#2: 1776

1776: The Declaration of Independence

The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan

Folk music, or traditional music, has several defining characteristics (according to wikipedia, at least): transmitted through oral tradition, often related to and a fusion of national cultures, it is non-commercial and there are no copyrights, and it commemorates historical events. Transposing these traits to a historic document, it is easy to see that the Declaration of Independence can be considered an item of folk politics or traditional national values.

Oral Tradition, Non-commercial, No Copyright: The basic idea behind an oral tradition is that the ideas and songs are passed down from generation to generation. In this way nobody owns the ideas and there is no copyright on them. The Declaration follows this pattern because it takes ideas from Enlightenment philosophy, largely John Locke. The ideas that established America (and were maintained for subsequent centuries) in turn influenced traditions of liberalism and democracy in other parts of the world. Bob Dylan similarly can be viewed as a significant waypoint on the path traveled by folk music, taking the lessons of previous musicians and translating them in his own iconic way. It is no secret that Dylan is one of the most influential musicians of all time.

National culture, Historical events: The Declaration of Independence was the coming out party for America: the signers stated the basic ideals they believed in, then listed 27 grievances against King George III, and concluded by stating logically that the American colonies “are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.

Furthermore, within the ideals stated, Jefferson drove home the rights to individual liberty and the right to revolution. Bob Dylan came to popularity in the early 1960s, giving “protest music” a popular voice — against war in Vietnam and in favor of the Civil Rights Movement. In a sense, the protest movements of the 1960s embodied those ideals of liberty and revolution. 

Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.

In a way the faith put behind the Declaration and Dylan similarly was let down. Despite the explicitly stated ideal that “all men are created equal,” slavery was allowed to exist in the United States for almost a century after 1776. Despite the support and popularity garnered by Dylan’s early protest songs, he rejected that mantle. Obviously, it’s tough to get it right for all the people all the time; Dylan’s retreat away from being the “voice of a generation” is more excusable, however.

Certainly the document that was approved by a bunch of white guys in 1776 was a mark of changing times. A bunch of backwoods rednecks precipitated the 150-year-long fall of an Old World European empire. I’m not sure if we can say that Bob Dylan had that effect with this song, but the words sure do fit well.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

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