The most overtly political music of the 1960s emerged from offshoots of the “folk revival.” In New York City, the folk scene developed before World War II, but anti-Communism blacklisted and effectively silenced folk music through the early 1950s. Young musicians then began forming a new folk scene, centered in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village, in the second half of the 1960s; Bob Dylan came to New York in 1961 to be part of this scene.  Folk music became a vital element of the Civil Rights and peace movements, and some less political folk songs made it onto the pop charts.  For young musicians who moved on to amplified and experimental forms of rock in the late 1960s, folk and the blues were the most common points of entry into musicianship in the early 1960s. The radical political roots of folk maintained  influence in rock music via the social commentary of musicians living through the decade’s tumultuous events. The folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s also expressed a pervasive desire for authenticity. Young people romanticized folk for its ethnic and regional roots, democratic approach to music-making, links with tradition and oral culture, and common ownership of songs. These aspects of folk filled a void for those dissatisfied with middle-class values and apprehensive about the society they stood to inherit. Folk music seemed like an antidote of authenticity against postwar modernity.

In the Village scene, Washington Square Park was a vital space for musicians to meet and play on Sunday afternoons. Dave Van Ronk, a folk musician and key figure in the Village music scene, recalled the growing numbers of musicians gathering on Sundays in the Square—“It kept getting bigger and bigger every year, and by the late 1950s it had become a kind of tourist attraction as well.” A central hangout spot and hub of communication was Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, which opened on MacDougal Street in 1957. The Folklore Center became a place to find musical instruments, sheet music, songbooks, and rare records and books; Young took on a pivotal role in the Village scene.  A cluster of small clubs and coffeehouses emerged in the neighborhood around Washington Square Park, and some of the older ones started hosting folk shows.

Musically, the scene’s focal point was The Anthology of American Folk Music, a 6-record hodgepodge of regional music compiled by an eccentric collector named Harry Smith. Smith’s Anthology contained 84 songs recorded between 1927 and 1932, a collection that encompassed various styles of blues, country, folk, gospel, bluegrass, and Cajun music. The Anthology, Van Ronk remembered, “was very important for my generation… because we were trying not only to sing traditional songs but also to assimilate the styles of the rural players.” Many singers and musicians strove to reproduce the sounds they heard on these records as accurately as possible. Although these were recordings made for commercial purposes, young musicians venerated them as authentic artifacts representing places and times that were radically different from 1950s New York.

  Musicians had been coming to Washington Square Park to play folk music on the weekends since the 1940s, but in 1961 the Parks Commissioner suddenly demanded a permit for singing in the park. When Izzy Young applied for a permit on behalf of the folkies, he was refused. On April 9, 1961, Young led a large protest by people singing in Washington Square Park, in defiance of the ban.  Several of the NYPD’s paddy wagons were waiting there in anticipation. As shown in the short film shot at the protest, Sunday, the mostly young crowd sang everything from “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Land Is Your Land” to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the last of which was introduced as “a folk song written 250 years ago.” After a standoff with the singing protesters, the police charged into the crowd, resulting in numerous arrests and injuries. 

The next day, the headlines of the New York Mirror screamed “3000 BEATNIKS RIOT IN VILLAGE”. The newspaper used the label “beatniks” as a sensationalist label to describe the Village’s deviants, but in fact the folk scene had long since distinguished itself from the Beat subculture that preceded them.  By 1961, the mass media had turned the “beatnik” into a caricature that disgusted, but also fascinated, mainstream America; outsiders had begun visiting the Village on the weekends in search of real-life beatniks.  “We despised them,” Van Ronk recalled, “and even more than that we despised all the tourists who were coming down to the Village because they had heard about them.” Musically, whereas the original Beats had adopted bebop and experimental styles of jazz to accompany their innovations in poetry and literature, the folk scene in Greenwich Village was based on the populism and sincerity that a younger generation found in traditional, communal, and rural forms of music.  Despite being based in the same neighborhood, the folk and beatnik subcultures were quite different.

