“My Generation Destroyed: Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in Witness.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Stevan M. Weine, University of Illinois, Chicago


Seeing and not seeing atrocities permeate Bob Dylan’s protest songs:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
(“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
(“Blowin in the Wind”)

But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
(“Masters of War”)

The far reach of Dylan’s sight is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’s introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which focuses on the poet’s remarkable ways of seeing:

This poet sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poems. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own.

Say you are the twenty-year-old songwriter Bob Dylan, and you want to write about civil rights and war, but in songs which do not resemble sermons. You could find much to love in “Howl,” which captures the brutality of the times but also the possibilities for new insights, and does so in fabulous long lines which somehow manage to embolden listeners.

“Howl” achieves this because of how Ginsberg occupies the position of a witness to a destructive force and the damage it has done. “Howl” famously begins: “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” This stunning declaration calls for a whole new world of storytelling, which Ginsberg fills in the poem’s 112 long lines with an extensive catalog of madness through the intimate details of personal experiences among his generation:

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

This particular line refers to Ginsberg’s 1948 visions, a key transformative event in the poet’s life. Yet the madness in “Howl” is for the most part not the poet’s own. He witnessed it among others, including friends and family:

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

This madness is shared in intense and precise apocalyptic language which convinces the reader that nothing is avoided and everything is claimed. The pulsating language of commitment to extremity, would be modified by Dylan and find its way into his protest songs:

A bullet from the back of a bush / Took Medgar Evers’ blood
(“Only a Pawn in Their Game”)

Two men died ’neath the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon
(“Oxford Town”)

You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
(“Masters of War”)

When writers and critics examine Allen Ginsberg’s influence on Bob Dylan, they tend to focus on Dylan’s pivot away from topical songs and towards subjectivity in and extending into his mid-60’s electric trilogy. When unbound by the topical constrictions of protest songs, Dylan embraced Ginsberg’s free verse poetry and surrealistic long lines – which are also very present in “Howl.”

Unmentioned is how Ginsberg’s influence on Dylan’s songwriting, and Dylan’s creative working with what he took from Ginsberg, very likely began even earlier than 1964, which was just after they first met. Influence is hard to prove, and it is rarely a matter of a single influence, but in my study, I find signs of Ginsberg at work in Dylan’s protest songs of the early 1960s.

Before arriving in New York City in 1961, Dylan read the Beat writers, who signaled to Dylan “a new type of human existence.” Dylan steeped himself in the “street ideologies” of Corso and Kerouac, and the “jail poems” of Ray Bremser who he mentioned in his “11 Outlined Epitaphs” along with “the love songs of Allen Ginsberg,” which Dylan adored.

I sought to understand how Dylan drew from Ginsberg’s poems of madness, especially “Howl” but also “America” and “Kaddish,” and reworked them in different directions so as to confront racism, violence, and war in his protest songs.


Let’s clarify one important distinction. In 1961, when Dylan visited Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, which he renamed “Gravestone,” he came with his guitar to meet his idol Woody Guthrie.

This cannot be compared to Ginsberg, who as a nine-year-old took the bus on weekends with his father to see his seriously mentally ill mother Naomi between her damaging treatments of insulin, metrazol, and electroshock therapies.

Decades later, in 2004’s Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan confessed that upon first arriving in Greenwich Village in 1961, he “shucked everyone” by replacing his placid Midwest upbringing with farcical hard knocks origin stories.

Dylan was the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms in Ukraine. The Minnesota winters were long and cold, but as far as we know he had an unremarkable middle class childhood with no known adverse or traumatic experiences of his own. Yet as Dylan later testified in “Blind Willie McTell”, he fully absorbed the blues and all its adversity and suffering.

We know well that for many people, experiencing social adversities and traumatic life events can have a major, distinctive impact on their brain, behavior, communications, identity, relationships, and worldview. Even witnessing violence to another can be a traumatic experience. We also know for some, these kinds of experiences can become the focus of artistic work, as they were for Allen Ginsberg and many other artists.

