The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan

The archetypal protest song and an ageless anthem for frustrated youth.

The Times They Are a-Changin’ is a song written by Bob Dylan and released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name.

Ever since its release, the song has been influential to people’s views on society, with critics noting the general yet universal lyrics which contributed to the song’s lasting message of change. For example, critic Michael Gray called it “the archetypal protest song”. He further commented:

Dylan’s aim was to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a mass public—to give that inchoate sentiment an anthem and give its clamour an outlet. He succeeded, but the language of the song is nevertheless imprecisely and very generally directed.

 

Gray suggested that the song had been outdated by the very changes that it gleefully predicted and hence it was politically out of date almost as soon as it was written. Nevertheless, it continues to inspire frustrated youth generations and to give voice to social change movements all around the world.

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Dylan himself recalled writing the song as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the moment. In 1985, he told Cameron Crowe, who wrote the liner notes for his Biograph album:

“This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.”

Indeed, the 12/8 time signature and the archaic intensifying prefix “a-” in the song title recall 18th and 19th century ballads. Furthermore, the opening is firmly based on the folk tradition of telling the villagers to “gather around” and listen to the stories of the wonderful things that are happening, as Dylan did also in North Country Blues.

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Even if it’s wide acknowledged as a protest song, known as the “archetypal one” as Gray said, some argued that is not a proper protest song. During an interview with Ray Coleman for Melody Maker magazine, Dylan said:

I was on 42nd street. People were moving. There was a bitterness about at that time. People were getting the wrong idea. It was nothing to do with age or parents. This is what it was [about], maybe – a bitterness towards authority – the type of person who sticks his nose down and doesn’t take you seriously, but expects YOU to take HIM seriously. I wanted to say…that if you have something that you don’t want to lose, and people threaten you, you are not really free. I don’t know if the song is true, but the feeling’s true. It’s nothing to do with a politic party or religion.

So, for some, it’s more a song about frustration of the youth in all eras. “The type of person who sticks his nose down and doesn’t take you seriously, but expects YOU to take HIM seriously“, from the point of view of the young, incorporates everyone from parents to teachers, from those who programme TV channels to politicians. In some way, it’s also a song about the ineluctability of change: it isn’t protesting about anything, rather saying, “time to wake up, the world has moved on”. You don’t have to rise up and overthrow the evil empire, but rather just admit that the world has changed irrevocably. So be careful – it might just pass you by, and you might just be left wondering where the old world went.

Dylan’s above-mentioned statement was partially contradicted by a close friend, Tony Glover. While he was at Dylan’s house, he saw the typed lyrics lying on his table. Picking up the paper, he read one of the more quotable lines: “come senators, congressmen, please heed the call.” Turning to Dylan he said, “What’s this shit, man?”. Dylan simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people like to hear“.

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Protest song or not, this song bears a strong message which stands the test of time. Nonetheless, Dylan himself have had a controversial relation with this song, for example when he played it at a concert the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In his biography, by Anthony Scaduto, he recalled:

[The day after Kennedy was shot] I had a concert upstate, in Ithaca or Buffalo. There was a really down feeling in the air. I had to go on the stage, I couldn’t cancel. I went to the hall and to my amazement the hall was filled. The song I was opening with was “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” That song was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping or why I wrote that song, even.

As Gray noted, lyrics are quite “imprecise” and “generally directed”. Therefore, people might agree that times change, but they do not necessarily agree upon the nature of general change or desirability of changes. In other words: change is neutral. Change happens for good or for ill, can produce justice as well as injustice, depending on any number of factors, not least of which is the perception of those expecting the change. Notably, the song was licensed for use in American TV advertisements for the auditing and accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand; and in 1994 a young Steve Jobs recited the second verse of the song in his opening of the 1984 Apple shareholders meeting, where he famously unveiled the Macintosh computer for the first time. Times are really changing…

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
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

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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Sounds from the Bucket
Marco Principia

Born in Rome, his beloved city. Graduated with honors in Political Science and International Relations at Università degli Studi "Roma Tre". Currently employed at CIES - ONLUS as Fundraising Manager. Huge fan of A.S. Roma.
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