English 6923: Working Class Literature
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in 1941 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Duluth, Wisconsin, Bob Dylan’s family ties led him to Hibbing, Minnesota, a defunct, iron-ore mining town, where he spent the majority of his formative years. While his family was considered middle-class, Dylan’s choice of writing style and topics tended to be influenced by a smaller-voiced, more suffering group - that of the working class. His passion for music led him first to Minneapolis and then to New York City in 1961, where he was able to network with writers who influenced the anti-establishment nature behind his writing style. Dylan’s lyrics, which have included many protest and finger-pointing messages, have always been looked upon as influential in the shaping of cultural views of the time. He has used his lyrical poetry to inspire people to make changes to right the wrongs of the world. Although he is a music artist, Dylan’s work has been and continues to be studied by scholars of literature. His works have been deemed important enough to inspire a nomination for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997, as well as being the topic for a Stanford University International Conference in 1998.
Bob Dylan’s greatest accomplishment in terms of working-class literature has been his ability to speak out for the masses about the social injustices carried out by the government, legal systems, and upper-class people of our society. Perhaps because his literature is written in the non-traditional oral storytelling format and in informal language, this minstrel’s largest group of followers consists not of highbrow academics and scholars, but of millions of working-class people, whose values and worth have been trampled on by these social injustices.
Bob Dylan’s upbringing in the depressed mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota inspired some of his earliest works. While he was from a middle-class family himself, Dylan drew on the stories of old-timers in the area and spoke out for them in compositions like “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” released in 1967. This piece comments on the fact that all immigrant ironworkers are consumed by their working life. They struggle through their days, living in vain, with a hopelessness that nullifies their very existence. The idea of wealth, and not attaining it, has made them bitter towards people of all other classes. Dylan is able to reproduce the feelings of the immigrant ironworker in this song, and hopefully gain sympathy for him. While Dylan’s voice is not that of the immigrant himself, this piece is an accurate portrayal of the experience of the whole group of the immigrant iron-workers life. In “Maggies Farm,” one of his earliest protest pieces, released in 1965, Dylan speaks out for the working class that is forced to practically slave for people of the upper classes. He focuses on the employers on farm who expect their workers to not only work extremely long hours for very little pay, but to be happy about it as well. In this song, Dylan actually does speak in the voice of one of these workers so readers and/or listeners can get the perspective of the working-class narrator.
Social injustices in regards to class and race were always prevalent topics for Dylan. Several of his working-class songs were about minorities. In 1963, Dylan penned a song that was never formally released, entitled, “The Deathe of Emmett Till,” In it, Dylan tells the true story of Emmet Till, a black man from Mississippi, who was murdered by two white brothers in 1955. The case was high profile and although it was tried in court, the brothers had friends on the jury who found them innocent. Dylan appeals to the masses and calls people to action by berating them for just sitting by and allowing this kind of injustice to go on. In a similar piece, “Hurricane,” released years later in 1976, Dylan tells the story of Rubin Carter, a black fighter who was becoming to 'uppity' for the taste of the local law. Carter was framed for murder and sentenced to prison, all the while proclaiming his innocence. Dylan calls the justice system a game in this song, again appealing to society to stand up and take responsibility for changing this ‘injustice’ system.
While Dylan has been instrumental in speaking out for the rights of the oppressed working class and minorities, he is probably most known for his anti-establishment lyrics that were written in regards to war. In pieces such as “Let Me Die in My Footsteps,” penned in 1963, but not formally released until 1991, Dylan makes the argument that he would rather die while walking around right now than be drafted and forced to die under the circumstances of war. This piece, considered to be his first masterpiece by some scholars, was overshadowed by the highly successful, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which was not only written, but also actually released in 1963. With this song, Dylan managed not to just ‘jump on the bandwagon’ of war protest music, but actually become partially responsible for starting and moving the movement itself. His popularity allowed him to create such a thing. In this resistance piece, Dylan questions the government’s authority and all but calls them stupid, for not seeing, or pretending not to see what should be obvious - that we should not have been involved in the Vietnam War.
These few compositions mentioned by no means cover the vast amount of lyrics that Dylan has written with the interest of social justice in mind. He has composed literally hundreds of songs dedicated to speaking out against infractions committed by the world at large. Dylan's work illustrates working- class literature themes, such as emphasizing the collective, being experimental in terms of style, being written in working-class voices, resisting the powers that be, and calling to action those who are reading/listening to his messages.
Heylin, Clinton. Behind the Shades Revisited. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001.