Washington Square Park was a contested battleground of social conflict during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  New York’s autocratic city planner, Robert Moses, had proposed the construction of a roadway that would have run from Fifth Avenue through the middle of the park, eventually linking traffic to a larger expressway across lower Manhattan.  This was the centerpiece of Moses’ plans for urban renewal in Manhattan. It would have necessitated the demolition of hundreds of homes and buildings for the sake of making New York City more amenable to automobiles and suburban commuters. In response, a coalition of residents, small businesses, and community groups organized the Washington Square Park Committee to stop the Moses plan.  Neighborhood activists held demonstrations, circulated petitions, attended city meetings, wrote letters, and lobbied politicians in an effort to halt construction of a roadway through the park. Their movement eventually prevailed after several years of struggle. Community opposition succeeded in not only canceling the roadway, but in sealing off the park from all forms of vehicular traffic, including the buses which used to run through it from Fifth Avenue. Activists celebrated their victory on November 1, 1958 with a “grand closing” and ribbon-tying at the archway to the park.  There would be two more major battles against Moses in the early 1960s. In 1961 the city announced plans to bulldoze two “blighted” neighborhoods on the Lower East Side and the west end of Greenwich Village. The movement of community opposition succeeded once again in stopping these plans. Then in 1962 Robert Moses revived his plans to build a Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) that would have also involved large-scale demolition, and his proposal initially had the backing of City Hall.  The fight against LOMEX quickly became a cause célèbre in New York—Bob Dylan even contributed a song to the movement in 1963, though it seems he never recorded it. Moses’ push for some sort of expressway across lower Manhattan continued throughout the 1960s, until the idea was finally shelved for good in 1971.

One of the leading activists in the fight against these urban renewal schemes was the journalist Jane Jacobs, who lived on Hudson Street at the western edge of the Village. Jacobs published her trailblazing broadside against urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in the midst of her neighborhood’s organizing against Robert Moses. By the early 1960s, the failures and disastrous consequences of “urban renewal” were painfully obvious in numerous American cities. New York City’s most tragic example was the South Bronx, which Moses had torn in half to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. The Death and Life of American Cities skewered the theories and assumptions behind these forms of urban planning that favored suburbanization and loathed cities. But Jacobs also presented an alternative way of understanding how cities work by drawing from her observations of daily life in the Village. Jacobs described the “ballet” of street life that arose from the interdependence and interactions among residents, workers, commuters, shopkeepers, and various “eyes on the street” who ensured safety.   The community opposition to urban renewal and the publication of The Death and Life of American Cities in 1961 marked a turning point in urban planning, as Jacobs’ ideas about cities soon gained influence in movements like the New Urbanism. The reign of Robert Moses and postwar urban planning was coming to an end. 

There was little overlap among the people who made up the folk scene and the movement against urban renewal, but they shared a sensibility. Both of these groups based in Greenwich Village embraced a form of authenticity in opposition to the forces of modernization that prevailed in postwar America.  The folk scene looked up to traditional forms of music from rural regions of the country, which it distinguished from mass-produced pop music. The movement against urban renewal stood up to Moses and others who claimed that demolishing old neighborhoods to build new highways was a form of progress. Jacobs lionized past forms of community and street life for examples of cities that were dynamic yet safe, and her book helped launch the push for historic preservation in New York City. Both the folk scene and the movement against urban renewal suspected that modern was not necessarily better, and both believed that the past offered more authentic ways of communicating and congregating.  They associated authenticity with ethnic cultures that were disappearing in postwar America.  Dave Van Ronk identified  “neo-ethnic” musicians who imitated the styles and accents they heard on old recordings, and Jacobs often drew upon examples of ethnic neighborhoods in describing what once made cities “great.” This was a time of extraordinary demographic changes in cities across America as the result of an in-migration of blacks and out-migration of whites. Suburbanization had accelerated the decline of European ethnic cultures in America, as millions left their old neighborhood enclaves for more culturally homogenous suburbs. 

