nuclear Armageddon, but as with all generations we face the calamities of our own time, which seemingly dwarf and engulf us, as the worldly problems of the future will strike forthcoming generations as impassable. Yet, by way of a song contemporary issues were transposed into popular consciousness, this is perhaps personified by The Peter Paul and Mary cover of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (another Dylan composition) reaching number 2 on the American Billboard Charts. Although Dylan’s voice was not able to carry his song all the way to the top, his primitive railroad poetics struck a chord with the American people, drawing upon the concerns of 60’s America and weaving them into a provocative yet simplistic song; “How Many years can some people exist before their allowed to free?”.

When this is juxtaposed with the current number 1 on the same American chart 50 years later we are faced with a very different musical outcome, namely the ‘Harlem Shake’. I’m sure you can spot the differences. Of course this is largely irrelevant, the more pressing query – where are the protest songs of today? The simple answer being they don’t exist, at least not in the same way, contemporary issues are still voiced by some performers, perhaps most obviously embodied by Beyoncé being an advocate for women’s rights, although her recent GQ magazine cover shoot has called her into question with some feminist critics. I guess then it would be justifiable to say that the tracks of chart topping potential will not (at least anytime soon) possess any direct and lyrical protest against the issues of today; record wealth inequalities, illegal wars or the reluctance to meet the onslaught of climate change. This is not to say the song writing ability no longer exists, for I am certain it does, but the world today is, in hindsight, one of overbearing complexity. Economically we live our lives in the limbo of the markets, which, as was witnessed in 2007, have the potential wreck the world’s financial system, poverty is incalculable, greed immeasurable, todays problems almost beyond what steel guitar strings and four stanzas can convey. But this should not stop people attempting it, and I for one look forward to the day when simple lyrical protest songs renter the popular music scene, for like Dylan showed in the 60s, a sad sung salute to those on what appears to be the road to ruin can change the way people think.

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