This critically acclaimed bibliography, written by one of the world’s most renowned Bob Dylan scholars, Clinton Heylin, gives detailed accounts of all areas of Dylan’s life. Heylin does an outstanding job of comprehensively outlining Dylan’s work, the history and cultural influences that affected it, as well as the influences that it, in turn, projected. The full spectrum of the shaping of Dylan and his work are covered – from his upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota, a depressed iron-ore mining town, to his years of writing finger-pointing protest songs. Through a series of reinventing himself, Bob Dylan remains one of the most enigmatic lyrical poets of our time. Heylin manages to uncover what Dylan has yet to do himself (The first installment of Dylan’s autobiography, entitled The Chronicles, is not scheduled for release until Jan. 2005). This book contains a complete discography, dramatis personae, tons of direct quotations from and on Dylan, as well as an extremely useful extensive bibliography.
Bowden, Betsy. Performed Literature. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1982.
This book, which began as Bowden’s dissertation, argues that oral literature, an acceptable form of working-class literature, can be analyzed in the same way as written of the same. In fact, different inflections are heard in performed literature, making it easier to ‘hear’ more specific meanings. Bob Dylan’s performed literature includes many protest songs, which calls the listener to action beyond just momentarily appealing to his emotions.
Shank, Barry. “That Wild Mercury Sound: Bob Dylan and the Illusion of American Culture.” Boundary 2 29:1
Shank argues that Bob Dylan’s lyrics about The New Left and Civil Rights Movements illustrates a useful understanding of the politics of the period. Shank suggests that what Dylan did was provide a way for the people who were involved in these movements to relate – autonomously and collectively. The general attitude of this article is that while these “activists” didn’t really accomplish much themselves, the movements gained strength because of the sheer acknowledgement of them. Shank feels that Dylan’s role was key here.
Gezari, Janet. “Bob Dylan and the Tone Behind the Language.” Southwest Review 86:4 (2001): 480-499.
Gizari equates Dylan with the likes of Pound, Eliot, and Keats. While she does not try to argue that Dylan is a ‘serious,’ rather than popular poet, she analyzes his distinctive way with lnaguage. His logopoeia language or ‘dance of the intellect behind the words,’ which Giazari tells us is defined by Pound (483), is discussed to prove that Dylan’s legendary poetry will live on past the generations that he has touched in his lifetime. Gizari cites Charlotte Brewer, reviewer of the OED, as saying that, “great writers often go to notable lengths to use language in original, startling and imaginative ways’ (487). Gizari argues that Dylan is one of these poets.
Dylan, Bob. “The Lonesome Deathe of Hattie Carroll.” The Times They Are A-Changin’. Columbia, 1964.
This particular piece tells the story of a murder case in which the criminal is not punished sufficiently because he is a member of the upper class, while his victim is of the working class.
Dylan, Bob. “Maggie’s Farm.” Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia, 1965.
In this song, Dylan talks through the voice of a member of the working class, who proclaims that he won’t subject himself to the mistreatment he has endured by his employers anymore.
Dylan, Bob. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” John Wesley Harding. Columbia, 1967.
This song paints an accurate portrait of the immigrant ironworker’s life in the 1940’s in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan’s hometown. The immigrant in this song is broken down to the point of becoming bitter toward all other classes and his life in general.
Dylan, Bob. “Hurricane.” Desire. Columbia, 1975.
These lyrics tell the story of a boxer, who also happens to be black, and therefore of the working class. He is framed for murder by the town’s law enforcement because it started to look as though this black, working-class man might actually obtain some success. He is oppressed in an unspeakable way.
NOTE: These Working Class Literature lyrics and others with the same kinds of themes can be accessed at bobdylan.com.
This extremely comprehensive site includes links upon links to everything from quotes to lyric analysis, interviews, images, and biographical information. One could spend hours, even days, researching Dylan using this site alone.
Bob Dylan scholars Christopher Rollason and Nicola Menicacci devote this site to an online magazine called “The Bob Dylan Critical Corner,” conceived of and run by its creators. Concentrating on the critical analysis of Dylan’s work, this site contains over 40 articles written by its creators with this in mind.
While this site actually contains a program from the 1998 International Conference at Stanford University on Bob Dylan, the list of presenters and their papers provides a good start for anyone researching Dylan in a literary context.
This page contains an article that covers Bob Dylan’s accomplishments in the field of English Literature, including supporters who say that he should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature that he was nominated for in 1997.