The Times They Are A-Changin’. Bob Dylan stumbles among the lost cigars

by Jochen Markhorst

As I stumble on lost cigars of Bertolt Brecht,” Dylan writes in the last of his 11 Outlined Epitaphs (1963), in which he lists, in addition to reflections on change, a whole series of influential artists. Forty years later, the poet again underlines Brecht’s influence, and more elaborately, in his autobiography Chronicles. Explicitly too, this time; almost five pages long Dylan confesses his awe for the Brecht song “Seeräuber Jenny” (Pirate Jenny) and states that from now on he tries to write songs “totally influenced by Pirate Jenny”.

This fascination is due to Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s former girlfriend, who at the time had a job at a music production, at George Tabori’s Brecht on Brecht. Rotolo also remembers how her boyfriend was struck by “Pirate Jenny”: “He sat still and quiet. Didn’t even jiggle his leg. Brecht would be part of him now, as would the performance of Micki Grant as Pirate Jenny.”

That particular song will echo in “When The Ship Comes In”, but what is more: it does affect Dylan’s view of art. “Woody had never written a song like that. It wasn’t a protest or topical song and there was no love for people in it.” He then describes how he dissects the song, tries to find out its magic, compares it with Picasso’s Guernica and admires it as a “heavy song” that was “a new stimulant for my senses”, it has “resilience” and an “outrageous power”.

Maybe Dylan is paying too much credit to Brecht – his introduction to “Pirate Jenny” takes place in the late spring of 1963, when he starts to get rid of topical songs on his own – but on the other hand he conceals the impact that another song from the same Brecht production must have made: “The Song Of The Moldau”.

Das Lied von der Moldau (music by Hanns Eisler, lyrics Bertolt Brecht) is originally from one of Brecht’s later pieces, Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg, and is also translated and edited by Tabori for Brecht On Brecht. It is a short song (three verses of four lines, the third verse being a repetition of the first) and especially the second verse rings a bell:

Times are a-changing. The mightiest scene

Will not save the mighty. The bubble will burst.

Like bloody old peacocks they're strutting and screaming,

But, times are a-changing. The last shall be the first.

The last shall be the first.

About three months after hearing this, Dylan writes “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.

The impact of this iconic song is unrivaled. The title is now a proverb, the number of covers can not be counted and it belongs to the extremely select group of songs that permeates a statement by the Supreme Court of the United States. “The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty,” Judge Antonin Scalia writes in a 2010 dissent – and that is only the second time a song quote reaches this supreme authority (the first is also from Dylan, from “Like A Rolling Stone”).

It is used in television series, commercials, films, Steve Jobs quotes it at the introduction of the Macintosh computer and is still sung – sometimes edited – to make political statements. Quite recently by Billy Bragg, for example, turning it into an anti-Trump piece.

That impact was intended, we understand from Dylan’s own commentary on the song in the liner notes of Biograph (1985): “This was definitely a song with a purpose (…). I wanted to write a great song.” That preconceived singleness of purpose is also evident from the well-known anecdote told by fellow musician Tony Glover. Glover finds a first set-up for the song in Dylan’s typewriter and asks, apparently less than impressed: “What is this shit, man?” Dylan shrugs and answers: “Well, you know, it seems to be what the people want to hear.”

It is a rather defensive rebuttal, perhaps even cynical, but time proves Dylan right. It indeed is a song that people, still, want to hear. And it proves Dylan’s mastery, the mastery of the cherry-picking thief or thoughts.

The lyrics are timeless. The maestro is smart enough to choose general, universally valid wording, even with references to current affairs. The third verse, for example:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall

That of course refers to the embarrassing, recent incident on June 11, 1963 in Alabama, when Governor George Wallace stands at the door of the University to symbolically and physically block the entry of two black students. The poet, however, does not mention a name, a date, a place, only adds that a fight is going on (there’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’) and thus achieves that he can still sing it with significance 47 years later – in the White House, for the first black president.

