“Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”: Reflection of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and its role within the social climate

© 2022 Mimi Ryatt, Toronto Metropolitan University.

The opening twang sets it all in motion: A young Dylan presents and drops quirky, handwritten cue cards that correspond with the swift lyrics, Allen Ginsberg dressed as a rabbi in the background, and the final card reading an emblematic “WHAT??” in the end. Bob Dylan’s ever-famous cigarette stained voice and heavy layered lyricism evoke themes of the political and social climate of the ‘60s in “Subterranean Homesick Blues“. Presented as the opening track on his 1965 album, “Bringing It All Back Home”, it is the official sound of “Dylan going electric” (Anderson). The visual representation of the song was directed by D.A. Pennebaker as a promotional clip for his 1967 cinema-vérité documentary of Dylan’s first England tour, Don’t Look Back (Anderson). The video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is shot in a similar style: black and white composition and seemingly shot in a single take.

Fig. 1 Still from “Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues”, 1967, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Youtube, accessed April 2022

Dylan’s advocacy for social change and his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s marked him as the unofficial “voice of a generation” (Rodnitzky 109). His shift to electric music and more abstract lyricism contrasted this early period of his career. The verve of electricity and eccentricity are hallmarked in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, still the topical lyricism and intentions remain strong, albeit more convoluted. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is still relevant to our current political and social climate. This draws the question of what the impact of such encompassing art forms like this video are and how they can influence the masses and create social impact, but perhaps not any real change. We may not “need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” because as this paper will query, what is the role of art in history and contemporary society? Do artistic responses to political and social issues only act as spinning signposts in the wild winds of “change”?

Subterranean Homesick Blues: “WHAT??”

Often said to be one of the earliest popular “rap songs”, this 2 minute 20 second folk-rock track with loaded and fast lyrics evokes Beat poetry influence. Allen Ginsberg, one of the most prominent figures of the Beat movement (Carlise 1), is dressed as a rabbi in the background of this video and has had an influence on Dylan’s work (Carlise 9; Dunlap 556). Beat poetry emerged at the end of World War II. This the same period that the “American Dream” made a resurgence and capitalistic forces started sparking new ideals for the post-Depression generation (Carlise 1). Beat poets embraced Eastern spirituality and Buddhism, as well as drug culture, jazz, and outlaw or underdog characters. The aim was to challenge and/or reject American ideals of “craftless, mechanized assembly line monotony” in order to find something meaningful to believe in (Carlise 1, 8). These ideas are all evident in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and enforced by the visual representation of the words, similar to the visual effects used in slam readings of Beat poetry (Carlise 10). 

Fig. 2 Still from “Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues”, 1967, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Youtube, accessed April 2022

The lyrics, such as “I’m on the pavement thinking about the government” and “better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose”, pose allusions to the Civil Rights Movement and the violence imposed unto protests that surrounded it. The rest of the lyrics continue to critique other societal norms and expectations in more general ways, such as pursuing advanced education just get “put (you) on the day shift” (Dylan). The lyrics critique American society in in a humorous and jumpy fashion with the same essence of Beat poetry.

It was Bob Dylan’s decision to present words from the lyrics for the video (Williams). The highlight words of each line are scrawled with puns and specific detail in black marker (see Figure 2), such as “WHIRLPOOL” spelled out in a spiral and “LEADERS” surrounded by symbolic question marks to imply qualms about the leaders of our societies (see Figure 3). This technique allows the viewer to understand the deeper mechanisms of the lyrics. Dunlap’s analysis of Dylan’s role in the protest folk movement identifies that the post-war generation had a “formless discontent with particular issues” (550) . He argues that although Dylan fits in this post-war folk-protest category, his urge for individuals to examine their values and consciousness, and to have strength in unity in order to effect positive change were made clear through his music (550-551). The presentation of the written lyrics is therefore especially notable. 

