I Feel A Change Comin’ On
by Allan Achesko
While Shake Shake Mama was a fun rockabilly song that needed very little introduction, I Feel a Change Comin’ On, just by its title name alone, deserves some prying attention. For example, Is Dylan (and Hunter), with I Feel a Change Comin’ On, paying tribute to the legendary Rhythm and Blues artist, Sam Cooke?
Dylan performed Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on March 28, 2004, where Cooke performed it in February 1963. Recall from an early Dylan session, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come was in turn inspired by Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind
Another clue to the origins of the song, come in the second last verse:
“I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver And I'm reading James Joyce Some people they tell me I've got the blood of the land in my voice”
What has “listening to Billy Joe Shaver” and “reading James Joyce” got to do with this song? Let’s ask Bob Dylan, in the unlikelihood that he can give us a definitive answer.
In fact, Douglas Brinkley does precisely that in an interview in the May 2009 edition of the Rolling Stone Magazine. Per Dylan:
“Waylon played me (Shaver’s) Ain’t No God in Mexico, and I don’t know, it was quite good. Shaver and David Allen Coe became my favorite guys in that (outlaw) genre. The verse came out of nowhere. No …You know something? Subliminally, I can’t say that is actually true. But I think it was more of a Celtic thing. Tying Billy Joe with James Joyce. I think subliminally or astrologically those two names just wanted to be combined.”
I don’t know about you, but I got to believe that Dylan is pulling Brinkley’s leg.
What I get from Dylan’s “explanation” is that the connection of the two names is more likely than not, about “Joyce” rhyming with “voice”. (Dylan sometimes prioritizes rhymes and music accommodations over meaningful lyrics)
Billy Joe Shaver is a hand-maimed Texas guitar picker who wrote many of Waylon Jennings best songs. Waylon Jennings was one of the Highwaymen who made “Outlaw” country music very popular. (The other three Highwaymen were Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson).
And the song that Dylan is referring to is one of Jennings most popular songs: Waylon Jennings, Ain’t No God In Mexico
The last two lines of the above-referred to verse, “Some people they tell me/ I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice” may be Dylan’s saying people are reading too much into his lyrics.
People are saying, “The blood of the land in my voice”, is like saying Dylan is a prophet, or the ‘voice of the generation’ and he is reading everyone the riot act. I suspect Dylan is mocking this notion.
So, given that, perhaps we should be careful about reading too much into this song. But what the heck, this is Dylan, and let’s have some fun.
Let’s start at the beginning with the following interesting verse:
“Well I’m looking the world over Looking far off into the East And I see my baby coming She’s walking with the village priest I feel a change coming on And the last part of the day is already gone”
The first lines remind me of the lines in the refrain from I Shall Be Released:
“I see my light come shining/ From the West onto the East.”
DYLAN, (the song narrator as opposed to Dylan, the songwriter), in his wishful thinking and dream of finding eternal love, is a wanderer, searching the world over for his perfect soul mate, and lands in the mystical east.
After repeating the loneliness and abandoned love themes in so many songs, I wonder if DYLAN’s I can “see my baby coming” isn’t just wishful thinking, and perhaps a dream (Afterall, the second previous song on the album was This Dream of You).
Is Dylan raising up some controversy about his religious affiliations again with:
“She’s walking with the village priest”
Or once again, is Dylan just trying to fit a rhyming word with “east”? “Priest” could have just as easily been “beast”, which is what appears in the first google search of Dylan’s lyrics for this song.
I have another explanation for “priest”, which is likely a stretch, that comes in the last verse of the song. Bear with me.
The line, “I feel a change coming on” is repeated five times in the song. In the first verse, DYLAN could be talking about a positive change he is hopeful will come into his life, with a new love interest.
The next verse, in my mind confirms that DYLAN has not yet found his eternal love:
“We got so much in common We strive for the same old ends And I just can't wait Wait for us to become friends I feel a change comin' on And the fourth part of the day's already gone”
The first two lines suggest the two bound lovers will have much in common. However, DYLAN is still waiting for this perhaps imaginary woman, to become friends with him.
Once again, DYLAN feels a change is coming but this time it is connected to a more developed last line, as “the fourth Part” which replaces “last part” (“of the day’s already gone).”
Maybe this is a deliberate clue as to the evolving meaning of “a change comin’ on”.
