I fell in love with Bob Dylan lyrics when I was fifteen amid a growing fascination with the counterculture movement of the 60s. There was a rawness to the way he sang, a brutal political honesty, and an abstractness that felt like a puzzle I could spend all day trying to understand. Despite his gritty voice and sometimes squeaky harmonica, I spent months listening to only him. Even though he was writing decades before my time, his poetry felt timelessly honest. He was the beginning of a radical and anti-war conscience I would develop throughout the second half of high school.
Like I said, Dylan is timeless, and I am positive that every fan would have a different list than me, but, with that said, here are some of the top lyrics that have impacted me in every which way.
- “Yes, and how many years can some people exist/ before they’re allowed to be free?/ Yes and how many times can a man turn his head/ and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
These are some of Bob Dylan’s most known lyrics, from the iconic “Blowin’ In the Wind.” Although they were written in 1962, amidst Civil Rights activism and growing anti-Cold war sentiments, I find I could apply them to so many facets of the political climate today. For how long can people with various forms of privilege ignore injustice and systemic oppression and refuse to think critically about the world that we live in?
- “The first world war boys/ it came and it went/ the reason for fighting/ I never did get/ but I learned to accept it/ accept it with pride/ for you don’t count the dead/ when God’s on your side.”
“With God On Our Side” was one of the first pieces of art that pushed me to challenge American exceptionalism. These lyrics go beyond simply being anti-war. Dylan is criticizing the way in which we rationalize violence as Americans. The entire song functions as a satirical retelling of major American wars, and how every act of violence or bloodshed has been justified by God being on our side—perpetuating a myth of Christian and American exceptionalism.
- “You fasten all the triggers/ for others to fire/ then you set back and watch/ when the death count gets higher/ you hide in your mansion/ while the young peoples’ blood/ flows out of their bodies/ and is buried in the mud.”
“Masters of War” is Dylan’s most blunt and clear condemnation of not simply war, but the people who profit off of it. Not only are these lyrics an amazing encapsulation of the growing anti-war sentiment of the youth throughout the 60s, they spare absolutely no feelings.
- “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial/ Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while/ But Mona Lisa must’ve had the highway blues/ You can tell by the way she smiles.”
Unlike most of the other songs on this list, “Visions of Johanna,” probably in my top three favorite songs ever, is not political. And, it’s one of his songs I’ve had the hardest times understanding. But poetically, it is littered with stunning imagery, every line like a mystery. I love this lyric, the description of infinity, of time itself going on trial in museums. There’s an eternalness to it that I can’t quite describe but constantly pulls me back to it.
- “Disillusioned words like bullets bark/ as human gods aim for their mark/ make everything from toy guns that spark/ to flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/ It’s easy to see without looking too far/ that not much is really sacred.”
“It’s Alright Ma—I’m only Bleeding” is, in both my and Dylan himself’s opinion, one of his best works lyrically. It’s a seven-minute-long song that edges on spoken-word, with scathing critiques of capitalism and American society in general. This is one of my favorite verses. It illustrates the commercialization of violence and of religion and loss of spirituality that is inherent in consumerism. I chose this verse because it’s both my favorite and one of the more understandable ones in the song, but the entire song is one of my favorites ever.
These were just a few of Dylan’s abundance of sharp and challenging lyrics. Much of his music was written sixty years ago, but its enduringness is evident in the fact that it resonates so strongly with not only me but so many young people today. That is the power of good music and poetry—specific and pointed, and yet simultaneously eternal.