The 30 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs: #3, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Bob_Dylan_-_The_Times_They_are_a-Changin

“The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a call to arms, a generational battle cry, a warning that the center cannot hold:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown

It advocates compassion over complacency, action over inaction, courage over fear:

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’.

The song was rooted in the political and social upheaval of its era (John F. Kennedy was assisinated the month after Dylan recorded it), but its message radiates far beyond that. Unlike a song like “With God On Our Side,” which could use a few more verses to update the story, it’s perpetually relevant, because the only constant in this world is change.The language is straightforward, poetic, and unwavering.

Dylan has said of the song, “I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” In the liner notes to 1985’s Biograph, he tells Cameron Crowe: “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.”

In 1964, Dylan took the momentum he had built with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which introduced the world to a brilliant young protest singer and songwriter, and crystallized it with “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” He sings it in his trademark nasal pinch that would evolve and evolve again over the years, as would the tune’s arrangement, and just about everything else associated with Bob Dylan.

“The Times” is quintessential early Dylan – wise beyond his years, speaking with the impetuousness of youth, and calling for change in the name of the truth. With it, Dylan inspired those who heard it to see things his way, and gave voice to the millions who wanted a new world. Other tracks on the Times album, like “Only A Pawn in Their Game,” “Hattie Carroll,” and “With God on Our Side” are awesome protest songs, but “Times” is the most universal.

Like many great Dylan songs, Biblical allusions are woven into its secular text. The song’s theme is reminiscent of the Book of Ecclesiastes (there is a time for everything, from birth to death, sorrow and joy), which Pete Seeger set to music when he wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in 1959. Also, Mark 10:31 from the King James Bible reads “But many that are first shall be last, and the last first.”

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 Times They Are A-Changin'” (note the Woody Guthrie-inspired spelling) has been covered by the Byrds, Joan Baez, the Beach Boys, and Cher, to name a few. In more recent years, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel have taken the for a spin. While written as folk song, it encapsulates much of the spirit of rock music.

One day, the wizened, journeyman Dylan would turn it all around; “I used to care, but things have changed,” he’d sing in 2000. He got an Oscar for that one.