Bob Dylan and the Topical Song

The first paper will draw on the songs from the first three to four albums, two of which--The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They are a Changin'--are the two records that contain most of the Dylan songs that are steeped in political and social commentary. They are what Dylan referred to as his "finger-pointing" songs and are what established his reputation as a prolific topical or "protest" song writer. Beginning with his fourth album, he more or less stopped writing these kinds of songs and moved on in a different direction. More about that later. The purpose of this assignment is for you to frame a question that is worth asking about this early body of work, the transition from the intial "folk" album, to the two powerful topical song collections, and then the transition into "Another Side of Bob Dylan." In framing your essay, make sure you base your arguments on the music and lyrics of these early songs.

"Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style."
— Matthew Arnold

The list below contains some prompts for your first paper.


Changing Times: First Paper

Select one of the topics listed below and write a 1,000-1200 word essay that makes a well-organized, concise, clear argument that features close engagement with the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan's early songs.

  1. Bob Dylan came upon the Greenwich Village folk music scene as an unlikely candidate for success.   He was very young, appeared even younger than his years, lacked experience in performing and was not markedly more talented than his contemporaries in terms of guitar and vocal technique.   Yet, in a variety of ways, he was different from his contemporaries.   According to Chronicles Vol. I, and echoed in his 60 Minutes interview, he had a sense of his own destiny: "I was headed for the fantastic lights..[D]estiny was about to manifest itself. I felt like it was looking right at me and nobody else." (p. 22) Write a paper that analyzes how rapidly Dylan grew and distinguished himself from his peers by maturing as a performer from the time he recorded his first album, Bob Dylan, and the release of his second and third albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A Changin'.  

  2. Bob Dylan likes to claim that he was never a topical songwriter and definitely not a protest singer though he did admit in his memoir that "Songs about real events were always topical." (p. 82).   He also called his topical songs "finger-pointing songs." What do you think about these kinds of songs?   In Chronicles Vol. I Dylan writes that "Protest songs are difficult to write without making them come off as preachy and one-dimentional. You have to show people a side of themselves that they don't know is there." (p. 54) He also alluded to an awareness that "if I wanted to stay playing music...I would have to claim a larger part of myself...I would need some kind of new template, some philosophical identity that wouldn't burn out." (72-73) Write an essay that analyzes some of songs from his second and third albums in terms of whether or not they are topical or protest songs and how they might claim a larger part of hismelf, constitute a new kind of template or philosphical identity, or have shown people something about themselves that they did not realize was there.   What is the nature of the subject matter of these songs and what themes do some of these songs have in common?

  3. Woody Guthrie, a major influence on Bob Dylan, is quoted as saying, "I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and your work." Dylan writes of Woody in Chronicles Vol. I that "Woody's got a fierce poetic soul--the poet of hard crust sod and gumbo mud...[He] is interested in the liberation of the human race and wants to create a world worth living in...For me, his songs made everything else come to a screeching halt (245). . .Woody made each word count. He painted with words." (247). Inspired as he was by Woody Guthrie, what kind of songs do you think Bob Dylan set out to write and sing in his early albums and how do you think his asessment of Woody's talent and impact affected his own writing?

  4. The last track of the third album, The Times They Are A Changin' is called "Restless Farewell." What kind of "farewell" does this song address?   On the fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, there is a reflective, summative song, "My Back Pages," that echoes "Restless Farewell" and takes a penetrating look at the process of transformation that he was undergoing as a performer and a writer. Write an essay focusing primarily on this third album--was it a call to revolution?--with perhaps a peek into his "back pages" to see how the author himself reflected on his own artisitic evolution. What sorts of themes and issues does The Times They Are A Changin' ask us to think about?--and what does this album, with its "restless farewell," have to say about where Dylan has been between 1961-1964 and where he is headed in the future?


Each of your papers should make a CLAIM or make a problem statement--something we like what we used to call a "thesis statement."

We read excerpts from the Intro to John Hinchey's book on Dylan, Like a Complete Unknown, where he makes a very bold claim in the opening lines:


Bob Dylan is a poet and, as the world will gradually come to realize, a great one. I realize that for many people--including many Dylan fans--a book about the poetry of Dylan's songs is a book about something that doesn't exist, or is of no neal consequence. My aim is to show otherwise.


He clearly states his thesis that Dylan is not only a poet, but a great one, acknowledges that many do not accept this notion, and then argues that he will show his readers otherwise.

You can do something similar by singling out some topic that you wish to investigate further, something that you think people do not adequately understand or appreciate about his music, and then demonstrating how that is manifest in the songs that you have selected to discuss in your paper.

So, in effect, you may be arguing that the PROBLEM is that not enough people understand or appreciate how much Dylan transformed the genre of folk music during the early 1960s and you are going to set the record straight about that. Perhaps people have distorted or mistaken perceptions of Dylan and his development as an artist back in those days which is a problem that you can help alleviate.

Another way to put it: you may want to argue, for example, that many people fail to appreciate that the language of, say, "Blowing in the Wind," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," or "Masters of War," for example, and/or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Only a Pawn in their Game," etc., it may seem to be saying one thing but actually what Dylan is really saying is X, Y and Z. In other words you are clarifying or pushing commonly accepted knowledge to another level which enhances our understanding.

The problem, then, is that as of right now, most people do not understand something fully or adequately. What is the solution? Why your brilliant paper, of course. Anyone who reads your paper will come to know, better understand and appreciate the qualities/characteristics of these songs because you will TELL them all about the songs and SHOW them why you believe the way you do by QUOTING and ANALYZING the lyrics. This will be the EVIDENCE that you marshal to support your claim.