In the years to come, this ideal of authenticity which developed in opposition to standardization and mass culture would itself become a commodity. Following Theodor W. Adorno, we might call it the “jargon of authenticity,” where the “perpetual charge against reification…is itself reified.” Jane Jacobs’ ideal of the great American city—featuring mixed-use districts, aged buildings,  pedestrian-friendly streets, and ethnic flavor—later became a model for gentrifying urban neighborhoods. The main agents of gentrification have since become recent college graduates and young professionals, who move to the city in a search for urban vitality, cultural diversity, and neighborhood character and an escape from the perceived uniformity and sterility of the suburbs. Likewise, musicians who resist the “mainstream” have turned into commodified images of authenticity in various forms of rock, punk, and indie music, and the presence of a thriving local music scene is often a precursor to the gentrification of an urban neighborhood. The commodification of counterculture had only just begun in the beatnik era—as the various youth movements and scenes expanded during the 1960s, so too would the efforts to capitalize on them.

When Robert Zimmerman arrived from Minnesota and began performing in New York folk clubs as  Bob Dylan, he was especially conscious of the need to cultivate an image of authenticity.  Suze Rotolo—Dylan’s girlfriend who lived with him at the beginning of his career (she is the woman walking arm-in-arm with him on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)—remembered that “Much time was spent in front of the mirror trying on one wrinkled article of clothing after another, until it all came together to look as if Bob had just gotten up and thrown something on.” During these early years, Dylan consistently lied about his background to people in interviews and casual conversations, typically portraying himself as a drifter who had travelled across the Midwestern and Southwestern states playing music as a teenager.  On stage, Dylan affected the look, mannerisms, and even the rural dialect of Woody Guthrie. He often wore a seaman’s cap and denim work clothing, and between songs he spoke with an affected Dust Bowl twang. Dylan was certainly not the first folksinger to dramatically remake himself into a populist icon: in the New York scene, Guthrie’s more immediate successor was a Jewish doctor’s son from Brooklyn named Elliott Adnopoz, who reinvented himself as a singing cowboy called Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Folk music’s “jargon of authenticity” held tremendous appeal for great numbers of suburban white middle-class youth during the 1960s, yet the folksinger was contrived image like any other.  As Rotolo put it, “Image meant everything. Folk music was taking hold of a generation and it was important to get it right, including the look—be authentic, be cool, and have something to say.”

Of course, Dylan was much more than an imitator or an impersonator. He quickly developed a distinctive voice that spoke to the urgent issues of his generation with an unmatched depth of lyricism. On the Freewheelin’, his second album, many of Dylan’s songs addressed the issues of racial injustice and Cold War militarism that had begun to mobilize the student-based movements of the budding New Left. In several of his songs from this time—“Masters of War,” ”Let Me Die In My Footsteps,“ “With God on Our Side” —Dylan dissected the destructive forces of Cold War jingoism and the military-industrial complex that had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war; his analysis paralleled the recently published Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society.  This political turn in his songwriting came after a trip to London in 1962, where Dylan encountered the skiffle and folk scene that was closely connected with Britian’s substantially larger movement for nuclear disarmament.   Dylan’s worldview at this time was also strongly influenced by his relationship with Rotolo, who was then a civil rights activist in the New York chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). 

It was in 1963, as the struggle for civil rights reached its boiling point, that Dylan was ordained as the voice of a generation. Folk music was at its peak moment of both social relevance and commercial popularity. Joan Baez had been on the cover of Time magazine in November 1962, and the ABC television network began airing a folk-based variety show called Hootenanny in April 1963. The Ed Sullivan Show invited Dylan to appear in May, but he refused to perform after they told him he couldn’t play his satirical sendup of anti-Communist hysteria, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”  Dylan emerged as a superstar later that summer following a breakout performance at the Newport Folk Festival, where he sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome” at the festival’s finale along with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Theodor Bikel, and the SNCC Freedom Singers.

