Midweek Music Break: Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Bob Dylan and friendWhen Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” first came out in 1964, I wasn’t paying much attention to contemporary popular music. But when I did hear it the first time, even benighted I recognized what a great song it was. I could feel my mind and spirit churning restlessly: the lyrics (which I never had trouble hearing) ostensibly addressed parents and other authority figures, but seemed meant to be heard by me and my peers. It described the dangers of the coming years: conflict and tumult, bubble and ruin, destruction and, finally, the joy of a fresh start. It didn’t say anything (nor did I think) about how, exactly, all this would come to pass. But ye gods, what a stirring (and literate) bugle call…!

I still marvel that the lyrics, and the very title, work at all. The times they are a-changin’ sounds like the malformed offspring of Appalachian corn and parody Italian (The meatballs, they-a so spicy!).

The way things played out over the next few years — around the world, not just in the US — seemed to bear out the song’s prophecies, such as they were. But then, more or less without warning, all the excitement dissipated. Having driven many of us insane, Nixon suddenly was gone. Having reached a plateau, the revolution ran out of gas. Music followed suit; with bubble-gum and disco, the medium’s core felt hollowed out. And since 9/11, oh gods…

On my (rare) pessimistic days anymore, I now imagine that the song sends the opposite message. It seems a lament sung to aging lefties who can find only traces of their own (half-forgotten) idealism in the faces of their kids and their neighbors. People we elected in hopes of turning things around simply haven’t turned out as promised — or, at any rate, as we imagined they promised. The country seems sliding into a slough of suspicion, paranoia, flimsy justifications for militarism, institutionalized intolerance, and careless consumerism.

Luckily, I don’t feel nearly so gloomy on most days: most people are better people than they think they are, or (at any rate) than they will consistently allow themselves to be.

When Dylan’s Love and Theft album came out in 2001 — hailed (like so many of his albums in terms like “He’s back!” — I found myself less than bowled over. But the album has grown on me with replaying. And just like the first time I listened to that album, when I get to the last track* and find an alternate out-of-nowhere take (from 1964, no less!) of “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” why, my old spirit soars anew.

[Below, click Play button to begin The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Alternate). While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:56 long.

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* Your own copy of the album/CD may not include it; it’s a bonus track on the digital edition.

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  1. s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

    Some songs just have almost too much written about them, and not enough said. Not so this time, thanks for that. It’s the lyrics here that are eternal and it’s still a clarion call. My present concerns are that it is AS poignant as ever, yet those who once felt that it was their call to order – no longer hear it, and that revolutionary spirit which could have been recognized by Thomas Paine were he alive in 1964 is somehow lost on current generations. Occupy? Well maybe – but then what? Leaders matter, and Bob was a leadin’ here for sure, even if he “only” thought himself a foot soldier at the time.

    The times they are a changin’…still. Can we still change with them?

    • Well, like I said, I don’t always feel pessimistic. This post was actually sitting in the Drafts box for several weeks; when I first created it I was really ticked off about something or other, and I’ve spent some time since then sort of undoing the bulk of the negative vibes. (It’s still probably got more of an edge than I typically feel is called for.)

      I’ve never known what to make of Dylan’s later claims to the effect that he wasn’t trying to “do” anything back then — that he was just in it for the music, the message being secondary. Usually, my sense might be expressed this way: Well, Bob, leadership IS as leadership DOES. I don’t know. Maybe he was, after all, just a poseur who’d be happy singing the phone book if he thought he could make money, meet girls, whatever. But I don’t believe it.

      This is a good song to bookend with “Like a Rolling Stone.” The latter’s not “political,” actually rather personal, but if somebody today asked me what it was like back in the ’60s I’d just hand them a CD or thumb drive with those two songs on it, and nothing else.

      (This, although — as I’ve mentioned — I was rather asleep during the ’60s, myself. So I’d be speaking retrospectively rather than from intimate firsthand knowledge.)

      • s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

        my “head-space” was not a particularly good one on the day this was read and I think that points even more to the power/poignancy of the song. It CAN be a call to action, it CAN be an optimistic look to the horizon line, it CAN be a dirge for the depressed. It is all of that.

  2. Well, I’m glad sifted out some of what you called “negative vibes,” while keeping a little edge in this piece. And I do like the edge. Totally in agreement with s.o.m.e. one’s brudder.

