In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand

At the mongrel dogs who teach

Fearing not that I’d become my enemy

In the instant that I preach.                         

— Bob Dylan

“My Back Pages”1 (1964)


Despite his 1964 musical renunciation of the mantle of “Voice of a Generation,” Bob Dylan—the undisputed crown prince of musical protest—continued to create a moral universe in song lyrics that influenced several generations of songwriters, musicians, artists, and audiences alike. The normative influence found in popular culture, while not universal, is deeply pervasive. As Rosenstand (2012) notes, we learn our moral lessons from an early age through stories. That learning is amplified through the repetitive telling and hearing of song stories. From nursery rhymes to “Like A Rolling Stone,” songs become ingrained in the grooves of our minds to form a collective cultural consciousness, providing us with a shared set of societal signposts to chart where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going.

Some of the signposts along the life-long Highway 61 of this multiple Grammy, Oscar, Golden Globe—and Pulitzer Prize—song poet:

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

There’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift.

How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?

He not busy being born is busy dying.

I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.2                                 

Dylan’s shorthand semiotics cut a wide swath as he influenced those who rose to positions to influence others from editorial offices, production studios, advertising and public relations boardrooms, and even the U. S. Supreme Court:

In the past two years, Mr. Dylan’s lyrics have turned up twice in opinions by members of the nation’s highest court ... In 2008, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. quoted Mr. Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” lyric, “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,” in an opinion over a dispute between phone companies. In a 2010 case deciding that a California police department did not violate an officer’s privacy by auditing text messages sent on a city-issued pager, Justice Anton Scalia wrote that “The times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty” (Schweber, 2015).

“His influence has extended well beyond the United States and well beyond his chosen genre of songwriting to literature, film, politics, and religion,” states David Anderson (2011). From his very first penned song, “Talkin’ New York” (1962), Dylan has been “sticking up for an ideal justice which he says doesn’t exist….He’s wishing that the system worked and disappointed that it didn’t.” (Pete Kennedy, quoted in Schweber, 2011):

Now, a very great man once said / That some people rob you with a fountain pen.

It didn’t take too long to find out / Just what he was talkin’ about.

A lot of people don’t have much food on their table,

But they got a lot of forks ‘n’ knives,

And they gotta cut somethin’.

In reviewing the 2005 collection Bob Dylan and Philosophy, Bob Lane (2014) wrote, “The overall theme is how Bob Dylan’s work is involved in ‘ethical notions of responsibility and justice’ and how that concern places Dylan in a long line of American notables—Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Vonnegut—who are moralists in the best sense of the word.”

Dylan’s call for justice and a personal responsibility for its quest (“You can have the Truth / But you have to choose it,” “Lay Lady Lay,” 1969) is perhaps best illustrated in his 1962 classic and perennially-covered “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The song also introduces us to Dylan’s enigmatic side, as he provides no answers for his relentless questions on the extent of human indifference to suffering. Unlike the contemporaneous Pete Seeger/Lee Hayes Hammer Song (better known as “If I Had a Hammer” when it became a hit by Peter Paul & Mary), that proposed an active beating, ringing, and singing out of danger, warning, and love, Dylan poses these challenges:

How many roads must a man walk down / How many seas must a white dove sail

How many times must the cannon balls fly / How many years can some people exist / How many times can a man turn his head / How many ears must one man have /

How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows…

...but don’t expect him to give any easy answers. They are all, my friend, “blowin’ in the wind.” It’s up to you to find them. “His work and his many personae are, at turns, not only insightful and inspirational, wise, difficult and mysterious but also contradictory, inconsistent and, yes, self-serving” (Anderson, 2011).

Dylan’s early folk/protest work is replete with Kantian themes of absent justice, and the need to live up to our imperatives to promote equal rights and dignity. 