Fig. 3 Still from “Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues”, 1967, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Youtube, accessed April 2022

Dylan’s own explanation of his process, as stated in his 2017 Nobel Prize acceptance essay, juxtaposes against presenting visual lyrics in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video: “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read” (Dylan). This statement further suggests a deliberate symbolism of defying perceived expectations and supports the intention of viewers applying a close reading of the lyrics of this specific song. Further, Dylan’s rhetorical songs often did not have choruses in order to draw focus on multiple and specific issues (Dunlap 559). In the instance of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, the title which roughly suggests blues and longing for the sense of home in an underground world, is also not directly referenced in the song, thus carrying a similar presentation to the frantic wordiness of Beat poetry, by which the sentiment is instead described in detailed rhyme (Carlise 9).

Fig. 4 “Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco 1965”, Larry Keenan: The Beat Generation collection ©Larry Keenan

Cinema-Vérité: Hidden Truths

Cinema-vérité is a type of documentary filmmaking that was popularized in France in the 1960s (MasterClass). This “fly-on-the-wall” form of filming allows the viewer to see the scene as it is without staging, scripts, or awareness of being filmed. In this way, the subject is free to act and do as they would without any filming at all, thus showing a real-life lens of the situation and person(s). D. A. Pennebaker filmed the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in 1964 and it was used as the opening for his documentary of Dylan’s 1965 England tour (Anderson). Pennebaker is credited for popularizing the cinema-vérité style within the USA, and famously exhibited that technique for this video and the subsequent documentary (Williams). One of the primary principles of cinema-vérité is the intention to focus on social and political issues (MasterClass). 

Pennebaker and Dylan’s decision to use this style for the video positions Dylan as a “truth-teller”, and his cue card lyrics, too heavy to hold and dropped to his feet as he follows pace of the song, mirror the message behind of the capricious instrumentals and spitball “Beat-rap” lyrics for Dylan’s cards eventually lag behind the words as the song progresses. This seeming first-take effect symbolizes the notion that we cannot keep up with all of the issues presented in this politicized song. Additionally, it presents Dylan as a mere messenger, as he too cannot carry the weight of and keep up with the swift pace of the world around him. Messages of transparency and of urgency to keep up with the march for unity and justice for all members of society are enforced through this form of video. Dylan was especially drawn to the concept of ridding self of labels and understanding that the troubles of the oppressed and exploited are troubles for all of society as a whole. He used his art to push an authentic and large message for systematic issues that affect our society in present and future (Dunlap 555-557).

Fig. 5 Behind the scenes of “Don’t Look Back”, dir. D. A. Pennebaker, 1967. Photographed: Bob Dylan (foreground) and D. A. Pennebaker (background)

Oddly, Allen Ginsberg dressed as a rabbi juxtaposes against the message of authenticity, for he is of course not a rabbi but a controversial poet, and his conversation with the other man is staged in the background. This feature in itself can support Dylan’s message of distractions and performative actions that create illusions of transparency with regard to political and social causes. With consideration of the Beat poetry scene and the genre’s rouse of jazz-like spontaneity and uncovering truths (Carlise 9) paired with the use of cinema-vérité cinematography, this seems to be a deliberate message of paying attention to the seemingly benign happenings in the background of our lives in general society. Ginsberg’s rabbi role creates a paradoxical effect to the notions of presenting authentic ideas and draws special attention to the words presented. However, situating a significant Beat figure as a rabbi having a conversation with another man in an alleyway suggests a mediation between high religion and the common man, or the notion of arts and literature being a better guide to enlightenment and knowledge than religion. 

Dylan intended to push the message of challenging established systems and encouraging connection on the sole basis of humanity in all of his works (Dunlap 560-562). D. A. Pennebaker’s film, which begins with this video of Dylan performing “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, has become a pop culture classic and a hallmark of cinema-vérité documentary. The themes from the film of Dylan’s desire for authenticity in his art and his platform and the unfiltered view of society of the time are carried through this music video (MasterClass; Anderson).