The other couplets have the same, eternal quality and that is not only due to this deliberately unclear unfocusedness. Dylan gets more agile in cherry-picking, as he admits in the 11 Outlined Epitaphs, on the cover of the LP: yes, I am a thief of thoughts. Here he makes a collage of clichés from Scottish and Irish folk songs from past centuries with their Come all ye … opening lines, he uses the prefix a- as an archaic intensifier like in ancient ballads, picks quotations from the New Testament (Thus the last will first, and the first are the last, Matthew 20:26, among others) and borrows excerpts from Brecht songs.

In doing this, Dylan also follows in the footsteps of Bertolt Brecht in terms of working methods. The great German playwright leans on other people’s work too, copies and translates exuberantly from foreign literary canon, draws without reservation from literature from all ages and also without blushing puts his own name under the contributions of others, especially Elisabeth Hauptmann, with whom he has an on-off relationship. Which does not detract from his mastery, of course. Just like Dylan, Brecht is a goldsmith, a craftsman who is able to construct a shiny piece of jewellery from bits and pieces.

The same applies to the melody. Analysts point to the melodic similarity with “One Too Many Mornings”, on the same record. Also “Paths Of Victory”, another Dylan song from this period, has some striking resemblances with The Times – if you adjust the time signature, that is (to 12/8). All three of them melodies have an age-old déjà entendu, and Dylan confirms this in November 2003, in the interview with Robert Hilburn in Amsterdam: “You use what’s been handed down. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ is probably from an old Scottish folk song.”

Those words resonate in Scotland, where proud, Scottish Dylan followers immediately start looking. The name of Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) pops up, whose “The 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily” then is appointed as having been the model.

In Great Britain this “discovery” ends up in the media in polished form, with highly acclaimed and skilled musician Rab Noakes being quoted with a semi-scientific analysis:

When I studied the song I realised that the phrasing is identical to Henderson’s piece and you could sing Dylan’s words on top of either tune. Although there are differences in the main melodies, the chorus tune that became The Times Are A-Changin’ is almost identical.

In addition, there are some biographical lines detectable between Dylan and Hamish Henderson (via The Clancy Brothers, for example), and there we are. After publications about this find (including in The Telegraph and The Scotsman in 2004), the alleged copying of that Farewell To Sicily (or “Banks Of Sicily”) slowly but surely degenerates into a musical-historical fact. With increasing certainty, even well-established authors like Clinton Heylin mention the song as a source. In 2011, the respectable BBC, on the occasion of a festival in honour of Henderson, states in no uncertain terms: “The American songwriter Bob Dylan has said that the Scot’s song The 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily influenced his song The Times They Are A-Changin’” and the serious Sunday Herald mentions casually, in parentheses, in the otherwise beautiful article What The Folk Is Folk, 7 May 2017, about folk music: “… and Bob Dylan (who based The Times They Are A-Changin on parts of The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily). “

And thus, in a mere thirteen years, a somewhat too enthusiastic claim of a few Scottish Dylan bloggers evolves into a seemingly undisputed music-historical fact, so undisputed that the Herald only in passing (in brackets) needs to remind us.

However, it is fake news. Listening to one or more of the many versions of Banks Of Sicily on YouTube has a sobering effect – it requires quite a low tolerance margin to hear traces of The Times.

But however it be, that Dylan has played with, scraped from melodic fragments of old Scottish ballads – that might be true. The Times does have such an indestructible, timeless, beautiful melody.

This is also demonstrated by the appreciation of the many, many artists who have the song on their repertoire. Hundreds of covers exist, which have in common that they are always tolerable, but also rarely add something to the original. Tracy Chapman, for example, and The Byrds, and the beautiful version of Keb ‘Mo. Overly ambitious attempts to find a new approach are cramped and fail (Barb Jungr, Steve Marriott).

Herbie Hancock is the exception. The dreamy tinkling of the brilliant jazz musician does theoretically not square with this assertive song, but the collaboration with The Chieftains is surprisingly good; The Times gets a contemplative, reflective layer that fits perfectly (on The Imagine Project, 2010) – illustrating Tony Attwood’s observation that this most famous protest song by the world’s best-known protest singer actually does not protest anything.

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

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