Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” is a classic tune that has stood the test of time. The song was released in 1964 and remains relevant today due to its powerful message. The lyrics are reflective and insightful, exploring the journey of personal growth and the evolution of thought.
In the song, Bob Dylan appears to be questioning his own previous political beliefs and rejecting his role as a political spokesman. The song is a critique of his own certainty and political preaching, and he apologizes for it.
In this article, we will analyze the meaning behind the song and discuss how it relates to Dylan’s personal journey.
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A Journey of Personal Growth
The first verse of “My Back Pages” sets the tone for the song’s message of personal growth. Dylan sings of being “so much older then” and “younger than that now.” These lines capture the essence of the song’s theme – that as we grow older, our perspectives change, and we become wiser.
The second verse delves deeper into this idea, with Dylan lamenting his “half-wracked prejudice” and “romantic facts of musketeers.” These lines suggest that Dylan, like many of us, held onto beliefs and values that were flawed or misguided in his youth. As he grew older and gained more life experience, he realized the error of his ways and adopted a more nuanced and mature outlook.
The third verse touches on the idea that youth is often marked by naive idealism. Dylan sings of “memorizing politics of ancient history” and being “flung down by corpse evangelists.” These lines suggest that he was once swept up in the fervor of radical ideologies, only to later realize their flaws and limitations.
The Evolution of Thought
As the song progresses, Dylan’s reflections on personal growth and the evolution of thought give way to a deeper exploration of the nature of truth and ideology. The fourth verse is particularly powerful, with Dylan taking aim at those who claim to have all the answers. He sings of a “self-ordained professor’s tongue” that is “too serious to fool,” spouting out that “liberty is just equality in school.”
These lines suggest that Dylan has come to see through the false certainty of dogmatic beliefs and ideologies. He recognizes that the world is far more complex and nuanced than any single ideology can capture. As such, he resists the temptation to cling to any one set of beliefs or ideas and instead embraces a more open-minded and flexible approach to life.
The final verse of “My Back Pages” ties these themes together in a powerful and poetic way. Dylan sings of standing guard against “abstract threats” and being deceived into thinking he had something to protect. These lines suggest that he has come to see that the only thing worth protecting is the truth itself – a truth that is always shifting and evolving.
As he sings the final line – “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” – it’s clear that Dylan has undergone a profound transformation. He has shed the limitations of his youth and embraced a more expansive and open-minded worldview.
True Meaning Behind “My Back Pages”
Questioning Right and Wrong
In “My Back Pages,” Dylan questions the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. He also questions the principle of equality, suggesting that it may not be desirable. These doubts represent a stark departure from the certainty and conviction he expressed in earlier songs.
Disillusionment with the Protest Movement
The song is also a rejection of the 1960s protest movement, to which Dylan was closely associated. He analogizes the movement to the establishment it was trying to overturn, suggesting that the two are more alike than different. Dylan signals his disillusionment with the movement and his intention to abandon protest songwriting.
A Path from Blakean Experience to Innocence
The refrain of “My Back Pages” is “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Music critic Robert Shelton interprets this as an internal dialogue between Dylan’s past convictions and his current doubts. The refrain has also been interpreted as Dylan celebrating his bright, new post-protest future. In any case, it maps a path from experience to innocence.
Recantation of Political Apostasy
Dylan’s disenchantment with the protest movement had already surfaced in a speech he gave in December 1963. Author Mike Marqusee notes that “No song on Another Side distressed Dylan’s friends in the movement more than ‘My Back Pages’…” The song is seen as a recantation of Dylan’s previous political apostasy. It is a renunciation of his earlier convictions and an embrace of a new artistic direction.
Moving Beyond One-Dimensional Songs
In an interview with the Sheffield University Paper in May 1965, Dylan explained the change that had occurred in his songwriting over the previous twelve months. He said that his new songs were more three-dimensional, with more symbolism and written on more than one level. He had moved beyond the one-dimensional protest songs that had defined his earlier work.
Rejecting the Role of Spokesman
In late 1965, Dylan commented specifically on the writing of “My Back Pages” during an interview with Margaret Steen for The Toronto Star. He said that he was no longer keeping the things that were really real out of his songs for fear of being misunderstood.
He no longer wanted to be a spokesman for anyone. He was done with finger-pointing songs that pointed out all the things that were wrong. He was now focused on writing for himself and exploring his own artistic vision.
“My Back Pages” is a pivotal song in Bob Dylan’s career. It marks a turning point in his artistic and political evolution. The song represents a rejection of Dylan’s earlier convictions and a recantation of his political apostasy.
It is also a declaration of independence from the protest movement and a rejection of his role as a political spokesman. Ultimately, “My Back Pages” represents Dylan’s transition from a one-dimensional protest singer to a more complex and multidimensional artist.