The times they are a changin’. The meanings behind Bob Dylan’s song

By Tony Attwood

This article updated 14 June 2017.

By pure chance as I settled down to gather my thoughts on The Times in preparation to write this review, I also listened to Girl of the North Country.  And I think this truly brought home to me how different from his general self Dylan was, in writing The Times.  How strident, how determined to make a point.

How different also because the song is in what is, for Dylan, a most unusual time signature – 12/8.

You can hear this time signature by listening to the guitar as he plays 1,2,3; 1,2,3; over and over again, with the “1” being the bass note of the chord, and 2,3 being the chord itself.

This process allows a multiplicity of words to get an accent because there are four accented words on syllables in each bar, rather than one, as we get in 4/4 (four beats in a bar).

12/8 is a c0mplex time in which the music is arranged (as noted above) in threes, with four groups of three making up a complete bar.  If we look at the opening…

Come gath-er ’round peo-ple
Wher-ev-er you roam
And ad-mit that the wat-ers
A-round you have grown

the bold words and part words are the emphasised words, the first of the 1,2,3 across two bars.  It gives the whole song its effect and fits with the strident, “this is how it is” concept, which is so unusual in Dylan.

Interestingly it seems to have been written just two weeks after “When the ship comes in” which tells not of how it is now, but how it will be in the future When the ship comes in.  Perhaps as a result, “When the ship” is a much more joyous song telling of wonderful times to come.  “Times,” written in the aftermath of the Washington march, is solid telling us it is happening now, and there ain’t nothing we can do about it.

Musically we can also note as Bream does in Dylan disc by disc that the melody is directly copied from One too many mornings – but we don’t hear it as such because the time signature is so different.  One too many is a straight four beats in a bar piece – none of the complex rhythmic interplay of the twelve beats in four groups of three that Times gives us.

The opening is, of course, firmly based in the folk tradition of telling the villagers to gather around and I will tell you of wonderful things that are happening.  Dylan did the same opening with North Country Blues where he commands, “Come gather round friends.”

Likewise the emphasis on an old traditional approach to songwriting is emphasised by Dylan writing “A-changing” and not “changing” in the title – a phrase dating back to 18th century English folk ballads.

But Times has neither the joyous buoyancy of “When the ship” nor the delicate feeling and concern of Girl of the North Country, nor the desperate bleakness and sorrow of North Country Blues.  All the wistfulness has gone, this is definitive, strident, telling.  There’s nothing personal here.

Dylan has a few times talked about the song and its meaning, and we all know how confusing and contradictory he can be, but in one interview in Melody Maker he did make a point that seems to me to be valid, as one comes to look back on a song that clearly has anthem proportions.   Dylan said, it is “about the person who doesn’t take you seriously but expects you to take him seriously.”

Which from the point of view of the young incorporates everyone from parents to teachers, from those who programme TV channels to politicians.

And yet what has been called one of the most famous protest songs of all, isn’t really a protest song at all.  It isn’t protesting about anything, rather saying, “time to wake up, the world has moved on”.  It is a song about perception.  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.

Certainly the world moved on at a pace none of us could have anticipated,  although Dylan continued to open his concerts with the song.  Talking to Anthony Scaduto, Dylan said, “Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping, or why I wrote the song. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane,” which in a perverse way shows how a perception of a song can be influenced by those who proclaim they know its meaning, rather than by the guy who wrote it.

So we have to

And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone

had already happened, the world had moved on.

And yet there is a secondary meaning within all this, for as Dylan says, there is no catching up to be done.  The pathways are diverging here – you get on the route you choose and then you are stuck there.

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’

Dylan wasn’t right of course, because the changes of that year were just the sort of thing we had to get used to; from here on it was all change all the time, and by no means always for the better.  Modernism was over, and the constant change, evolution and re-evaluation of post-modernism was now what we had to get use to.  Dramatic, endless change, not the one off divergence that Dylan imagined.

Although he was absolutely right in saying,

For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled

Being non-changing in a world of endless change and re-invention was not an option if you wanted to stay part of the mainstream.  The only way to opt out was the rural idyll of the later “New Morning” songs.

Of course what most teenagers of the time loved most of all was the lines telling their parents that it was all over.  The cry “You don’t understand” suddenly had extra validity because it was on a record…

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’

Except of course that those who were teenagers at the time are now parents and grandparents.  Maybe however we (or some of us) try to keep up with new ways of seeing.

