The Times They Are A-Changin’

Commentary

Almost everybody is familiar with at least a few lines from Dylan’s songs: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”…… “The answer is blowing in the wind”……. “May you stay, forever young”……..“Don’t criticize what you don’t understand”.. But the most  well-known has to be“the times they are a’changin’”. Quotations from the song turn up everywhere: on TV, radios, books, magazines, and newspapers.

Like Blowin’ in the Wind, Times spoke to an entire generation of people who grew-up in the sixties. Unlike most other politically aware songs, Times has lasted for several generations.

There are at least a couple reasons why this song is still relevant. First, unlike most protest materials Times is very non-specific: no actual events or people are mentioned. For that reason, the song doesn’t age as the events or people fade from memory. Second, the sentiments expressed in the song are universal and can be applied to any political or social movement.

Times is certainly one of Dylan’s best songs in the protest genre. Dylan’s own words on this song:

This was definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and for whom I wanted to say it. I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, ya know, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way.

The structure of the song is based on old Irish/Scot ballads, as Dylan acknowledges in the booklet included with the Biograph collection. Old ballads frequently use the same “Come all ye” and “gather round folks” phrases that Dylan uses in Times. A familiar example is “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens”.

Listen to David Bromberg sing it.

Times is steeped in religious imagery. Dylan biographer Robert Shelton suggests a connection with Revelations 1:3.

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

A more obvious citation is Matthew 19:30:

But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

And another link is found in Matthew 20:16:

So the last will be first, and the first will be last

Throughout the song Dylan rephrases the general idea of some impending, sweeping structural change:

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the loser now
Will be later to win

For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled

And the first one now
Will later be last

This album contains a number of Dylan’s weaker performances. The performance of Times, however, is right on. Although his guitar playing is bit unsteady at times, Dylan really nails it. He clearly enunciates the words and suffuses the song just the right amount of urgency.

One criticism often leveled at Dylan is that he is the prophet of doom and apocalypse, the master of gloom. However, this song – just like Blowin’ and Hard Rain – is not a forecast of unmitigated and unavoidable suffering. Re-read the lyrics. Although each of these songs warns of impeding danger, each also predicts a brighter future and spurs the listener on to go out and work for a better ending. Contrary to popular belief – which is perhaps caused by the sullenness Dylan often exhibits in interviews and TV appearances – Dylan’s work is not nearly as bleak as it is often portrayed.

Dylan has, of course, performed Times many times over the years. An alternate version was released as an extra on the 2001 Love and Theft recording. Why I don’t know, since there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it. He slows the song down slightly, and the phrase “rattle your walls” is sung “vibrate your walls”. There is a version on At Budokan with some unnecessary backing vocals. In other versions, such as on the MTV Unplugged video, Dylan slows the song down even more, which adds a tint of fatigue and regret to the lyric. These versions are all fine, but the original is still the best.

From the alternate “Hard Ran”  TV special.

Duet with Baez, Rolling Thunder tour.

From Bootleg Series, piano version.

 

 


Lyrics

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

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’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

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 line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

1 thought on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

  1. Avatar

    interview – BOB DYLAN TALKING by Joseph Haas

    Published in Chicago Daily News 27 Nov 1965 Reprinted in “Retrospective” ed.

    by Craig McGregor

    Q: In songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” you made a distinction between young and old thinking, you talked about the older generation failing to understand the younger?

    A: That’s not what I was saying. It happened maybe that those were the only words I could find to separate aliveness from deadness. It has nothing to do with age.

     

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