History and the Present: Art as Social Commentary

Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video employs the a variety of medias: cinema-vérité film style with written cue cards and background characters, while Dylan is positioned in the foreground as the song plays. This comprehensive art form is reflective of the theory of neuroaesthetics by which the phenomenology of aesthetic experiences are connected to cognitive function (Skov and Nadal). The aesthetic experience of artworks has a universal effect of stimulating and influencing the observer’s actions, emotions, and corporeal sensations in response to artwork. By incorporating historical and philosophical findings, it is understood that an empathic relationship is automatically established between observers and artwork, creating a mirror effect between the observer and artist (Cinzia and Vittorio 681-682). This means that the relationship between effects on the the observer and the artist’s visible creative gestures affects the fundamental sense of self to some degree (Solso 17). Additionally, the event of “selectivity” is one of five facets of consciousness in relation to experiencing artworks. This occurrence involves the process of our minds instinctively selecting specific and few features of a given visual work and having a subsequent conscious response (cognitive, emotional, symbolic connections). This selective attention can change rapidly if new thoughts or external prompts are introduced (Solso 26-27). 

Fig. 3 Still from “Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues”, 1967, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Youtube, accessed April 2022

Given the swift nature of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” song and video, as well as the supplementary background characters and written cue cards, the signals and messages presented in this visual work creates a significant neuroaesthetic and conscious response for the observer(s). The various and simultaneous visual cues geared with the intention of general critique of multiple aspects of American society in the early-mid 1960s can influence the phenomenon of rapid selectivity and emotional applications thus affecting the observers in other aspects of their lives as they relate to features and issues presented in this video (Hart; Solso 31).

Dylan references the treatment of the underprivileged or underground communities of society, racial, educational, and wealth disparities, as well as malpractice within police and political circles. The human necessity and desire for sharing thoughts and ideas, especially via artwork, is what drives all human progress and creates a universal medium for collective takeaways and aesthetic judgement of given artworks (Solso 31; Cinzia and Vittorio 682). The issues presented in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are still persistent in our contemporary society, and the effect of this video is still a focal influencing piece of many similar artworks and presentations of/with similar intent. 

It is evident that this visual piece provides critique and challenges viewers to make societal changes through the cues presented in relation to the issues of the 1960s. The ideal values presented have not changed in present day, in the same way that issues of wealth, race, gender, etc. movements are still persistent, albeit in other forms given the strides made since the time of this video. History does not provide a guide to living, rather a message of what to strive for or to avoid (Hart). In this way, Dylan’s role as an artist and a “messenger” of change and transformation is perfectly encompassed in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video. The mixed media approach and the deliberate symbolisms directly influence viewers on an intrinsic and cognitive level thus positioning the artwork as a historical and effective tool for social commentary.

Conclusion: The Winds of Change

Bob Dylan is still a prominent musical and literary figure, and the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” has had a great influence on contemporary artists and social activists, such as Seth Phillips (also known as DudeWithSign). The intentions, lyrics, and visuals of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are still relevant to our current political and social climate. By understanding the cinematography of this short video clip in context of the lyrics and the setting, insights can be drawn about how this visual representation of the song translates to viewers as well as understanding the broader role of art as it is used for social commentary. Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” therefore illuminates the understanding that art cannot blow winds of change, but it can make a significant impact on the observers (of the artwork), thus creating landmarks to assess progress and to articulate shared ideals as they apply to issues affecting our present politics and social issues. 

The presentation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is unique in that it utilizes mixed medias and has a deliberate agenda to challenge and draw attention to issues affecting various aspects or people of general society. Although this song and video are still relevant to contemporary issues, the role of this artwork has shifted from informing the viewers of new ideas to a cultural anthem for ideas now adopted but not completely put into action. Further, the presentation of cue cards and the cinema-vérité  has popularized the concept of creating encompassing visual art forms in order to unveil other aspects of our political and social landscapes with messages intentionally directed toward the observer(s). Dylan’s role as an artist is like the weatherman of society. We may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, but we will need to stand strong and united in order to shift the winds in a direction of positive change so that when Dylan croons “look out, kid”, it will matter what you did and the truths will no longer be hid, for the answers are after all blowing in the wind (Dylan). 


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