Dylan’s lyrics—especially those with which he issues moral judgments or makes moral claims—presuppose that we live in a moral universe, one in which moral law is part of the infrastructure of reality…which philosophers sometimes call ‘moral realism.’ (Beckwith, 2014, p. 148)

He purposefully creates enigmas to deflect blame-shifting and make us all think about our conscious and unconscious contributions to injustice. In “Who Killed Davey Moore?” (1964), he leaves unstated the blame that must be shared for the death of the boxer in the ring as he runs through the hollow denials of responsibility by the song’s cast—the referee, crowd, manager, gambler, and sportswriter, each saying “No, you can’t blame me at all.” In the final verse, Dylan raises his eyebrow musically at the proclamation by Moore’s opponent that “I hit him, yes, it’s true / But that’s what I’m paid to do / Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’ / It was destiny, it was God’s will.”   

Dylan’s call for a collective responsibility for, and response to, denials of justice is seen in many of his “topical” songs—taken from actual events, encouraged by the publishers of Broadside, a magazine focused on both folk music and activism, to which Dylan frequently offered new songs for publication before they were recorded or publicly performed. In “The Death of Emmett Till” (1963), after the torture and murder of a young black man for whistling at a white woman:

And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,

Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.

But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,

And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.

This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man

That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.

But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,

We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

In “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (1964), Dylan sings not only of outrage at the minimum sentence given for the murder of a black kitchen-worker by an arrogant young white gentleman-farmer, but also scorns the feckless New Left “who philosophize disgrace / and criticize all fears.” For three verses he sarcastically tells them “take the rag away from your face / now ain’t the time for your tears,” lest they turn away from the events with a “tsk tsk” and go on their way. After the final verse, where a simple six-month sentence is meted out, Dylan mocks them with “Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.” 

Dylan’s line-in-the-sand of his topical/protest era is drawn in The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1963), the title of both his third album and its lead song. Despite his immersion in conventional morality, the song, which is his strongest condemnation of the social order around him, gave Dylan the reputation of a generational outlaw and latter-day revolutionary. The song is addressed to parents, politicians, commentators and any authoritarian representative of what Dylan considers a corrupt establishment beyond repair:

You’d better start swimmin’ / Or you’ll sink like a stone …

There’s a battle outside / and it is ragin’. 

It’ll soon shake your windows / And rattle your walls …

Your old road is rapidly agin’.

Please get out of the new one / If you can’t lend a hand   

For the times they are a-changin’.

Although famously claiming that good and bad, black and white no longer had meaning to frame his worldview, and in self-depreciation, “‘Equality,’ I spoke the word / as if a wedding vow” (My Back Pages, 1964), Dylan would continue topical writing. Songs more than a decade later elevated to folk-hero-beset-by-injustice comic “Lenny Bruce” (1981), gangster “Joey” (1975) Gallo, Black Panther/prisoner “George Jackson” (1971), and boxer Reuben “Hurricane” (1975) Carter, falsely convicted and imprisoned for murder.

Dylan’s sea-change shift from acoustic to electric guitar marked as well his shift from direct digs at societal ills to more inner-driven explorations of relationships accompanied by cascades of poetic images (“Visions of Johanna,” 1966; “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” 1966). These ushered in an era of music, and slew of late 60’s musicians, more akin to modern art than pop, rock, or R&B. It also marked a philosophic shift from demands for a Kantian scale of justice to a call for virtue, or a calling-out for the lack of it.

Dylan classics such as “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965), and “Just Like a Woman” (1966), excoriated various personae of the fallen from grace. “Miss Lonely” who “can’t be blessed / till she sees finally that she’s like all the rest / with her fog, amphetamine and her pearls.” On the obverse, he praises the virtuous woman who’s “got everything she needs / she’s an artist, she don’t look back,” (“She Belongs to Me”1965), and “my love she speaks like silence / without ideals or violence … she knows too much to argue or to judge” (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit” 1965).

