The generation of artists before Dylan were closely connected with the leftist politics of the 1930s and ‘40s. Groups such as the Almanac Singers saw their work not only as a revival of old time music, but as an instrument for social change.  With an amorphous membership that at various times included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Bess Lomax, and Lee Hays, the Almanac Singers performed music that was unabashedly topical and political. Performing at union halls, and leftist meetings, their repertoire included such songs as “Talking Union,” “Which Side Are You On,” and “Union Maid.” While not officially connected to the Communist Party, most of the members were at the very least sympathetic to its concerns, and counted friends among the party.  Though Pete Seeger and Lee Hays moved into a more radio friendly direction in the 1950s, forming the Weavers with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, these connections would later come to haunt them. Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the group was blacklisted and harassed. While the Weavers work was tame in comparison to the Almanac Singers, with a stronger focus on timeless lyrics and tight harmonies, the political element never left. Songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Which Side are You On,” were still counter-cultural enough to provoke a reaction during the Red Scare.
|The Weavers perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, January 13, 1968. Photograph by Robert C. Malone, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.|
|Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. Lee Hays Papers, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.|
|Shots of Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Photographs by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.|
Lee Hays’ correspondence offers a fascinating window into this transition, as the older artists attempted to get a handle on this new generation. In an open letter from February 1964, Hays writes:
The question of the day is, what do you think of Bob Dylan? I’d be more sure if I knew what he thinks of himself. There is a lot of cynicism in his songs; but if he contradicts himself, he is entitled to it. There’s a lot of desert ground in many a young artist before you get to the occasional mountain peak. In whatever follows the age of dinosaurs, the ones who give thought to meanings and origins and who sing with respect for the songs will do the most. I am impressed by the songs of Ian and Sylvia for those reasons.
Coming just on the heels of Dylan’s album, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Hays is likely reacting to the more introspective and darker material, though much of his songs remains topical and political. Even before Highway 61’, Dylan’s concerns were already departing from the parent generation, with more introspective and existential themes. 
While Dylan may have left the topical protest songs behind, it’s not clear that Hays and Dylan moved apart on a more fundamental level. While Hays hoped for “people’s songs” that would serve as “battle hymns” against “the powers of evil,” he also felt that above all it should be “true.”  Moreover, Hays was wary of those who would see folk music as a “static” genre, relegated to fiddles, banjos, and old country melodies:
Who am I, or who is anyone, to say that the music of the juke box, the beetle organ, which the millions of Americans listen to, and drink their beer to, and dance to, and argue by, and make love by, and relax by, and make up their minds who to vote for by, is trash? […] if the only real music were the pure ‘folk music,’ this would be a darn dead country, and I for one would have to leave it and go back to Arkansas […] I believe in creativeness and experiment, in Picasso as in Woody Guthrie, in Bach as in Pete Johnson, in Verdi as in Blitzstein. 
While Dylan’s career moved beyond the topical protests of Hay’s generation, there’s no denying that in drawing from “the jukebox” of American song, he has written songs that are true. It is Dylan’s “respect for the songs,” as Hays writes, that continues to bind him to the previous generation, and earned him the rightful place as one of America’s greatest songwriters.
Adrian Vaagenes, Intern
 Cohen, Ronald D., and Dave Samuelson. Songs For Political Action: Folkmusic, Topical Songs and the American Left 1926-1953. Bear Family Records, 1996. (pgs. 9-11);
 Ibid. (pgs. 15-20).
 Willens, Doris. Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays. W.W. Norton 7 Company, 1988, (pgs. 9; 20-21)
 Ibid, pgs. 56-59
 Hays, Lee. “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!”: The Writings of Lee Hays. Edited by Robert S. Koppelman, University of Massachusetts Press, 2003, (pgs. 63-64).
 Petrus, Stephen and Ronald Cohen. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival. Oxford University Press, 2015. (pgs. 286, 289).
 Ibid. (pgs. 288-289); Dunaway, David King, and Molly Beer. Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals. Oxford University Press, 2010. (pg. 151).
 Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. Villard Books, 2008. (pgs. 306-308).
 Folk City. (pg. 288).
 “Sing Out, Warning! Sing Out, Love!” (pgs 89-90).
 Ibid. (pgs. 148-149).