You know we couldn’t get through a week of folk songs without coming to Bob Dylan at some point. As one of the most popular and influential artists of American history, Dylan’s contributions cannot be overstated.
So far this week, we’ve looked at modern folk bands and musicians from the past few years, but haven’t really touched on the wealth of musicians that influenced them. While I’d love to write about Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell, there just aren’t enough days in the week to cover them all. So since our time is short, I decided to settle on yes, the one you all probably already know.
While Dylan wrote this song for a different audience over fifty years ago, its power and message still resonate today.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
“The Times They Are A-Changin'” is the title track of Bob Dylan’s 1964 album, and has been covered by many artists over the years. It derives some of its influence by Irish and Scottish ballads. The “a-changin'” is an archaic intensifying prefix heard in British songs of the 18th and 19th century like, “A-Hunting We Will Go”.
When he wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, Dylan made a deliberate attempt to write a song that would create an anthem of change for the time. “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way,” said Dylan. “This is definitely a song with a purpose.”
In the five verses of the song, Dylan addresses everyday people, writers, politicians, and parents with the same core message. In the first verse, he does this by using rapidly rising water as a metaphor for the inescapable change of the world. “If your time to you is worth saving / Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'”.
The third verse is a call on politicians to not stand in the way of change. These lines seem to carry more weight than ever now. “For he that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls”.
The fourth verse is a message to parents. Dylan sings these lines not in the manner of a son, or father, but with the age-old wisdom of a grandparent. “Your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly aging / Please get outta’ the new one if you can’t lend your hand”.
The final verse brings the song closure with definitive words and a biblical allusion. “As the present now / Will later be past / The order is rapidly fading / And the first one now will later be last / For the times they are a-changin'”.
“The Times They Are A-Changin'” is the archetypal protest song. It’s a ballad that carries with it hope for a brighter future. Dylan’s powerful message of the inevitability of change is something to lean on when the world seems cold an dark. His words are universal, and transcend the passage of time. As long as there are people who would resist positive social change, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” will remain relevant.
We’re in the middle of those times right now, and listening to this song might make you think about where you stand. Because the times are changing.