What if you don’t have any of those experiences to draw upon yourself from the life you have lived? Then you must go find and engage them, as Dylan did, through listening to the radio and recorded or live music, and through reading, including Ginsberg and the Beats.

Dylan also absorbed folk ballads (“No More Auction Block”) and literature (All Quiet on the Western Front he called a “horror story” in his Nobel Prize lecture) gaining access to murder, loss, injustice, and war. The intense and genuine qualities of his absorption were necessary for his writing brilliant original songs protesting injustice and atrocity.

In Chronicles, Dylan revealed that for much of his songwriting career, his imagined landscape was the Civil War and post-Civil War. At The New York Times’ offices in the early 1960s, he combed through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865: “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone.” He worked at internalizing a world of slavery, racism, and hate-driven murders.


Like several other notable twentieth century artists and thinkers before him, Allen Ginsberg derived inspiration and techniques from his encounters with mental illness and psychiatric treatment. Beginning in his childhood, Ginsberg was exposed to his mother’s serious mental illness and damaging psychiatric treatments, which for him was highly traumatic. As a young adult he faced his own mental health problems and inpatient psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. He also had a close-up view of madness and its mixed outcomes among his friends, such as Carl Solomon, a fellow patient at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and many others documented in “Howl.”

Drawing from these life experiences, Ginsberg’s poetry enlivened, explored, and elaborated a madness which for him became more than a mental illness, but a disruptive and potentially redemptive life force. Madness encompassed many experiences, including hardship, suffering, ecstasy, visions, inspiration, liberation, valued knowledge, deviancy, derangement, sexuality, freedom, and more. Through his poetry and countercultural leadership, Ginsberg offered himself as a witness to both the liberatory and destructive powers of madness.

By doing the work of an artist, he reworked his troubled family and personal history, and the madness of others and society, into powerful literary works which broke into the public consciousness. Dylan took notice of and admired how Ginsberg had broken into popular culture.

Dylan praised “Ginsbergian language” and especially “Howl,” “America,” and “Kaddish.” What is Ginsbergian language and why does it matter to Dylan? Did Ginsbergian language help Dylan to write songs about this world of racism, violence, and war?


From the very first words of “Howl,” Ginsberg is a witness who “saw” firsthand what happened with madness. But for Ginsberg, this madness is not always a bad outcome, as it could also be linked with some of the “best minds.” The act of destruction may have caused the madness, or may be a reaction to it, or may be the madness itself. Further, madness is far more than individual mental illness. It can also be social, cultural, and political processes which manifest in oppression, displacement, hatred, warfare, heartlessness, blindness, and fascism. All are possible and these so-called best minds of the generation destroyed by madness clearly have Ginsberg’s attention and sympathy.

Ginsberg invites his readers to join him in this empathetic though highly ambivalent endorsement of the best minds. Readers chant along in solidarity – “Carl Solmon I’m with you in Rockland” – and with him share victorious visions (“where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs”).

As readers, Ginsberg encourages us to ask: Can you grasp this madness which society generates and then seeks to destroy? Can you free yourself from the institutions engineered to entrap and destroy your soul? Can you identify with and learn from those who are trying to free themselves? Ginsberg asks us to see how his generation is being destroyed, yet shows us how from this confrontation emerges new awareness, perspectives, and insights which could be keys to a more hopeful future.

Ginsberg’s engagement with and questioning of madness makes “Howl” a powerful liberating experience for so many readers. He invites us to: Join in acknowledging that this madness of our generation is a major force of change in our world.


When in 1963 Ginsberg first heard Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a friend’s party, he cried, saying he knew a torch had been passed. I can appreciate why.