Dylan’s status as the supreme protest singer of his generation solidified during this time.  A cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary had become a hit during the summer of 1963, and the song quickly grew into an anthem for young people in the civil rights movement.  Dylan had also sung “Blowin’ in the Wind” with Seeger and the Freedom Singers during a SNCC rally in Greenwood, Mississippi earlier in the year. Playing in a cotton field at the Greenwood rally,  Dylan also sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” his newest song about the murder of Medgar Evers and the larger system of Southern racism.  The decisive moment of Dyan’s fame and his connection with civil rights came late in the summer of 1963. On August 28, Dylan was among the folksingers who performed at the mammoth March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Once again, Dylan was joined by folk icons Odetta and Josh White as well as Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary to sing “Blowin’ in the World,” but this time it was in front of an estimated audience of 250,000, not including those watching on television.

Some black musicians had also begun composing overtly political songs in response to the racist atrocities in the South. Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in the aftermath of Evers’ assassination and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone first recorded “Mississippi Goddam” in a performance at Carnegie Hall in March 1964. John Coltrane also composed one of his most mournful dirges, “Alabama,” in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing—Coltrane arranged its tempo to imitate the cadences of Martin Luther King’s eulogy at the girls’ funeral.  He began playing “Alabama” at his shows in late 1963, and the song was recorded and released the following year on Coltrane Live at Birdland.

Rhythm & blues musicians and soul singers continued to be cautious about addressing social issues, but some of them found covert, metaphorical means of channeling the movement’s struggle for freedom.  The Impressions, an R&B group formed by Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield in Chicago, scored a hit in the summer of 1964 with “Keep on Pushing,” whose lyrics had no direct political references, yet they expressed  the confidence, pride, and determination that was sustaining the Civil Rights Movement. The most significant step was taken by Sam Cooke, whose synthesis of gospel and secular music had been a seminal moment for soul in the late 1950s. Inspired by the success of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and astonished to hear “a white boy writing a song like that,” Cooke composed his greatest song of redemption, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in 1964.  The original version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” did contain a reference to the racial segregation of movie theaters, but this line was edited out of the single version played on the radio.  The Civil Rights Movement had reached the peak of its political influence, but it would still be a few years before most black musicians were truly free to address the racial conflicts of their time. 

  Dylan released his most thoroughly political album, The Times They Are A-Changing, in early 1964, but by then he had already begun to recoil from his role as a spokesman and a writer of topical protest songs. He told people he was tired of writing “finger-pointin’ songs.” When he was honored by the left-wing Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at the end of 1963, Dylan went on a drunken rant in which he declared “there’s no black or white, left or right anymore.”  He also told his mostly older audience of leftists that “It’s not an old people ‘s world” and “I consider myself young and I’m proud of it.” Dylan shifted the basis of authenticity from ideology to youthfulness in a reflection of the generational divide developing throughout American society, which included the New Left’s break with their elder comrades. Dylan’s next batch of songs expressed a more personal, introspective, and metaphorical approach.  The title of his next album summed up this change of direction: Another Side of Bob Dylan.  The song “My Back Pages” was his most explicit repudiation of the part the Left expected him to play—Dylan repeated his ECLC ravings in suggesting that politics was for the old, and he was “younger than that now.” Dylan was becoming an enigma for the Left.  At the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, the mantle of topical songwriter and protest singer passed to Phil Ochs, whose debut album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, had also appeared earlier that year. 

A year before his controversial  performance with an amplified rock band, Dylan was confronted with a creative ceiling imposed by the folk’s formal traditionalism and the Left’s demand for social realism. By definition, folk music maintained a romantic attachment to rural, pre-industrial America. As Raymond Williams has shown, the meaning of “folk” changed during the nineteenth century, from a generic term for people in general to a nostalgic reaction against the effects of industrialization and urbanization. Yet the folk revival developed and flourished in New York City, in a longtime bohemian neighborhood that encouraged experimentation and rejected convention. For urban bohemians, authenticity involved a process of a becoming, not an attachment to static traditions; they valued experiments with representation and form while dismissing social realism. Allen Ginsberg was Dylan’s most direct link to this subculture of artists, poets, and writers that was thriving in New York at the same time.  Dylan personified the opposing tendencies of folk tradition and urban bohemia, and in many ways the conflict between them fueled his music. But in time he saw the need to surpass the artistic fetters of folk music, and a generation of musicians who started out as folkies would follow him.