What’s so wrong with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing”?

by Tony Attwood

For almost ten years after playing “Times they are a changin” at the Albert Hall in London in 1965, Dylan dropped the song from his set list.  Since then, apart from a handful of pauses each lasting two or three years, he stayed with the song as a performance staple, all the way of to 2009, when it seems to have been put to rest.  It was not in every gig of course, but he played it quite a lot of times.

It appears on 16 different albums and has been played over 600 times in concert placing it in the top 20 most commonly performed songs by Dylan. In 2004 Rolling Stone made it song number 54 in its top 500 songs of all time.

“Times” an absolute icon, a defining moment in the 1960s in terms of the way young people were thinking.  And in its historical context it is the ultimate, contemporary, “Come all ye.”  Dylan himself has cited songs such as ‘Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, and ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’ as being part of his inspiration.

Of late critics have argued that the song still has relevance to those who admired it as teenagers when it first came out.  But as critic Christopher Ricks has said, something rather awful happened. “Once upon a time it may have been a matter of urging square people to accept the fact that their children were, you know, hippies. But the capacious urging could then come to mean that ex-hippie parents had better accept that their children look like becoming yuppies. And then Republicans…”

Yep, it was the same in my country.

But for me there has always been other problems there too.   Problem one is that although the album is named after the song, this is the only song on the album that says times they are a changing for the better.  In the rest of the album time has stood still, or things are getting worse.  Just think how times changed for Hollis Brown.

I’ve made that point about the rest of the album’s backwards looking stance too often before to bore you with it again, so instead let me take you back just for a moment to what the words of Times actually say.  Although many have analysed it, I feel that some writers have swept over what seem to be very simple lyrics, and just heard the simple call to recognition that times are a changing.

And that is where I want to start: this is a song that says the world is changing.  It is not like the calls to arms, the demand that we should all stand up and keep the movement (whatever the movement is) moving. We’re not being asked to man the barricades. This is ultimately a passive song; it says change is happening, just accept it, don’t try to block it, it will happen no matter what you do.

So it is simple.  You can’t block it, the change is inevitable, so just help it along and enjoy the ride.  If you don’t you’re in trouble, but if you just accept, you’ll be fine.  It’s a bit like what they used to say in East Germany.

And of course in retrospect one can see that was wrong – and indeed it is always wrong.  When major upheavals and changes happen, they happen sometime because the old economic and/or political system collapses, and sometimes because people work hard to make the changes happen.  Social justice, an end to war, free health care for all, free high quality questioning education for all, these things don’t happen inevitably – they happen because people push and challenge and work and sacrifice themselves to the cause.

But Dylan doesn’t talk about “the struggle” at all.  The key is in the first verse

Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

It’s a beguiling image, and I was beguiled with it for a while in my teenage years.  It gives great hope that all those old farts who are simply holding on to their images of the past will be swept away AND I WON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING BECAUSE IT WILL JUST HAPPEN.

Dylan then tells us of the role of writers in all this – obviously something of particular interest to me, for even in those very early days, I knew I really fancied being a writer (although such an ambition was widely derided by those who taught me).  OK sometimes I wanted to be a musician, and sometimes I wanted a long-term career in the theatre, but mostly I wanted to be a writer).

That second verse just tells us that the change is on-going, and it certainly hasn’t stopped.  One easy interpretation, and I think the one I made at the time, was that all the changes we could see in the mid 1960s were going to go on and on.  Lecturers in universities would be held to account, we could have our own fashions, there was a sexual revolution happening, we were being liberated day by day, soon the House of Lords would fall.

It wasn’t so much “there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’” but rather because “the wheel’s still in spin” the message was “there’s no tellin’ where it is endin'”

But Dylan doesn’t call for change at all, he simply tells the senators and congressmen to embrace the change, because nothing can stop it now.  You can’t stop it so you might as well accept it.

It’s a beguiling image, and oh oh oh oh how I wanted to believe that.  Change was inevitable.  That simple purity of Marxism that states that capitalism will collapse under its own contradictions and a proper democratic state of equality under communism will inevitably arise.   Historical inevitability.  I wasn’t too sure about the USSR, but the notion of historical inevitability…  Hmm that was appealing.

And that is what Dylan is preaching in this song, (although Marx did seem to suggest that we could do our bit to help speed up the timetable by organising the working classes into trades unions).

But of course, I don’t think Dylan was preaching historical inevitability in the Marxist sense – obviously not.  Instead he was preaching a sort of folksy “the world is changing for the better” vision – right at the same time as he was writing and singing “Hollis Brown” – ironically the second track on the album.  Indeed if one goes back and listens to the album, song after song takes us away from the title track’s message.  “God on our side,” “One to many mornings” “North Country Blues”; on a social and personal level, nothing is getting better, except on track one.  In fact it is getting worse.

What Dylan got perfectly in the title song of the album was the hope of those of us who were teenagers at the time that this might be the moment.  I had rows with my parents about the length of my hair, the clothes I wanted to wear, and my rejection of traditional authority.  But we made it up and stayed very close, and indeed I think they became very proud of me later as I dropped the idea of my personally being involved in overthrowing the state, (that was never quite their image of their son) and made something of a success of my life in terms of creating stuff, making some money, bringing up three wonderful children…)

And in doing all that, the next time I looked, well, the great change that Dylan had foretold had never happened.  We’d had Nixon, and Thatcher, and Trump.  Social justice had long since vanished.  Poverty and economic imbalance in my country is increasing inexorably year or year.  If the times really had been a-changing they had changed for the worst.

And I got to thinking, maybe if we hadn’t been seduced by that notion that change was inevitable; that Dylan and Marx concept that all you have to do is believe and let change happen, maybe we could have avoided the world as it is today.  Because if I am sure of anything at all, it is that, “The order is rapidly fadin’” is just about the most misleading line I’ve ever heard in a song.

Of course it wasn’t really down to Bob and his song.  However I can’t help thinking that if only that album had been called “Rise up and take the streets” we might have ended up with a different set of thoughts and maybe a different set of outcomes.

A few years later I went on a gigantic anti-Vietnam War march through London.  Goodness knows how many there were on it; these were the days when the organisers would say there was a million in the march and the police would put out a statement that it was more like 500, and half of those were arrested.

At the end, despite all the chants of sacking the American Embassy, and taking over Parliament, everyone packed up and went home and that was that.  Nothing had changed, except that those who concerned themselves with the job of maintaining the status quo presumably put on their collars and ties the next morning and smiled slightly at the realisation that nothing had changed.

In short The Times They Didn’t Change.

Just like the rest of the album said.

What else is on the site

1: Over 450 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 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 produced 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 our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

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

 

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1 Response to What’s so wrong with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing”?

  1. Babette says:

    The big and lasting change was:
    The disorder of the family

    Am I right if I suppose a lot of Bob Dylan fans still suffer?

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