“Hard Rain” builds on “Howl”’s poetic acts of witnessing the ongoing destruction of the speaker’s generation due to madness with fantastical observations of a feared future apocalyptic landscape. Dylan’s song certainly sounds much like “Howl” in places, with many of its long lines bolstered by anaphora and alliteration, and juxtaposing opposing characteristics, as in:

I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken


I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
(“A Hard Rain’s)

In “A Hard Rain’s,” the “blue eyed boy” tells the listener about all the frightening places he’s gone and all the destruction he’s seen, depicted with startling beauty and language. He witnesses planetary destruction (“dead oceans” … “sad forests”), personal dangers (“sharp swords” and “wild wolves”), and communication breakdowns (“tongues were all broken” and “nobody listening”). He sees multiple fatalities as in a “dead pony,” “one person starving,” “a poet who died in the gutter,” and a “young woman whose body was burning.”

Yet as in “Howl,” Dylan is not defeated, and in the final verse, he commits to being an active and engaged witness of all that he has seen and taken in: “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.”

In “Howl,” Ginsberg goes further in explaining his artistic method (“trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”); whereas in “Hard Rain,” Dylan dispenses with methodological explanations and simply exudes confidence and purpose: “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” His audience was folkies not poets, and the folkies cheered.

But how did Dylan come to know about the apocalyptic? It could be from bearing direct witness, or secondhand from poems, songs, or stories he heard or read, or it could be from just knowing his own lyrics so well.

In “Hard Rain,” Dylan sets the song up in such a way that he doesn’t really have to explain in order to possess at least some of the necessary legitimacy of the witness. A good magic trick to use if, unlike Ginsberg, you weren’t a direct witness. For the listener, what matters is the truth of the song and Dylan certainly got that right.


In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the singer is neither a victim of nor a direct witness to any specific act of violence or injustice. Yet he knows enough to ask questions that matter in a world of rampant oppression, injustice, and war. He questions the lack of acknowledgement or effective actions to put an end to war, to slavery, to unnecessary suffering, or to unjust death:

Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?

He possesses the knowledge and moral urgency of a witness without explicitly confirming the circumstances of his witnessing and instead shifts the focus to the listeners’ own capacities for witnessing.

He invites the listener, with the intimacy one would use to approach a friend, to reach out and find the answers. The song asks the listener to look into their own mind, and to look at the world. At the same time, however, the answers are both painfully obvious yet difficult to grasp.

Dylan takes the ambivalence and uncertainty of Ginsberg’s witnessing madness in “Howl” (e.g. does madness make them the best minds of our generation?) and in “Blowin’ in the Wind” makes the listener own the ambivalence and take responsibility for finding the answers. Instead of being committed to a life of passive acceptance of atrocities near and far, Dylan gives listeners permission to live a life of engagement – observing, documenting, reflecting, knowing, and acting.

Dylan is not simply protesting, but is a witness to witnessing, or disrupted or failed witnessing, to turning your head and not seeing. His songs address those atrocities which exist amidst the mundane. He pleads with his listeners to keep listening.

Indeed, there’s also a howl of protest within “Blowin’ in the Wind,” if the listener can hear it. But instead of being about madness, it’s about war, civil rights, and oppression which were central in the minds of the youth in the early 1960s. What’s more, the widespread lack of acknowledgement or refusal to see atrocities could itself be called a madness, and thus can also be traced back to “Howl.”

In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan invites the listener to join a community or generation which is united by their knowing and sharing important questions and answers. This was a younger generation that had to decide where they stood on the Vietnam war and civil rights. Should they accept or reject the older generation’s values, priorities, and institutions? Or should they try to build a new America, and a more peaceful and equitable world?


“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener to do the work which Ginsberg said was needed to keep the country on the right path in his poem “America” which declares in its final line:

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

In other words, it may take a queer eye to find alternative perspectives, to think outside of the box, to do the work of building a new community and country.

In “America,” Ginsberg talks directly to the country personified, humorously and critically observing his own mind, and even imagining: “It occurs to me that I am America.

I am talking to myself again.” He calls out the prejudices, small-mindedness, nationalism, and greed, as well as the hopes and demands which he and America share:

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.

