Bob Dylan’s third album The Times They Are A-Changin’, was a preview of his entire musical career; the ideals he stood for, the revolutionary figure he evolved into and the influence he would have over people. A successor of Bob Dylan and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the record exhibited some new elements that went hand-in-hand with the changing times. Besides being Dylan’s first album exclusively made up of original songs, it was a noteworthy work as it featured songs of protest.
The abstract “time” being mentioned here is the 1960s, popularly known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, which was signified by a cultural revolution driven by the youth. Although London was the epicentre of this blooming revolution, it spread throughout the West taking the form of the counterculture movement. This raging rebellion naturally seeped into the creative minds, nurtured their artistry and blossomed into remarkable forms such as Dylan’s album.
Recorded over six studio sessions, the work began in August 1963 and ended in the month of October of the same year. The first few sessions were not particularly fruitful as ‘North Country Blues’ was the only song that made it to the final sequence. It was after the two-month break during which Dylan travelled with his then-girlfriend, Joan Baez, while focusing on raising his media profile and popularity in general that the album started to take a form. The travelling and exposure did the trick as he produced six new songs, many of which survived the final cut. The sessions produced a large number of surplus tracks such as ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Percy’s Song’, which were shelved for the time being.
The title song of the album encapsulates the essence of the changing times. In fact, Dylan purposely wrote it as an anthem for the restless, energetic and hopeful era of which he was a leading figure. He confessed to Cameron Crow in 1985: “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.”
The lines “The order is rapidly fadin’/ And the first one now/ Will later be last/ For the times they are a-changin’,” evokes the Bakhtinian idea of the Carnivalesque, which talks about the toppling of hierarchy. As with Dylan’s other songs, this one also loosely alludes to the Bible in its final lines: Gospel of Mark, 10:31: “But many that are first shall be last, and the last first.” Though the fourth stanza indicates a generation gap, Dylan himself denied it, stating: “Those were the only words I could find to separate aliveness from deadness. It had nothing to do with age.”
Lyrically, the album can be credited for its treatment of diverse topics that deal with all sorts of discrimination be it racism, poverty or any other prejudiced social constructs. With ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’, Dylan tells a story of abject poverty which pushes the protagonist, a South Dakota farmer, towards desperation and forces him to kill his family as well as himself to escape the constant feeling of helplessness and betrayal. With ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’, Dylan extended his solidarity to the ongoing Civil Rights movement in America and raised his voice against the assassination of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Two songs that deserve a special mention are the ‘North Country Blues’ and ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carol.’ In the first song, Dylan wrote from the perspective of a woman, the wife of a miner who paints the perils of the mining community. Though based on two simple chords, the guitar riff creates a haunting mood that culminates at the demise of the said miner. The second song was based on a real story that Dylan read in the newspapers and it details the murder of a 51-year-old African-American barmaid, Hattie Carol, by a white man half her age named William Devereux in 1963’s Charles County. This part of Maryland practised racial segregation quite religiously, which allowed the wealthy, white assassin to remain free for an unfathomably long period of time. Written in a narrative form, Dylan’s protest song captured public attention.
The closing track of the album, on the other hand, was a protest of another sort. It was more personal. Dylan spoke up against the way he was portrayed in the American weekly magazine Newsweek: “So I’ll make my stand/ And remain as I am/ And bid farewell and not give a damn,” he sings. It stated Dylan to be a plagiarist and a liar who faked his middle-class roots. Ending an album that contains serious, universal concerns with something as small and vain as this was a mistake. In a sense, it betrayed the very purpose of the album altogether. In fact, the starting lines of the second stanza: “Oh, ev’ry girl that ever I’ve touched/ I did not do it harmfully/ And ev’ry girl that ever I’ve hurt/ I did not do it knowin’ly,” is not a good example of apology as it is more of a justification.
Contrary to the lyrics, musically the album has its limits. It follows the path of simple folk tunes which might make them similar sounding at certain times. However, this folkish simplicity is the reason for its popularity, making them perfect sing-alongs and pushing new ground. The album achieved its goals by creating awareness and sensitising people through music, and it unarguably served as a significant tool of protest, which makes it worthwhile.