A large part of what constituted the Dylan brand of virtue was relationship reciprocity. “I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul,” he tells us in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (1963), and turned the table on himself in “Fourth Time Around” (1966): “It was then that I got up to leave / but she said, ‘Don’t forget / everybody must give something back / for something they get.’”

When a lack of virtue led to betrayal, his scorching wit seethed through the celebrated diatribe known as “Positively 4th Street” (1965) that leads off with “You got a lotta nerve / to say you are my friend / when I was down / you just stood there grinning,” adds further put-downs such as “Do you take me for such a fool / to think I’d make contact / with the one who tries to hide / what he don’t know to begin with,” and ends with a twist on a Rawlsian veil of ignorance: “I wish that for just one time / you could stand inside my shoes / and just for that one moment I could be you / Yes, I wish that for just one time / you could stand inside my shoes / you’d know what a drag it is / to see you.” 

Although Dylan shed a goodly number of fans as he went through his “born again” period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he did not shed his basic quest for, and insistence on, a set of universal truths he would will all to follow. His inward journey to define identity through relationships shifted to a crusade for salvation—his, and what was necessary for ours:

Along with this unfailing sense of the need for moral clarity, Dylan’s work has also been consistently characterized by a yearning for salvation. In fact the quest for salvation might well be called the central theme of Bob Dylan’s entire output. To survive, you must attain that clarity of morality: you won’t even get by without going that far, and then you must go beyond—get rescued from the chaos and purgatory and find some spiritual home. (Gray, 2008, p. 80)

Despite the overt calls to Christianity in his three successive “conversion era” albums – Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981), Dylan had consistently used biblical references throughout his songs, and continued to hinge many songs on Christian principles from agape to fire-and-brimstone through his various celebrated “return to form” albums (Time Out of Mind, 1987, Modern Times, 2005) and his less-than-appreciated ones that re-interpreted old folk forms (Under the Red Sky, 1990), pop standards (Shadows in the Night, 2015), and holiday tunes (Christmas in the Heart, 2009). 

In the ironically titled 1983 Infidels, his first “post-conversion” collection of songs included a lament for a loss of a moral universe in “License to Kill”:

Man thinks ‘cause he rules the Earth he can do with it as he pleases

And if things don’t change soon he will

Oh, man has invented his doom

First step was touching the moon

Now, there’s a woman on my block

She just sit there as the night grows still

She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

 And in 1986’s “Brownsville Girl,” he notes “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt,” and “people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent….”   

Dylan’s most recent album, 2012’s Tempest, shows an artist tempered by wisdom, but still with a mean temper aimed at those he feels are not following a moral order. In “Scarlet Town,” he has come to a place he can sketch as a contemporary Eden of tolerance: 

I’m staying up late and I’m making amends / While the smile of Heaven descends

If love is a sin then beauty is a crime / All things are beautiful in their time

The black and the white, the yellow and the brown

It’s all right there for you in Scarlet Town.

At the same time he is ready to smite, verbally at least, those making a world gone wrong—from politicians:

I’ll give you justice, I’ll fatten your purse / Show me your moral virtues first.

Hear me holler, hear me moan / I pay in blood, but not my own…

Our nation must be saved and freed / You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?

This is how I spend my days / I came to bury not to praise

I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone / I pay in blood but not my own (“Pay in Blood”).

To the new Wall Street Mafia of corporate raiders:

They’ll destroy you as well.

They’re lecherous and treacherous, hell-bent for leather

Each of them bigger than all men put together … (“Early Roman Kings”). 

In love he has yet to find the virtuous, reciprocating partner he’s longed for:

It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other and our hearts were true

One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.

Last night I heard you talking in your sleep saying things you shouldn’t say.

Oh, baby, you just might have to go to jail some day (“Long and Wasted Years”).

And even in re-imagining the tragedy of the Titanic, mixing the pop culture mythology created by the 1997 film with the historic record, Dylan cites the ultimate equality of humankind at the hands of fate:

When the Reaper’s task had ended / Sixteen hundred had gone to rest 

The good, the bad, the rich, the poor / The loveliest and the best.

