"My Back Pages": The Bob Dylan Song That Can Guide a Generation Lost in Protest


Image credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration | Public domain

Fifteen years before publication of Solzhenitsyn’s most famous work, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan gleaned a startling truth about good and evil.

In 1963, Bob Dylan was a fresh-faced kid probably unrecognizable to most Americans, but he showed he was already an old soul when he delivered a speech in the Grand Ballroom of New York City’s American Hotel that December.

It was about two weeks before Christmas, and Dylan was on hand to receive the Tom Paine Award, bestowed annually by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee to honor individuals for service in the fight for civil liberty.

It was a period of change, and Dylan had risen to fame in large part because of his protest songs of the period—such as the 1962 hit "Blowin' in the Wind"—that touched on themes related to the civil rights and anti-war movements.

Dylan’s address that night was not what America was expecting, however. In a short, rambling, unscripted monologue, the young folk singer touched on Woody Guthrie, Lee Harvey Oswald, race, baldness, and the strange gifts he received from fans. Dylan even suggested that the young people in the audience would be better off somewhere else.

“I'm proud that I'm young. And I only wish that all you people who are sitting out here today or tonight weren't here,” said Dylan. “Because you people should be at the beach. You should be out there and you should be swimming and you should be just relaxing in the time you have to relax.”

Many have written about Dylan’s speech that night—including Dylan himself, who days later penned a poetic explanation attempting to explain his thought process and the tumult of feelings he was experiencing.

Whatever intent lay behind his words, the award speech is generally seen as the first signs of Dylan’s disillusionment with the 1960s folk protest movement. The following year, in a wide-ranging interview with Nat Hentoff published in The New Yorker, Dylan explained that he was done with “finger-pointing” songs.

“Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see anybody else doing that kind of thing,” Dylan told Hentoff. “Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know—be a spokesman.”

Dylan didn’t stop there, however. Ever the artist, he expressed his disenchantment in one of the last songs he recorded for his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan: “My Back Pages.”

A lovely but mournful tune, “My Back Pages” is a coming of age song that expressed doubts about the songwriter’s earlier zeal. Historians say the song left many diehard Dylan fans confused and even horrified for its seeming refutation of the Jester’s earlier protest ballads.

"No song on Another Side distressed Dylan's friends in the movement more than 'My Back Pages' in which he transmutes the rude incoherence of his ECLC rant into the organized density of art,” author Mike Marqusee writes in Chimes of Freedom. “The lilting refrain ... must be one of the most lyrical expressions of political apostasy ever penned. It is a recantation, in every sense of the word."

Below are the lyrics to “My Back Pages,” which readers can analyze for themselves. (After reading the lyrics, check out the live performance of “My Back Pages” Dylan performed with music legends Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds at the 30th Anniversary Concert in Madison Square Garden in 1994.)

Crimson flames tied through my ears, rollin' high and mighty traps

Pounced with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps

"We'll meet on edges, soon, " said I, proud 'neath heated brow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, "rip down all hate," I screamed

Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed

Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

Girls' faces formed the forward path from phony jealousy

To memorizing politics of ancient history

Flung down by corpse evangelists, unthought of, though somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now

A self-ordained professor's tongue too serious to fool

Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school

"Equality," I spoke the word as if a wedding vow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

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

My existence led by confusion boats, mutiny from stern to bow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats too noble to neglect

Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect

Good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then I'm younger than that now



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