This fluidity between self and society is a key dimension of “Howl” and “Kaddish,” where madness is presented not just as an individual mental health problem, but as a social diagnosis, in a world inflamed by fascism, war, mass migration, the Cold War, nuclearism, and civil strife. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi, a Jewish immigrant woman from the Russian Pale, and many others were driven to madness by the conflicts, deprivations, violence, and failed institutions of modernity. If not for better luck, Dylan’s own paternal grandmother, Anna Zimmerman, may have ended up dying in a psychiatric hospital like Naomi, crushed by history.

In “Howl” and especially “Kaddish” we hear about Naomi’s politically focused paranoid delusions (“who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism”). Ginsberg’s “America” frames this in the language of the country’s political paranoia, with its “Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.”

This ridiculous paranoid rant was a template for “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” with the singer “lookin’ everywhere for them gol-darned Reds / I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed / Looked in the sink, behind the door / Looked in the glove compartment of my car.”

In “America,” Ginsberg imagines a path back from madness by doing creative work from a position which embraces both madness and queerness. To escape the prism of paranoia, Dylan deploys humor and sarcasm, a well-developed, hilarious, and underappreciated strategy.

In subsequent songs in the electric trilogy, such as “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and in press conferences with preposterously dumb and square journalists, Dylan would further unfurl his queer, absurdist, and mad assault on the unthinking paranoid reasoning of the times.


“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” details the circumstances of one hate driven attack, the attacker, the miscarriage of justice, and the failure and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system to serve as a just witness.

The song’s propulsive rhythm and the internal rhymes and repetition, starting with the assailant’s own name, William Zanzinger, are positively Ginsbergian, and even punctuated by a few who’s reminiscent of “Howl”:

Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage,
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table,
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table,
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.

The protagonist victim is an innocent woman, as was Naomi Ginsberg in “Kaddish.” The chorus shines a light on the lack of honesty and the distancing from, and avoidance or neglect of responsibility, in which many just stand around doing nothing in the aftermath of such attacks.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
Your tears.

Again, the singer is a witness to the witnessing or its cruel disfigurement or failure, on top of being a witness to the attack itself. Perhaps this nuanced layering of witnessing is one attribute that helps make it one of Dylan’s greatest protest songs.

The song is not nearly as hopeful as “Blowin in the Wind,” but need it be? In calling out the common shortcomings in individual and societal responses to hate driven attacks, “Hattie Ca roll” is courageous and emboldening: Dylan renders the ambivalence with which “Howl” approaches madness into different sociocultural mechanisms for minimizing a horrendous crime. It proffers a complete rejection of the self-serving evasion which holds up the denying witness into some kind of victim.

Ginsberg’s other great poem of madness, “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg” figures far less explicitly in Dylan’s protest songs, but one senses its presence in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which is unique among Dylan’s protest songs by focusing on a woman. The poem is also present in 1976’s “Hurricane,” which tells the story of decades of unjust imprisonment – “While Ruben sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell” – which brings to mind Naomi in her locked ward at Pilgrim State. However, in “Hurricane,” the emotions are less of mourning, and more of anger over yet another racial injustice.


Dylan’s protest songs portray an upside-down world reminiscent of the scrambled circumstances of “best minds destroyed,” where the best minds may actually be the “mad ones.” In On the Road, Kerouac writes, ““The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” Mad to bear witness rather than be blind.

In “Masters of War”, Dylan takes aim at the U.S. military industrial complex, including those who build arms but “hide behind walls” or “masks.” Though he is young and unlearned, he knows things the smart and experienced ones do not. As an upstart, he is claiming he is nonetheless one of the best minds.

In “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” the leaders of the poor whites were manipulate them into hatred for Black people, one of the oldest games in town. But the songwriter knows better.

In “The Times They are A-Changin’,” change is going to upend the existing order:

The loser now will be later to win,
The slow one now will later be fast
The first one now will later be last.