They waited at the landing / and they tried to understand 

But there is no understanding / on the judgment of God’s hand (“Tempest”).

While not a universal treat to all tastes, Bob Dylan has had a universal appeal and effect on popular culture in which successive generations have been immersed. Because his songs were so frequently covered by such easier-on-the-ears as Peter Paul and Mary, Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, The Byrds, Staple Singers, and Grateful Dead—even Elvis—his messages pervaded folk, pop, country, rock, r&b, easy listening, and soul charts. The Christian Science Monitor posits, “The world of popular music can be measured in two district periods, B.D. and After Dylan. He altered the way we think about lyrics—in form, content, and their potential to literally change the world” (Kehe, 2012). Stories vested in our popular culture have great powers to teach, influence and persuade. The stories created in Dylan’s five decades of songs have created an enduring portrait of moral universalism. The times may be-a-changin’, but our ethical principles remain.

The moral judgments that Dylan issues in his songs span cultures and eras and thus do not make any sense unless Dylan believes there is an objective moral law, one that is universal, unchanging, and applies to all persons in all times and in all places (Beckwith, 2006, p. 153).

I’ve no right to be here / If you’ve no right to stay (“One Too Many Mornings,” 1964)

It’s not dark yet / But it’s getting there (“Not Dark Yet,” 1997).

  • Tom Brislin is Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Humanities in the University of Hawai’I at Manoa. He may be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



1 Distinguishing between the titles of Dylan’s albums and his songs (and lyrics) isn’t an easy task.  Typographically, this article uses italics for album names, italics and quotation marks for song titles, and lyrics are identified by quotation marks only.  Our source for titles and lyrics is the massive The Lyrics: Bob Dylan (2014), edited by Christopher Ricks, Lisa Nemrow and Julie Nemrow (New York: Simon & Schuster). However, there is frequently the usual music industry variance between what was printed on album covers and what was written on lyric sheets to the music publisher.  Dylan himself could be inconsistent in matters like keeping or dropping the terminal “g” from words that ended in “-ing” and this article may reflect this practice in places. Placing two lines of lyrics on one line in the article was our choice, even if capitalization is inconsistent.

2 Lines from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” (1965), “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1963), “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), “Like a Rolling Stone,” (1965), “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973), “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1964), “My Back Pages” (1964).


Works Cited

Anderson, David (2011). Bob Dylan: American Adam. pbs.org. Retrieved from: http://pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2011/05/18/bob-dylan-american-adam/8853/.

Beckwith, Francis (2006). “Busy Being Born Again: Bob Dylan’s Christian Philosophy.” In Vernezze and Porter (eds.), Bob Dylan and Philosophy (pp. 145-155). (see editors’ names below)

Dylan, Bob (2014). The Lyrics. New York: Simon & Schuster. (see footnote 1)

Gray, Michael (2008). The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. New York: Continuum.

Kehe, John (2012). “Bob Dylan: 20 best lyrics on his birthday.” Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/2012/0523/Bob-Dylan-20-best-lyrics-on-his-birthday/Like-a-Rolling-Stone.

Lane, Bob (2014). “Review-Bob Dylan and Philosophy,” Metapsychology Online Reviews, 18:37. Retrieved from: http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=7240&cn=394

Rosenstand, Nina (2012). The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schweber, Nate (2011). “The Legal Side of Bob Dylan.” New York Times. Retrieved from: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/05/the-legal-side-of-bob-dylan/?_r=0

Vernezze, Peter and Porter, Carl, eds. (2006). Bob Dylan and Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court.


Other Works Consulted

Brown, Donald (2014). Bob Dylan: American Troubadour. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Heylin, Clinton (2009). Revolution in the Air. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Ledeen, Jenny (2005).  Prophecy in the Christian Era (2nd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Peaceberry Press.