The next verse, to me, raises the clue that DYLAN knows his dream of finding his soul mate is whimsical:
“Well, life is for love And they say that love is blind If you wanna live easy Baby, pack your clothes with mine I feel a change comin' on And the fourth part of the day's already gone”
Admitting “love is blind”, is acknowledging that loving someone makes you unable to see their faults. Which might mean this love will ultimately fail once his vision is regained and he can recognize her faults.
Is “a change comin’ on” evolving into something temporary or fleeting, as opposed to a permanent change?
In the next verse, maybe DYLAN is admitting to himself that his dream of finding his eternal love, is just a dream, that even if “realized”, will prove false:
“Well now what's the use in dreaming? You got better things to do Dreams never did work for me anyway Even when they did come true”
In the next verse, DYLAN may be losing his mind, in his mind, as he imagines the lust and the desire for his loved one:
“You are as porous as ever Baby, you can start a fire I must be losing my mind You're the object of my desire I feel a change comin' on And the fourth part of the day's already gone”
Maybe the “change comin’ on” is like his dream and is unlikely to ever happen.
Which brings us back to the second last verse, which we already reviewed about Billy Joe Shaver, Joyce, and people misinterpreting his songs.
My interpretation of the last verse, pulls everything together, “in my mind”:
“Everybody got all the money Everybody got all the beautiful clothes Everybody got all the flowers I don't have one single rose I feel a change comin' on And the fourth part of the day's already gone”
With help from Seth Rogovoy and Margotin and Guesdon, “the fourth part of the day’s already gone”, may be a reference to the Hebrew Book of Ezra-Nehemiah.
From the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah (9:1-3): “The book of the law of the Lord their God was read for one-fourth of the day, and for another fourth they confessed and did obeisance to the Lord their God.”
Wikipiedia tells us that “The book tells how Nehemiah, around 400 BC, at the court of the king in Susa, is informed that Jerusalem is without walls, and resolves to restore them.
“The king appoints him as governor of Judah, and he travels to Jerusalem. There he rebuilds the walls, despite the opposition of Israel’s enemies, and reforms the community in conformity with the Law of Moses.
“Nehemiah sees that the Jewish nobles are oppressing the poor, and forces the cancellation of all debt and mortgages; while previous governors have been corrupt and oppressive, he has been righteous and just
“Nehemiah assembles the people and has Ezra read to them the law-book of Moses; Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites institute the Feast of Booths (ie Sukkah), in accordance with the Law.
“The Jews assemble in penance and prayer, recalling their past sins, God’s help to them, and his promise of the land. The priests, Levites and the Israelite people enter into a covenant, agreeing to separate themselves from the surrounding peoples and to keep the Law.
“Jerusalem is repopulated by the Jews living in the towns and villages of Judah and Benjamin. A list of priests and Levites who returned in the days of Cyrus (the first returnees from Babylon) is presented; Nehemiah, aided by Ezra, oversees the dedication of the walls and the rebuilt city.
“After 12 years, he finds that the Israelites have been backsliding and taking non-Jewish wives, and he stays in Jerusalem to enforce the Law.”
In other words, this cycle of repentance and sin continues, or as DYLAN says, “the fourth part of the day’s already gone” and this quarter day of repenting by the people of Israel, was ultimately meaningless.
In the last verse, the people or nobles with all the “money”, “beautiful clothes” and “all the flowers”, overlord the poor, who “don’t have one single rose.”
Back to the reference to his “baby” “walking with the village priest,” in the first verse, DYLAN or Dylan, a Jew, is flirting or dreaming of living outside his faith with a non-Jewess.
In the last lines of the song, do you believe that change is “blowin’ in the wind” or a change is coming on? Like the fickle People of Israel and humankind in general, does DYLAN really believe this dream of a better world, will come true?
Tony Attwood has some interesting observations about the music (co-written with Hunter):
“Musically it is all Dylan, I suspect, and it is one of those pieces he has enjoyed in more recent times where he makes the musical accompaniment complex whereas the melody itself actually sounds very simple. After all, he’d found all these funny chords, and he liked to use them”.
While Margotin and Guesdon describe the song as “an excellent slow rock song with an irresistible groove, provided by the talented George G. Receli and Tony Garnier. The accordion again brings a Cajun tone so important to Dylan. Mike Campbell performs two magnificent solos. Dylan plays organ and provides an excellent vocal performance with “the blood of the land in his voice” as he himself says in his lyrics.”
Bob Dylan – I Feel a Change Comin’ On (Official Audio)