While many songs about the revolution to come (from The Red Flag onwards) are seriously upbeat, Dylan is seriously downbeat.  There is no joyous future, just a saying, “you are past it, get out of my way”.  The song has no humour, just as indeed as  the AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine points out, the album has no humour.

In fact this song opens an album that really I don’t want to listen to as an album any more.  So as I said at the start, while I welcome the chance opportunity to hear Girl of the North Country again when I was actually meaning to play Times, there is not so much here I really want.  Some tracks, yes, but somehow for much of the album, and particularly this song, the moment has gone.  “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather,” are for me the great exceptions.

And it was this realisation that led me to realise that the whole album except “Times” is about days gone by.  This is an album that says, “the past has gone, the new times are here, but I want to tell you what it was like the past”.    “Only a pawn”, “Hattie Carrol” and “Hollis Brown” all tell of desperate times, not a bright new future.   “Restless Farewell” and “One too many mornings” tell us the only thing to do is to keep on moving on.

Since the 1980s the song has had more to do with advertising than political and social change.   Steve Jobs used it in 1984 to unveil the Macintosh computer.  Ten years later Coopers & Lybrand, the accountants (who were my company’s accountants at the time, curiously) used it.  Two years after that the Bank of Montreal got their hands on it.  By 2005 it was being used to advertise insurance.  Finally, as if to show that there was a meaning in the song, but just never the one we imagined, Dylan’s hand written notes for the song were to at auction for just under half a million dollars to a hedge fund manager.

Yes, he was right, the times were changing.  I just wish that change had had less to do with rampant capitalism and religious fundamentalism and more to do with humanity, honesty and perhaps most of all, trying to be a decent sort of bloke in a world gone wrong.  But that’s just me.

Just under two years after he had written the song, Dylan did an interview with the English pop/rock/jazz/blues weekly, “Melody Maker” as said, “It was nothing to do with age or parents… This is what it was, 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.”

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. Great point about post-modernism. I think Dylan is a great TITULAR writer- his titles are better than the content which is always deranged, and the form of the song which can be digitalised and traded as a commodity. The quasi-Christian sentiments for example are quite misconceived: Jesus didn’t say the last shall be first and the first last- he said ‘there are MANY that are last that shall be first’ and vica versa. Dylan universalises the point and loses the political definition of Christ’s economy of salvation. However it remains a stirring title even in its capitalist acquisition- there is still something going on they don’t know about, he really did touch the revolutionary impulse and the nature of time really is still changing x

  2. Enlightening this view of The Times surely is, though I cannot share your view of the whole album it appears on. The bleakness of that album, filled with a desperate compassion, is dear to me, expresses exactly how I feel when looking at the world, but funny an understandable, less and less people seem to be able to bear the tone of such art. It is the poetry of a naked landscape after radioactive lightning struck, it is the world we have come to live in. To me, because of the beauty it contains, the album makes it into an entrancing black and white album of the changes we suffer.

  3. Wow! I always thought it was Girl *From The North Country. Thanks Tony for the clarification and your great article (as usual). I didn’t read any further.

  4. thanks for all this. my main fascination is Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.
    my thoughts are: what would Dylan say if he would write about the current world situation????

  5. ec – he recently said that the actual Hard Rain was not radiation but the way the media manipulates reality and tells lies. I think he would say exactly the same today

  6. Hi Tony. I’ve done some research but I’m still getting confused with time signatures. Why is this song classed as being in 12/8 instead of 6/8 or 3/4?

  7. 3/4 is three beats in a bar with the first beat having the accent. It is the time of the waltz and generally sedate and slow.

    6/8 is two groups of three in a bar with each group of three having an accent on the first note. Thus we hear 3/4 as being a fairly slow 1 – 2 – 3 over and over, but with 6/8 we hear a fast 123 123 over and over. Because there are so many notes we often hear it as two strong beats (the 1 beat of each group) in each bar – so we can hear 1 2 1 2 with each of those divided into 3.

    12/8 has four groups of 3 in each bar. In Times the four groups give a feeling a strong pulse on each of these

    1 Gath(er round)
    2 peo (ple where)
    3 e (ver you)
    4 roam (and ad)

    So it is the feel. I believe all musicians will feel that song as four beat to each bar (gath peo e roam) but instantly hear that each beat divides into three

    Gath er round
    Pe ople where
    Ev er you
    and ad

    and so on
    Hope that helps. It is all about the way musicians hear the music and thus where the accents are put – although the accents can be very subtle.

  8. Very helpful thanks although I’m still not quite sure how the different times translate into different tempos. For example why is Gates of Eden then considered 6/8, is it something to do with the slower tempo?

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