    I remember in 9th grade (at the risk of repeating myself–not sure if I ever mentioned this) my English teacher once tasked us with memorizing Dylan’s Hurricane. By then I was already smitten by Dylan’s earlier work, and he had become a hero to many of us high schoolers. Desire had just been released, and I was eager to learn the lines of all the songs. I still remember each word of hurricane (Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night / Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall / She sees the bartender in a pool of blood / Cries out “My God they killed them all”–what an opening!) and looking back now, I think this assignment, to a large part, awakened my young self to all that worldly conflict and tumult.

    Bob—not attempting to effect change. Ha. He’s just blowin’ in the wind.

    • You couldn’t know what a… er… what a double-edged word “edge” is for me. I went through a spell back in the ’90s in which it seemed every other story rejection included variations of the phrase, “Sorry, not edgy enough.”

      As in the “Hurricane” line you quote, Dylan’s lyrics often make songwriting sound easier than it is. The popular stereotype of June/moon/swoon/soon lyrics can seem like inventive, carefully built clockwork language next to four lines of which only two rhyme; surely, the casual rhyme and meter of the latter signify lazy sloppiness in the writer. Actually, I think it’s like the props and set design of the first Star Wars movie against those of previous space operas, or an expensive rumpled plaid shirt vs. a heavily starched white button-down Oxford. Life and story over artifice.

      • s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

        Coincidentally, “Hurricane” – the movie – was on cable the other night, and I realized that I had never seen the actual opening of the movie. I kept waiting, in the early hospital scene, for the bartender “through his one dying eye” to say: “why’d you bring him in here, he ain’t the guy”. Power of lyrics. Then, the opening credits and in rolls the music -great opening for the movie! Once again, through raiding your record collection – Blood on the Tracks – I got an appreciation of something I had paid little attention to, musically speaking. I had really never paid attention to him at all, prior to that. I guess I knew that he was “somebody”, but not why. Tangle Up In Blue, Shelter From The Storm, Hurricane – yowza. Those three songs could define a career alone.
        side note: I’m not sure that it was a full fledged “raid” on your records this time. I think it may have been a function of proximity. Ninth grade/fourth grade, just beginning to take an interest in “owning” my own records, you with a turntable in fairly active rotation in a shared bedroom. Yep, it might just have been osmosis, this time, rather than guerrilla action in your absence. You may have always been aware of this activity, but I always felt like I was sneaking into Fort Knox to peek.

        • I love Blood on the Tracks so much that it tends to overshadow any other Dylan I listen to. (Even the Biograph collection didn’t quite live up to it, I thought.)

          Technically, “Hurricane” wasn’t on BotT, though, but rather on Desire (which I barely remember owning a copy of). Same ballpark!

          Watching the Spotify playlists you post on Facebook is a humbling experience.

          • s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

            Attribution misfire! my bad. Now I need to go find copies of BotT AND Desire to set myself right!

            recaptcha: which pokens

            shouldn’t that be followed with a question mark?

  3. Whoops- seems I’ve forgotten how to shore up those italics! (Can you tell I haven’t been blogging?)

  4. I know this is as close to blasphemy as I get, but I just don’t get Dylan. He groans, he moans, he sloughs through his songs without any sort of voice that I care to hear twice. I don’t think he’s visionary, he always sounded tired and well-sort of lazy to me.

    The stoning can commence at any time. I’ll hide behind my LP’s of Streisand, Carole King, and John Denver.

    • That’s kind of how I reacted to Warren Zevon before deciding to make a project of “getting” him. I still don’t listen to him very often, and never — on my own, anyhow — unless in a mix with something else. But I can definitely see the appeal.

      Not suggesting that you do this, but I honestly didn’t get sold on Dylan until listening to his Blood on the Tracks album in a loop of repeated plays. The lightbulb really came on when I tried the same approach with his first Greatest Hits album.

      For that matter, I experienced the same thing after watching My Fair Lady for the first time by choice, rather than as a captive audience. :)

      • s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

        doesn’t listening to “My Fair Lady” REQUIRE captivity? Certainly, all the way through, it must. “I have often walked, down this street before…..” AAAAAAAAHHHHH!
        Run away! Run away!

        I am smiling, here, Cynth… ;-P

  5. Anyone who can listen repeatedly to “Istanbul’s Not Constantinople” has no room for any critique of musicals or any other kind of music, Mr. Brudder!

    • Oooh, well played.

      Er, but are you sure that that comment couldn’t be used against present or former residents of your home?

    • s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

      Cynth, the correct title: Istanbul (Not Constantinople). Just so you have hope of maintaining a shred of dignity among your children.

  6. Well it could have been, but said residents don’t frequent this blog and he’s heard my rants before.

  7. s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

    oh….and we haven’t?

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