Truth to tell, writing in the humanities--discussing music, lyrics, poetry, fiction, memoirs, etc.--is a little different from making a CLAIM in the sciences, the social sciences or the law. You will still supply your REASONS and your EVIDENCE to support your claim as you would in those other kinds of papers as well, but you can actually make a case for something being significant or meaningful primarily because it is significant or meaningful to you. If it affects you powerfully, naturally, you want other people to see it the same way as you do; therefore, you need to PERSUADE them that your INTERPRETATION is at least a possible one if not the most interesting and valid one out there. This may mean that your argument is somewhat subjective, but if you make it clear that this is what is AT STAKE for you, and that the conclusions that you draw from Bob Dylan's writings are reasonable and persuasive, then it is a valid form of argumentation.

You may wish to start with the background or context for your problem--some of this will be "Common Ground," but then you have to go beyond what everyone reasonably knows or thinks about the singer or his songs already, and make some CLAIM about them that is SURPRISING, not so well known, or just plain INTERESTING.



Here are some useful hints on how to write a good introduction that might be helpful:

You should pay special attention to the introduction of your paper because a good
introduction will do a great deal to help your paper. If the reader understands where you
plan to go at the outset, he/she will have a much easier time understanding the rest of
your paper.... Therefore, you may find it useful to include in your Intro a statemlent like,

"This paper wil argue that..." or "This paper will demonstrate that....."

If you spend the beginning of the paper summarizing the literature and do not get to your "claim,"
or your argument until the end, you risk doing irreparable harm to your paper. The reader will
arrive at the end of the paper feeling lost, confused, or frustrated because they had to
wade through your entire paper before they learned what it was about. If you discover
the argument as you write the paper, remember to re-write the introduction.

Therefore, the Introduction should:

• Be thematically explicit. It should contain a general overview of the whole paper.
Introduce the themes that will run throughout the paper. Give the reader an idea of
the big picture.

• Contain the problem you wish to discuss. This problem can be a gap in current
knowledge, a puzzle, a contradiction, unaccountable or conflicting data, etc.

• Establish the cost to the reader of not solving this problem. In short, it should answer
the question: So What? Typical costs could be misunderstanding, unpredictability,

• The end of the introduction should preview or hint at your response or solution to this problem.
This is called the "paper point." This is where you might place your "This paper will argue that..." type of statement.


Here is a rather simple version of an Introduction:

As scientists have explored environmental threats, many of their concerns
have proved exaggerated, such as the effect of acid rain and the imminence of the
Greenhouse Effect. [context]

But recently they have discovered a threat that is all too
real: the ozone layer has been thinning, thereby allowing sunlight to reach the earth
unfiltered. [problem]

Unfiltered sunlight causes skin cancer, which will raise
mortality rates and medical costs. [cost to reader]

This paper will argue that we can avoid these consequences only if we ban chemicals that degrade ozone. [claim and solution]

adapted from:



If your CLAIM is interesting and you express it clearly to your readers in the first paragraph or so, then people will want to read on and find out what they are missing, find out what they need to know in order to make them more aware and deepen their understanding. If you do not make the PROBLEM sound interesting from the get go, however, they may just quit reading and do something else. So your paper has to have an interesting premise or HOOK that draws your reader in from the very beginning.

In addition to a CLAIM, the body of the paper should present some reasons and some arguments to support the claim, and a CONCLUSION to indicate to the reader that you accomplished what you said you would in your intro. Your ORGANIZATION, then, should be tight and effective.

Overall, to be strong and compelling, your paper should have COHERENCE, flow, focus, and CLARITY. Your CONCLUSION should parallel your Introduction where you make your claim. What else makes for a strong paper? COHERENT essays hang together well; their ORGANIZATION is strong and they have a clear FOCUS. This means that their are ideas are consistent and they stay on topic. As a result, the paper flows well. There will be some main ideas that hold the other ideas in place. Effective papers do not wander and they do not have parts that do not fit in well with other parts of the paper.


Things I will look for and assess in your papers, then are:

1. The introduction makes a clear "claim" or thesis and the body provides adequate supporting evidence.  

2. The essay is well organized, has a clear focus, advances a coherent argument, flows well and is generally clean, i.e., free of errors in grammar, usage, and spelling. 

3.  The essay demonstrates close engagement with specific songs or groups of songs and integrates relevant assigned readings.

4. The conclusion echoes the claims or questions that you have raised in your introduction and points out how you have successfully addressed them as you indicated that you would.

5.  The sources for your information, ideas and quotations are correctly cited. Internal citation is preferred with a list of works cited at the end. You do not need citations for songs from which you quote--just make sure the reader knows the title of the song you are discussing.


To get started, then, you may wish to:

1. Name your topic

2, Describe what you think is interesting about it but which your readers are not like to know or adequately appreciate

3. State the rationale for doing what you are doing, why you are choosing to write about your topic. "I am going to examine or discuss X, Y, Z in order to..."

4. Shift the perspective on to the reader and what you can do for them, why they should learn what you have figured out for yourself, "so I can explain to you..."


We will most likely be dealing with "conceptual problem" in our papers for this Colloquium. In other words, posing questions and looking for missing, incomplete or misunderstood facts. You are basically identifying some gap in our knowledge about Bob Dylan songs that you and your readers can resolve by looking at some songs or parts of songs and giving a CLOSE READING or even a contextual reading of the lyrics. Then, voila, we have new insights, deeper understanding, and greater appreciation. Our lives are better for it--you got to work out some questions or issues that bothered or in which you are interested, and the reader gets the benefit of all your hard work, deep though, critical, reflective analysis--all conveyed by clear and effective writing. Nobody gets hurt and everybody goes home happy!