Dylan is prophesizing change, warning leaders and parents to get out of the way while finger pointing, almost scolding. He sounds preachy like the Dylan of Slow Train Coming and the other Christian albums, yet without evoking Jesus or mercy. One suspects that by now, Dylan himself was growing weary of this posture for embodying too much of the judgmental tone of the older generations he was trying to shrug off.


In “Howl,” Ginsberg was not only fighting for social and political change, but he also had named a mystical enemy. In the poem’s Part II, Ginsberg rails against Moloch, the Canaanite fire demon, as embodied in armies, madhouses, and oppressive institutions. Ginsberg bears witness to the destruction Moloch wreaks, and to its embodiment in destructive states of mind, which he recognizes even in himself. He celebrates Moloch’s overturning through “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! Ecstasies!” of the “Mad Generation” which has the quality of the queer overturning of the politics of heteronormativity.

Here it is relevant to mention something I learned in researching my recent book, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness and discussed with Ginsberg himself when I discovered papers for a key event which was not yet public knowledge: at age 22, Ginsberg signed consent for his mother’s prefrontal lobotomy. In other words, he himself bought into the then conventional mentality which said this was the right thing to do. Thus, Ginsberg’s protesting Moloch was also tempered by the humility that he was little better than others in terms of his vulnerability to participating in its destructiveness.

If Ginsberg is the poetic witness to madness and its liberatory and destructive potential, Dylan is the songwriter bearing moral witness to the possibilities and limitations of a society marked by racism, violence, and war. Both Ginsberg and Dylan want us to see, but Dylan also wants us to acknowledge our penchant for not seeing, and to take corrective actions. He lets each listener know that it is up to them to clarify what they stand for or against regarding these key political and moral issues which divide society.

Finally, let us also note that Dylan became a witness to experiences of violence and destruction which he accessed through journalism and art, not personal traumatic experiences. Thus, he demonstrates that direct experiences of violence are not necessary in order to serve as a powerful artistic witness, and to shine a light on the challenges of that witnessing.


Dylan didn’t keep writing protest songs, just as Ginsberg did not write about madness for all that long. By the end of 1963, Dylan disavowed protest songs. At the March on Washington he said, “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs…I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.”

In December 1963, he said: “There’s no Black and white, Left and Right to me anymore, there’s only up and down, and down is very close to the ground, and I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”

It was Ginsberg’s model of vision inspired transformation which helped set Dylan free from the folkies, and connected him evermore with Rimbaud, the Beats, and literary legitimacy. Ginsberg, bound to his own traumatic autobiographical narrative, was never able to sever the ties that bound him to his mother, his muse, through a transformation of madness. He could shift from a focus on madness to a focus on changing consciousness. He could travel the world and expand his perspective on death. He could become a teacher, like his father Louis Ginsberg. But he could never leave behind Allen Ginsberg in the more radical ways that Dylan could separate from himself.

As an artist, Dylan has been unbound to any such narrative. Dylan disappeared and reinvented himself far more wholesale, as we have experienced over the decades. Being unbound to his own autobiographical narrative, deeply empathic towards historical traumas, especially the ravages of the Civil War, being able to inhabit stories and songs in an unusually intense way, became bedrocks for Dylan’s creative journey.


In 1977, Ginsberg said “When you get old is when all your dreams come true, if you have the right dreams. When I was younger, I always wanted to go out on a rock ’n’ roll tour.” He got to join Dylan, his artistic heir, on the Rolling Thunder Revue. This is the stuff of Beat and rock ‘n’ roll legends, but the glimmer of celebrities should not outshine the coming together of the darker themes I have discussed here.

Rolling Thunder featured some of the most powerful live performances ever of the protest songs written fifteen years earlier, now in loud full band versions, plus a new protest song, “Hurricane,” and Ginsberg reciting his poetry, including an emotional reading of “Kaddish” at a mah-jongg tournament at the Seacrest Hotel.

On the long and independent creative journeys of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, this crossing of paths in New England theaters brought forth the many sides of madness, the horrors of war, and the terror of hate-based violence, and also offered the consolation and critical reflection of the witness, in poetry and song.